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Erja Tenhonen-Lightfoot

Erja Aulikki Tenhonen-Lightfoot
Born 8.12.1960, Tohmajärvi

Näyttötutkintomestari (Course for those working with competence-based qualifications) 2011, Hame University of Applied Sciences
Conference interpreter 1997, University of Turku
Licentiate (applied linguistics) 1993, University of Vaasa
Master of Arts (translation and interpreting) 1988, University of Joensuu

University teacher of interpretation 2011–, University of Helsinki
Part-time teacher of interpreting and translation 1997–2011, University of Helsinki
Chief examiner of competence-based qualifications for community interpreters 2010–, Amiedu/ Tampere Adult Education Centre
Lecturer of interpretation 2003–06, University of Helsinki/ Palmenia
Coordinator of the project Passiivisuomi 1995–96, University of Helsinki/ Vantaa Institute for Continuing Education
Project researcher in applied linguistics 1990–92, Academy of Finland/ University of Vaasa

Entrepreneur 2002–, Sanas interpreting services
Freelance legal interpreter in district courts and courts of appeal 2002–
Entrepreneur and coordinating interpreter 1998–2002, Cross Border Communications Oy
Freelance conference interpreter in every organ of the EU

Photo: Johanna Hirvonen
Written by Tomas Sjöblom
Translated by Matthew Billington

The Expanding need for interpreting

In Summer 2015, there were over a hundred languages spoken in Helsinki. Erja Tenhonen-Lightfoot says the need for interpreting is expanding all the time. Based on the situation, interpreting can be divided in four categories: community interpreting, court interpreting, conference interpreting, and negotiation interpreting.

“I have worked in all of those roles, the least as a community interpreter and the most as a conference interpreter. I already did quite a lot of negotiation interpreting in the 1980s, and the last ten years I have done a lot of interpreting in Helsinki District Court.”

In practice community interpreting usually means interpreting between a public official and a private person, such as between a doctor and patient or between a police officer and a witness. In principle, court interpreting refers to interpreting in a session of a court, but in practice it covers all the phases of the judicial process from the police investigation on.

“These are very different situations, and you need very different strategies to cope with the issues. In community interpreting you can come across a situation in, say, a doctor-patient dialogue where the patient doesn’t understand the name of a disease or diagnosis. In contrast, in a court of law, highly abstract terminology is often used, which the lay client does not always understand. Then the interpreter can take the floor and ask an expert to explain the concept to the client, because the interpretation of legal content lies outside the duties of a court interpreter, since the interpreter isn't a court lawyer.”

Ms Tenhonen-Lightfoot considers that community interpreting and court interpreting are particularly on the increase.

“In the everyday context of citizens meeting officials, there's a growing need for interpreting. The more immigrants we get from various countries, the more we need community interpreting and court interpreting.

Nevertheless, everyday situations are problematic from the perspective of an interpreter’s income.”

“The fee for a community interpreter is often very small, considering the brief length of the interpreting session. At the health centre, many assignments are less than half an hour. With distances as long as they are, pure community interpreting doesn't necessarily pay unless the interpreter has several working languages.”

Due to the enormous need for interpreting, many interpreters lack any training for the job. Many work as interpreters first and get their training and degree only later. Interpreters come from widely divergent backgrounds.

“Many people that get hired as interpreters can have quite advanced education from their own countries. For instance, the Arabian interpreter Baraa Eisha, who featured in Helsingin Sanomat, was trained as a lawyer in her native Syria, and now she is working in Finland as a community and court interpreter. On the other hand, there are some who only went to comprehensive school, so they only gain their skill and knowledge of the structures of society as they work.

Ms Tenhonen-Lightfoot also wants to emphasise that the need for interpreting concentrates on those who lack a common language.

"If you look, say, at the current Finnish cabinet ministers, many of them speak several languages, and they have very little need for interpreting. However, on the other hand, if you come to Finland as an immigrant and your native language is, say, Arabic, and you speak no English, you have a very great need for interpreting."

Erja Tenhonen-Lightfoot in Tartu, May 2015. Photo: Hanna Pippuri.


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