On the 1st of June 2023, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Sannhets og Forsoningskommisjonen) handed its report on the consequences of the Norwegianisation policy to the Norwegian Parliament. The report documents the policies implemented by the Norwegian state towards the Kven and Saami peoples locally, regionally, and nationally. It examines the consequences of the Norwegianisation policy adopted between 1850 and 1950, including its lingering effects today. Most notably, it suggests measures to foster the reconciliation between the Norwegian state and its indigenous and national minorities.
One of the many damaging effects of the Norwegianisation policy highlighted by the report is the drastic drop in the number of native Kven speakers, and the consequent endangerment of the Kven language.
Following the end of the Norwegianisation policy, the Norwegian state made some efforts to protect and promote the Kven language. In 1998, the state ratified The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, under which the Kven language/culture received protection for the first time. Moreover, in recent years there have been efforts made by the state to foster the revitalisation of the Kven language through targeted action plans and subsidy schemes. However, despite these efforts, the committee of experts in charge of monitoring Norway’s implementation of the Charter recently pointed out that the provision of education in Kven remains marred by the lack of training programmes, literature, and media content. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission similarly concluded that a drastic and rapid increase in the efforts to revitalise the Kven language is necessary to prevent the language from dying out.
It might seem obvious that in order to revitalise an endangered language there is a need for written language resources and language learning materials. These can attract language learners and aid them in their studies, which can in turn increase the number of speakers.
However, in the case of minority and endangered languages, creating such materials is not always a straightforward process. With a lack of a critical mass of native speakers who can and/or want to write books and produce media content, another approach in the creation of these materials is necessary.
This is where translation comes in as a useful tool in the standardisation of written language and in the revitalisation of languages with very few native speakers. This is especially true where language learning resources and literature are not being produced organically, as is the case of Kven. In addition to making learning more accessible, translation into minority and endangered languages can contribute to raising awareness of the language and culture in the majority society. It can also raise the status of a minoritised language and culture by bringing it into new areas of society, such as politics, or by developing a new vocabulary for these areas. The latter would result in making the language more attractive to speakers by contributing to the perceived usefulness of it.
However, while translation can be a viable tool for the revitalisation of Kven, translators working in this language are currently faced with several challenges that limit their work, as pointed out in the report “Förstudierapport: En kartläggning av översättarsituationen i kvänska i Norge” published as part of the project Samverkansplatform för minoritetsspråk på Nordkalotten.
The report highlights that there are very few translators into Kven in Norway today. This might be so because the Kven Institute (Kainun institutti), which is one of the only official institutions involved in Kven translation, hosts only three in-house translators and only a handful of additional translators as freelancers. The employees at the Kven Institute, therefore, report a pressing need to train more translators and people competent in the Kven language – such as teachers of Kven or authors producing literature in Kven – in order to make the demand for Kven translations more manageable. The current interest in the Kven language and culture has resulted in a demand for Kven language services that the current translator workforce is not able to meet.
Kven translators must therefore prioritise the orders they consider to be most important in the revitalisation of the language, namely children’s literature and literature for language learning. With translation being an important tool for creating learning materials, and learning materials in turn being central for educating future Kven translators, a vicious cycle is here perpetuated. Likewise, the lack of translators with relevant linguistic and terminological competence who are willing to serve as revisors explains why translating a project into Kven takes longer than into other languages.
In order to offer relevant educational programmes for future translators and language learners, and in order to incentivise people to pursue higher education within Kven, the state must allocate more funding for these purposes. Studying and learning Kven must be accessible, and those wishing to learn the language must have better access to knowledge about the opportunities currently available to them. Funding is also necessary to support the translation industry in Kven. Activities that contribute to making translation possible and more efficient, such as the creation of vocabulary, the development of translation tools and resources, and the documentation of culture must be funded and prioritised, especially considering that these activities oftentimes are not commercially profitable in and of themselves, but rather contribute to making the translation process easier down the line.
From the lack of adequate funding allocated to Kven translation by the Norwegian state, one thing is made clear: language revitalisation is not being prioritised to the extent it needs to be. The policies, plans, and subsidy schemes currently in place regarding the promotion and use of Kven in Norway do not adequately address the issues faced by translators and language workers, nor do they fulfill the standards for language protection and promotion set out by the legislation ratified by the Norwegian state.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s mandate acknowledges the damaging impact of the Norwegianisation policy on the Kven and Sami peoples in Norway and expresses the state’s willingness to achieve reconciliation by tackling the implications of these policies. However, if the Norwegian government truly wants to protect the minority languages of Norway, and to reconcile the consequences of the Norwegianisation policy, it must support and facilitate the translation of literature and learning materials into Kven through increased funding of Kven culture initiatives, education, and language.
Until this becomes a priority, the Kven language will continue to suffer, as will the overworked translators who tirelessly try to keep their heritage and language alive.
*Elisabeth Seppola Simonsen completed her master’s in Translation and Technical Communications in 2023. Her thesis delved into translation and revitalisation policies addressing the Kven language.