Post-Brexit, post-pandemic public service interpreting offers a peeking Tom’s perspective on how the other half lives. In this case, the down in the dumps, half-forgotten half. Most GP consultations, most Universal Credit job coach interviews, PIP health assessments are still taking place over the phone. A three way conversation with a telephone interpreter has never been a fully satisfactory way of conducting certain types of difficult conversations, such as mental health therapy sessions, or conveying unhappy medical news. Service providers, service users and interpreters alike, we all have long resigned ourselves to this unsatisfactory reality of how non English speakers access public services. ‘It is what it is’ has become our mantra.
Today, I am assisting a homeless man who is speaking to a homeless charity, or rather the man is shouting and screaming his frustration down the phone towards his support worker who has called to check on him, because she is worrying about the state of his mental health. At the start of the conversation, she informed him in a monotone dispassionate voice, that she had completed all the necessary data security training and all his details will be kept confidential unless, during the course of the conversation, he discloses something which would indicate that either he or somebody else is in immediate danger of harm, in which case confidentiality rules will no longer apply.
The man interrupts, ‘Hello, hello? Can you stop sounding like a recording and start speaking to me? I don’t have much time, what do you want? What are you calling me for?’
– Adam ( not his real name), we have received information that your mental health is a concern, and that you are being suicidal, is that true, are you having thoughts about ending your life?
– You’ve received information? Wow! From whom? The CIA, the FBI? Do you have me followed? Have you got nothing better to do, I do not have time for this, I had to leave at 7am this morning, so I could get to the Park Place (not real name) soup kitchen by 11, before they stopped serving hot breakfast, and now I am on my way to Croydon (real place, but not the one he really said he was heading to), to use their free showers, I will then go to the Junction for dinner, and then back to the house. By the time I finish today, I will have walked for about 7 hours, because the place I am staying at now has nothing, nothing, nothing at all, I don’t even have a kettle to make coffee, today I had the first hot meal for 3 days, I have nothing, nothing, nothing. I was better off on the streets. In fact, I will return the keys today, and I am out of there. You can offer my bed to another of your projects.
– Adam, we offered you a food voucher yesterday, but you refused to ..
– No! I am sorry, but I don’t want your food vouchers, I told you before, that stuff is inedible, send it to Afghanistan if you dare, I don’t want it.
Adam then proceeded to reiterate that he was leaving the accommodation the next day, as he didn’t appreciate the way he was treated there, with nothing to sit on, no cupboard to put his belongings, no cooking facility, no food suitable for human consumption. His rant was erratic and inconsistent to my impartial ear, and it must have been a stuff of nonsense to his support worker. Adam sprinkled his monologue with unexpected eloquence and witticisms, even if they were not matched by logic or reason. Nothing positive could possibly come out of the conversation, but we carried on for close to an hour.
Is any of this shocking? Not to me, not any more, not after interpreting a hundred similar conversations in the last six months or so.