Factors that Determine the Provision of Public Service Interpreting

Factors that Determine the Provision of Public Service Interpreting

It is certain that no nation is without linguistic diversity. Unfortunately, an influx of foreign speakers—often via immigration or asylum speaking—fails to be planned for, in general. The Migration Policy Institute asserts the US attracts "about 20 percent of the world's international migrants, even as it represents less than 5 percent of the global population." In fact, 13 percent of the total US population is made up of immigrants, and both immigrants and their children amounts to ¼ of the population being first or second generation citizens.

Sadly, a multi-lingual population typically transitions through a series of steps: neglect, ad hoc institutional interpretation, and, finally, generic language services. A more holistic approach is rare, as it requires widespread legislation and availability of services as well as standardized training of language service personnel. Currently, Australia and Sweden offer the most comprehensive approaches in the world.

But, what factors dictate how public language services are provided?

Macro Factors

According to Factors that Determine the Provision of Public Service Interpreting: Comparative Perspectives on Government Motivation and Language Service Implementation by Uldis Ozolins, of the University of Western Sydney, four constant macro factors are present in all situations where public service interpreting is provided:

  • Government funding and ideology
  • The increasing diversity of language
  • Whether interpretation is institution-led or business-led
  • The cross-sector needs for interpreting in contrast to sector specific interpretation

The paper argues that these four provisions are consistently present and that they determine the need to provide the services, as well as the limitations of the services offered.

Optional Factors

In addition to the four constants, five optional factors were identified:

  • General political/social opinions of immigration
  • Dealings between central and local authorities
  • Public policy models of government provision in opposition to charity, voluntary, or private agency provision
  • Whether interpreting in legal domains is honored over other areas of need
  • Attitudes towards the notion of 'interpreting;'

For example, the United States of America was determined by Ozolins to have a "positive but laissez-faire" attitude toward immigration, a "Formal Federalism" public policy, to prefer government funding for language services but "avoid direct government provision or intervention," to have a "highly legalistic" approach to interpreting, and to have a "neutral" attitude toward the concept of interpretation.


All governments and institutions vary in their approach to comprehensive public service interpreting policies, and there is no easy fix that can be implemented universally. It is certain that all existing institutions will need to be taught that language services are not put in place to serve an foreign-speaking group of people. It isn't about catering to the needs of some not yet recognized group of second language speakers. It is literally necessary for the institutions to serve all possible clients, which can only be for the betterment of the institution and citizens.

Ozolins work demonstrates legislation-led policy, like that of the US, is rare. But, it is nonetheless important. Unfortunately, it tends to be limited in reach and upheld only within certain zones of the public sphere. Alliances need to be developed around situations regarding institutional functioning and they need to be backed by a concern for the rights of all citizens. It isn't just for leaders who value inclusiveness to implement; all citizens must be invested in the application of public service interpreting; in its absence, public functions do not always run smoothly and are not truly public.

For Interpreters

There must, at all times a concern for the situation of interpreter practitioners. These situations include employment, compensation, support of the profession, and the backing of public services. But, if you are an interpreter you don't need to worry. In the age of globalization, the growing multilingualism of populations in every society are forcing governments to respond, and the widespread development and enactment of administration mandated language services, indicates there will continue to be increasingly more and more possibilities for those within the interpreting sphere to educate others and affect future public policies.

Photograph by mattbuck. Image released under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.