Guest post – Select Committee evidence on legal interpreting

guest bookToday I would like to present a most valuable guest post from Dr Yvonne Fowler, who gave written evidence to the UK’s Justice Select Committee as part of its investigations into what can only be described as an outsourcing fiasco.

I believe that Dr Fowler’s paper covers the key issues in a clear, incisive and succinct way, and that the points raised can easily (and should) be transposed to apply to court interpreting globally.

Dr Yvonne Fowler has practised as a legal interpreting trainer for over 20 years and has trained over 250 interpreters for the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (Law Option)¹. She has also provided Continuous Professional Development courses for interpreters and for police officers, magistrates and others in the judicial system on how to work through interpreters over the last 16 years. She holds an MA in English Language Teaching (with Distinction) from Warwick University, and a PhD in Interpreting Studies/Forensic Linguistics from Aston University. She has published articles on legal interpreting² and gives academic papers at conferences on her latest research in the interpreting field.

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1. Summary of Submission

I submit that the Framework Agreement has failed because the Ministry of Justice and Applied Language Solutions mistakenly believe that running an interpreting agency is just a matter of logistics.

identicalThey believe that all that is required is to identify a group of people with some ability to speak two languages, submit them to a short assessment process, and send them to specified police stations and courts to act as “interpreters”.

Despite the fact that neither party has any idea of the complexity of interpreting, no professional interpreter was consulted in the drawing up of the contract. Because of this a great deal of public money has been wasted.

Worse still, suspects, witnesses and defendants with limited English have been gravely disadvantaged by our judicial system through no fault of their own because of the incompetence of those assigned to “interpret” for them by an agency with no understanding of interpreting. This has wasted countless hours of court and police time and is unacceptable.

The points below are designed to provide basic information to the committee about what public service interpreting actually is and the skills that qualified interpreting professionals contracted by the state must possess in order to do their job competently. It seems too obvious to mention (for the reasons I will discuss below) that interpreters contracted by the state should be qualified and that as such, they should be remunerated appropriately. Unfortunately this is not the case with most of those who have signed up to Applied Language Solutions.

2. Confusion about Terminology: The Difference between Interpreting and Translating

stock-photo-15142296-spanish-definition-of-translationLay people often confuse the two terms interpreting and translationInterpreting means converting spoken language to another spoken language, or in the case of Deaf or deafened people, sign language to spoken language and vice versa. Translation means converting a written text in one language to another written language. It is therefore inaccurate to refer to court or police translators. They are interpreters. However, in the course of their work, interpreters may have to undertake some written translation tasks, such as translating witness statements, etc. They may also have to undertake sight translation: see 4(i) below.

3. Misconceptions about Public Service Interpreting and Interpreters

robotIt is a common misconception amongst members of the lay public, service providers, decision makers and government ministers that interpreters are machines and that interpreting simply consists of listening to what someone says in one language and repeating it in another.

They also believe that the ability to function at this level in two languages is somehow inherent rather than acquired through intensive study. These attitudes are particularly prevalent towards interpreters who are themselves migrants. They are also commonly encountered amongst monolingual people.

People also wrongly believe that conference interpreters, who are comparatively well-remunerated, should be accorded a higher status than public service interpreters because the work is more difficult and demanding. In fact, the opposite is the case. Not only are all the above perceptions dangerously erroneous, they lie at the root of all problems associated with the status, working conditions, treatment, deployment and monitoring of public service interpreters.

4. Competences needed by Qualified Interpreters

Below is a list of competences which all qualified public service interpreters must possess if they are to provide quality interpreting services to those who are disadvantaged because of their lack of familiarity with the language of an institution (whether it be a court, a job centre, a GP surgery, or any other public service). The competences below are not in any particular order of priority, and have long been generally agreed by academics, universities, training institutions and practitioners all over the world as necessary elements in all interpreter training.³

(i) Interpreters must have the ability to perform short consecutive mode of interpreting (one person speaks, and pauses for the interpreter to render the utterance into the other language, and so on). They must also have the ability to perform simultaneous interpreting (one person speaks, and continues to speak whilst the interpreter renders what s/he is saying in a low voice to the foreign language speaking person). Interpreters must also have developed the ability to perform long consecutive interpreting (when a person speaks uninterrupted for up to five minutes whilst the interpreter listens, takes notes and renders the speech when the speaker has stopped speaking). Finally, interpreters must have the ability to make an accurate oral rendition of any relevant written document at sight (sight translation), with very little or no preparation time, and make instant decisions about which interpreting mode is appropriate for which situation. Since interpreters do not know in advance what people are going to say, they must also be skilled at thinking quickly and be able to deliver a coherent and accurate rendition the first time round without asking for repetition.

(ii) In order to do the above, interpreters must have advanced mastery of both languages in terms of grammar, meaning and speaker intention, including competence in formal and informal styles, familiarity with regional accents and dialects, familiarity with slang and idioms, a wide mastery of general and specialised vocabularies of medicine, law, social services or any other institution, as well as the knowledge of the equivalent terms, and good pronunciation.

brainskills(iii) Interpreters require advanced, active and analytical listening and comprehension skills as well as excellent short and long-term memory skills. These skills are of a much higher order than those required by non-interpreters, other linguists or indeed other professionals.

(iv) Interpreters must have the specialised note-taking skills which have been developed specifically for interpreters in order to aid their memory and ensure completeness.

(v) Occasionally interpreters may need to intervene to clarify something that someone has said, or manage the interpreted situation when, inevitably, communication problems occur. This is a specialised skill which requires assertiveness, sensitivity, tact and a profound knowledge of the interpreting context.

(vi) Interpreters must have a good knowledge of the subject matter being discussed, as well as an understanding of the goals of the specific institution within which they are working. They must also be aware of how officials within that institution communicate with the lay public and to each other in both written and spoken form.

(vii) Interpreters must have a clear knowledge of the limits of their role, be alert to possible conflicts of interest, have a profound understanding of professional interpreter ethics and the interpreters’ code of practice, and be able to apply the code at a moment’s notice.

(viii) Finally, interpreters must have a sound working knowledge of theories of linguistics, sociolinguistics, pragmatics, discourse analysis and translation theory.

5. Monitoring Interpreters’ Work

monitoringOnly another trained interpreting professional or academic with the same language combination has the expertise to know whether another interpreter is performing at the above level or not. Most interpreters thus remain largely unmonitored in the course of their work.

Proper monitoring costs money and this has financial implications for agencies (see 6 below).

6. Interpreting Agencies

Only experienced, trained and qualified interpreters have the skills to manage the complex communicative situations described at 4 above. Agencies who send untrained so-called “interpreters” to jobs in the belief that the particular procedure in question is “straightforward” or “not complicated” do not understand the science of language nor the ethics of situations in which interpreters find themselves, which can be as unpredictable as the people for whom they interpret.

A seemingly “straightforward” matter such as bailing a defendant to appear in court at a future date may be simple procedurally, but difficult linguistically. Defendants may have a regional accent or dialect which is difficult to understand, may use slang or an idiom with which the interpreter is unfamiliar and which requires clarification, may have speech impairment, have mental health problems, or be distressed; s/he may thus speak in a confused way such as not finishing sentences, or speak very rapidly and incoherently.

Added to this is the difficulty of understanding the institutional language of the court or the police station; despite their specialised language study, interpreters remain outsiders to the system and must clarify such institutional language for themselves before they can interpret it. Ethical problems may also arise spontaneously and unpredictably, and such problems can compromise the integrity of the interpreter.

7. The Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

KPIThe KPIs in the Framework Agreement (FWA) are based upon numbers, percentages and logistics, and do not contain any references to quality assurance mechanisms or monitoring.

For example, Applied Language Solutions has to show evidence to the Ministry of Justice that interpreters come from within a 25 mile radius (J4), that 98% of all assignments were fulfilled (J5), that complaints were acknowledged within an hour (J6), that feedback was provided within 24 hours (J7), that complaints were resolved within three days (J8), that 98% of assignments were delivered on time (J9), etc. etc. The agency can thus ostensibly claim that these conditions are being fulfilled, since there is a complete absence of any reference to quality interpreting in the FWA, which is based upon ignorance of what is involved in public service interpreting (see section 1 above).

8. The Lack of Expertise in Interpreting Agencies

Those who run and manage interpreting agencies must have a thorough understanding of the field of interpreting, and must have some experience of interpreting themselves. Running an interpreting agency is not simply a matter of sending out a person who wants to earn a little money to interpret in a court or a police station.

recruitAgency managers and their staff must have the knowledge and expertise to be able to recruit and select interpreters according to the strict criteria outlined in 1 above and must devise a system for their monitoring and deployment that closely matches the needs of the institution requesting the service. It is obvious from media reports and from the dossier of evidence [see note 4 below] compiled by professional registered interpreters that those managing and running the agency in question do not have such expertise.

9. The Disadvantages Suffered by those with Limited English

Suspects, defendants or witnesses in a police station or appearing in court and who are unfamiliar with the language of the court (i.e. the English language), are already severely disadvantaged by comparison with their native English-speaking peers, regardless of interpreter competence.

cvcompUsing untrained, unqualified people as “interpreters” has disadvantaged these groups, and will continue to do so. In the end, this costs the state more money and can lead to miscarriages of justice.

10. Remuneration and Working Conditions for Interpreters

The remuneration and working conditions for interpreters must take into account the sensitive and extremely complex nature of their work, and must provide sufficient payqualmotivation and incentive to register for (often) expensive courses, to undertake intensive study, to pass challenging and expensive examinations, and to undertake continuous professional development. The working conditions and pay offered by ALS offer no incentive at all for aspiring interpreters to undertake such professional training and development.

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The above article was published by the Select Committee in September 2012.

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1 This was the professional examination required for entry on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters prior to the Framework Agreement that commenced on 1 February 2012. Details of the examination can be found at the Chartered Institute of Linguists website at www.iol.org.

2 Fowler, Y. 1997. The courtroom interpreter: paragon and intruder? The Critical Link: Interpreters in the Community. Amsterdam, John Benjamins.Fowler, Y. 2003. Taking an interpreted witness statement at the Police station: what did the witness actually say? The Critical Link 3: Interpreters in the Community. Amsterdam, John Benjamins.Fowler, Y. 2007. Formative Assessment: using Peer and Self-Assessment in Interpreter Training. The Critical Link 4: Interpreters in the Community. Amsterdam, John Benjamins.Fowler. Y. 2012. Interpreting into the Ether: a study of video link and court interpreters. The Critical Link 6: Interpreters in the Community. Amsterdam, John Benjamins.

3 Duenas Gonzales et al.,(1991); de Jongh (1992); Wadensjö (1992); Giovannini (1993); Laster and Taylor (1994); Edwards (1995); Dunnigan and Downing (1995); Ginori and Scimone (1995); Gentile et al.(1996); Emerson Crooker (1996); Mikkelson (1996); Colin and Morris (1996); Hale (1996); Fowler (1997); Benmaman (1997); Nimrod and Fu (1997); Roy et al. (1998); Hertog and Reunbrouck (1999); Hale and Gibbons (1999); Petersen (2000); Sandrelli (2001); Berk Seligson (1990/2002); Jacobsen (2002). Chesher et al (2003); Hale (2004, 2007).

4 See Dossier of Evidence: ALS Failings, updated July 2012. Retrieved from Interpreters for Justice (new link here via Linguist Lounge).

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hand gesture body languageOther posts relating to the above: Interpretation versus translation at the US Supreme Court; Tony Rosado’s excellent The ten worst things a judge can do to a court interpreter; and Court interpreting for migrant community needs in Maine, USA – a focused approach. I also posted about the Applied Language Solutions scandal, and another post included links to the Select Committee reports.

One thought on “Guest post – Select Committee evidence on legal interpreting

  1. Pingback: Training – Court interpreting, Birmingham, UK | From Words to Deeds: translation & the law

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