Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Dr Yvonne Fowler
I have practised as a legal interpreter trainer for over 20 years and have trained over 250 interpreters for the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (Law Option).1 I also provide Continuous Professional Development courses for interpreters and also for police officers, magistrates and others in the judicial system in how to work through interpreters over the last 16 years. I hold an MA in English Language Teaching (with Distinction) from Warwick University, and a PhD in Interpreting Studies/Forensic Linguistics from Aston University. I have published articles on legal interpreting2 and give academic papers at conferences on my latest research in the interpreting field.
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. They 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
Lay people often confuse the two terms interpreting and translation. Interpreting 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 3(i) below.
3. Misconceptions about Public Service Interpreting and Interpreters
It 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 interpreter.
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
5. Monitoring Interpreters’ Work
Only 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)
The 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. Agency 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 evidence4 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 (ie the English language), are already severely disadvantaged by comparison with their native English-speaking peers, regardless of interpreter competence. Using 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 motivation 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.
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 at www.dossier of evidence_Evidence_AlsFailings_July2012