The UK has the National Register of Public Service Interpreters or NRPSI which was set up by the Chartered Institute of Linguists as a source of suitably qualified and vetted interpreters for the legal, medical and social services.
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However, many agencies obtained contracts with public services providers and local authority departments which meant they would hire anyone prepared to work as an interpreter regardless of skill, qualification and experience. This has been a source of controversy in the UK for some years as professional linguists, interpreters in particular, have sought to maintain the professionalism of their vocation.
As easy as it is to point the finger at commercial agencies seeking to make as much profit as possible, which is after all their purpose, and criticise them for attempting to undermine the linguist’s profession, the authorities themselves have not helped the situation. As this post calls for background on the position of interpreters in court, this article will ignore the use of commercial agencies by public sector operators such as hospitals and social services and focus on the court system.
In the UK, or in England and Wales at least, the criminal and civil courts hold their own lists of interpreters and set a pay rate which must be accepted by the interpreter who chooses to attend court on its behalf. When an interpreter does so at the court’s request, said interpreter is present literally to interpret for the court and in court, nothing more.
Impartiality is of the essence regardless of the matter being heard, therefore, friendly conversations outside of the courtroom with the non-English speaker are to be discouraged and anything over and above the general pleasantries of the day is deemed inappropriate. This can be difficult to achieve, however, as individuals faced with the legal system in a country other than their own on top of a language that is not their native language is in an incredibly daunting situation and it is easy for the individual to find solace in the presence of another, albeit a total stranger, who speaks their language, and consequently seek to engage in conversation with that person.
In the context of the criminal court, let’s briefly recall the difference between the consequences of a judgment against an individual in the criminal court and in the civil court. In the latter, a finding against the individual is typically financial in nature or affects the arrangements for contact with one’s children, for instance. However, the consequences of a criminal court finding against a person, although they could be financial, very often involve the deprivation of an individual’s liberty: a very serious matter indeed. Add to that the continuing impact of such a sentence which could include loss of one’s job and home.
Thus, it is easy to see how not only complete impartiality is essential but a high degree of professionalism and the ability to say no. This does not mean merely saying no to the person in court but often to the defence lawyer too who will not hesitate to presume your full cooperation in his or her out-of-court consultations with the client.
The court appointed interpreter is literally that: court appointed and paid for by the court and therefore expected to interpret solely for the court in court. If defence lawyers require interpretation on the day of the hearing, it is their duty to provide an interpreter of their choosing to work on their behalf and at their expense.
The above equally demonstrates the need for highly competent interpreters to perform the said role. It is well known that in the “old days” before any form of accreditation for language experts came into existence anyone would be called to court or to a police station or to some other official setting to interpret for a non-English speaker. This could be a member of the community with no formal language training and potentially no concept of professional discretion. Similarly, family members, including children could also be called upon by the authorities to interpret for their relatives. Children from immigrant communities were often preferred for this role as they attended UK schools teaching in the medium of English and therefore had a good command of both English and their families’ native language.
Depending on the subject matter, particularly in a criminal or family matter, children, or any family or close community member could potentially find themselves in a position which they are not academically or emotionally equipped to handle let alone finding themselves in a very personally awkward position. Hence, the absence of impartiality and the risk of an unfair hearing are apparent.
The need to understand the legalese being used in and around the court is vital and the capacity to accurately convey this into the target language equally so. It therefore takes a skilled and educated individual to perform this task.
We must then ask whether court appointed interpreters meet these requirements. It is often the case that court appointed interpreters “on the court list” have simply applied to the court to be there. Many of them hold no formal qualification in the foreign language they speak nor have they undergone any form of translation or interpreting training. Of course, this is not to cast a dim light on the many professionally qualified interpreters who also work for the courts, but it is important to highlight some of the flaws of the system for hiring interpreters in a legal setting where an individual’s future is at risk.
It has also been found that many such court appointed interpreters have not only undergone no training but do not even practise this activity as their main employment rather it is more of a casual way to earn income. Thus, they tend to have very little legal or procedural knowledge.
No-one can blame these individuals for wanting to do something they enjoy or for wanting to earn some spare cash. If anything, the courts are to blame for failing to implement a safe system for appointing interpreters and performing background checks as to their qualifications and experience which was the reasoning behind the NRPSI.
The questions to be asked must be why do courts and other public sector operators fail the persons coming before them in this way? Is there a lack of awareness of the existence of the NRPSI or is it simply ignored? The above shows that we have come a very short way from the “old days” of anyone familiar with a language can interpret or translate and consequently, individuals’ futures continue to be at stake particularly when they come before the courts.
This article also highlights how professional interpreters for whom this activity is their main source of income and who have made the effort to gain their qualifications and accreditation can be cast in a poor light by being compared to others who expressly or implicitly hold themselves out to be equally qualified and experienced.