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.