Court Interpreting: Is it worth it?

The title of this post is purposely meant to be controversial. At a time when Public Service Interpreters are meeting together to pressure the government to drop the proposed new framework agreement for interpreting in English and Welsh courts, it seems that some subjects are still to be addressed fully.

Take, for example, the whole question of economic value. While many organisations have, quite rightly pointed out that the new rates of pay are likely to be unsustainable for many interpreters, this seems to be the only argument for giving interpreters decent rates. “Pay us well or we leave the profession” is a powerful slogan but sadly, given that interpreting remains unregulated, it is hardly invincible. After all, it is possible (though not recommended) for a provider to simply hire interpreters who are less picky about rates. Sadly, for all concerned, it is likely to be several years until the damage done by this kind of thinking might be evident and by then, it will be too late.

From a political point of view, the current strategy is relatively low-risk. Sadly, practising interpreters are insignificant as a voting group, especially since they are spread relatively thinly around the country. Even if the new framework doesn’t work, it will likely hold together long enough for someone else to be in power when it all goes to pot.

So what might be the answer? Perhaps we could take the same tack as those who successfully promoted HST2, a high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham. Here, the argument was won by showing the government that they shouldn’t see the £33billion price tag as a cost but as an investment. Why worry about the costs, the reasoning goes, when it is sure to make more than that back?

The bill for court interpreting is a measly £25m per annum. Perhaps it would be possible to make an argument that this too should count as an investment. We could start by mentioning that work by AIIC to standardise conditions and qualifications for conference interpreters has made it easier for companies to find high quality professionals, facilitating international trade and boosting the conference industry. If Britain was known as a place where all interpreting was of a high standard, no matter the context, it would be likely to attract more of the highly skilled immigrants that the government seems to want. This would also mean that everyone could have equal linguistic access to our justice system and that all witnesses would be able to be heard clearly.

Better conditions for interpreters might also boost the number of students trying to enter the profession, increasing further education numbers. A related effect might also be an increased attraction of languages in general, increasing our international competitiveness.

What do you think? Is it possible to make a strong economic case for well-paid court interpreters or even Public Service Interpreters in general? Do we need interpreting to become a regulated profession? How can interpreters win the argument for good pay and conditions? Just what does it take to ensure that interpreting in courts is always of high quality?

Note: Some figures and an argument in this article have been subject to correction after welcome feedback. The author would like to apologise for any offence cause by the original draft.

Police academy: Interpreting research makes sense of investigative processes

A recent development in LINCS is the establishment of a Police Interpreting Research Group within the Centre for Translation & Interpreting Studies in Scotland (CTISS).

LINCS was one of the first in Europe to offer postgraduate training in Public Service Interpreting (PSI). PSI covers all parts of the public sector, prominently including contexts like police interviews, asylum hearings and client-lawyer consultations. Over  20 years, LINCS’ researchers (led by Professors Ursula Boser, Ian Mason, Isabelle Perez and Graham Turner, with others such as Christine Wilson) have contributed significantly to a PSI revolution.

If we want to understand and improve interpreting, it’s not enough to focus on the action of the interpreter: interpreting depends upon interaction between participants.

Police interpreting is a special case. Court interpreting is relatively well-researched, but what happens in the courts depends hugely on earlier parts of the legal process. If the police investigation goes wrong, it’s hard for the courts to put things straight.

But the early elements of the ‘forensic narrative’ have largely gone unexplored in research. CTISS aims to address this gap and thus contribute to the implementation of the EU regulatory framework on the right to interpretation and translation of criminal proceedings.

As part of this work, CTISS is active in two European projects, TRAFUT and IMPLI with a third proposed for 2013 called, Justisigns.

Research has conclusively demonstrated that interpreting is less beneficial when  you treat interpreters as ‘invisible’. They are inevitably active participants in interaction. The question, however, remains: what does effective co-operation between interpreters and other participants look like? We aim to address this question from a number of angles.

CTISS research into police interpreting focuses on themes such as definitions and perceptions of role; analysis of codes of ethics and conduct and ethical dilemmas; the impact of interpreter mediation on institutionally defined speech genres (forensic interview formats), in particular recall and rapport-building. A key outcome is the design of better training for legal interpreters and police officers.

Most research on police interpreting has so far been based on experimental data. Access to authentic data from mediated police interviews is, quite rightly, extremely difficult to secure. By putting authentic interviews under the linguistic microscope, we can improve knowledge very significantly.

Language Rights … and Wrongs

Should it be a human right to be able to use your native language wherever you are? Should states protect linguistic minorities, even when resources are right? What is the best strategy to help people see that linguistic diversity is a good thing? These were just some of the subjects covered in a talk by Mairéad Nic Craith from the University of Ulster on Linguistic Heritage and Language Rights as part of the Studies in European and International Cultures and Societies research seminar series.

Mairéad gave us a whistle-stop tour of international and European laws and agreements that were meant to improve or defend language rights in one way or another.  From the UN General Assembly to the Council of Europe, it seems that the subject of languages has never been far from the political scene, a trend which continues to this day.

However, it appears that language rights are extremely easy to get wrong. Mairéad pointed out that, even in Europe, there seems to be an official line drawn between European languages (which get all the rights they could ask for) and non-European languages (which don’t). It also seems to be the case that while languages get rights, language speakers and communities might not. How this actually works was a subject for debate in the room.

The creation of laws to uphold these rights is by no means an easy task either. In fact, academics are split over whether it is better to push states to sign tough, legally binding treaties or to woo them with much vaguer ones. As Mairéad suggested, while the former might seem like a good idea, the success rate with the latter is much greater.

Mairéad’s experience with Irish and Ulster Scots led her to question the audience on the place of Scots here in Scotland. The answer to this question was to question what Scots actually is. It seems that most Scots don’t know the difference between Scots and the bewildering array of accents our nation has to offer. Perhaps readers of this blog can fill us in.

As always, at Heriot-Watt, the question session after the talk was lively. We discussed Scots, the implementation of language rights and political problems that can arise when the rights are put in place. It seems that, while the idea of language rights seems good in theory, the practice is fraught with difficulties, as readers of this blog will probably already know.

So, what about you? Where do you stand on the question of language rights? Should everyone have the right to do business, access services and petition the government in their own language? What if people speak perfect English, should they still be entitled to interpreting and translation in their “other” languages? What is Scots? Do you speak it?

Feel free to leave your views in the comments section

Scotland Needs Languages

In late November last year, we let you know about an event called Who Needs Languages? The purpose of this event was to raise awareness of linguistic diversity in Scotland and foster better understanding of Scotland’s language needs. More than 30 people came and made the event a great success.

Every speaker was keen to remind us just how important languages are to everyday life in Scotland. Speakers from agencies, public bodies and political organisations reminded us that, while excellent translation and interpreting rarely comes cheap, without it, vital services are inaccessible and vital business is lost. How could a new arrival to Britain do something as simple as visit the doctor unless interpreters are available? How can British businesses grow in international markets without the help of skilled language professionals? How could the EU survive without multilingual, dedicated staff?

From maternity units to multinationals and from politics to police stations, the old attitude of “everyone speaks English” is working less and less. Sadly, our education system doesn’t seem to be keeping pace with the obvious need for language professionals. As Sarah Breslin from Scottish CILT reminded us, since language learning ceased to be compulsory at Standard Grade level, the number of pupils taking up languages at Secondary School had nose-dived. It’s no wonder then that Neil Mitchison, from the European Commission Office in Scotland, called our attention to the growing need for native-English speaking translators, interpreters and multilingual legal experts.

Much of the morning was therefore dedicated to how to meet the need for language learning and language professionals. Audience members discussed the usefulness of forcing pupils to learn languages, how best to persuade people that learning a language is worth the effort and the role that language teaching plays in the way languages are seen in our society.

The day ended with the launch of the Language Policy Scotland Network, which aims to provide a place where academics, practitioners and policy makers to exchange ideas about language needs, provision and policy in Scotland.

You can find some pictures from the event and the networking lunch below. Now, however, it is your turn to contribute. How do you think Scotland can improve our record in language learning and the training of language professionals? How can we persuade people of all ages that learning another language is worth it? What made you want to learn another language?

Over to you!

Delegates listening

Some of the delegates listening keenly to the talks

Networkign Lunch (1)

Enjoying the networking lunch

Launching the Language Policy Scotland Network

Bernie and Wilson launch the LPSN