The state of UK Public Service Interpreting for the uninitiated

A barrister, a police officer and an interpreter walk into a Crown Court. 

If this sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, it’s because it is.  

The barrister and the police officer whip out their phones, flash their QR codes and are whisked through security, no questions asked. 

The interpreter puts her bag onto a tray, is asked to empty the entire contents of the bag, and to open every zip pocket of her wallet and her make up bag. Her lanyard with the National Register of Public Service Interpreter badge lies crumpled among her belongings, making no difference to the security procedure. 

Monday mornings are particularly testing when fresh cohorts of jury members descend on Crown Courts all at the same time, as per their jury summons letter, which means queues of upwards of 40 minutes are not uncommon. 

Once past security, the interpreter is reunited with the barrister, who has been patiently waiting for her, so they could go to the cells and have a pre-court conference with their client, which they are unable to do without interpreter’s assistance. 

Three highly skilled professionals whose attendance is fundamental to the running of court proceedings, and yet only two of them are treated as such. 

The Crown Court doorstep scenario can be dismissed as a minor inconvenience,  but it is symptomatic of the current  state of public service interpreting profession.    

Public service interpreters play a crucial role in the functioning of UK public services. The police, the NHS, Children Services, Housing Associations, HM Courts and Tribunals Service, the DWP, the HMRC, and many others rely heavily on the competences of public service interpreters in their day-to-day business. 

Public service interpreting (PSI) attracts some of the most experienced, highly qualified language professionals in the country.  

What is the attraction? Good question. 

Answers vary. The job is challenging, keeping the interpreter on their intellectual toes, no two days are ever the same, and the feeling of ‘making a difference’ to people’s lives has no price tag. PSI allows interpreters to gain insights into a vast range of specialisms. Given time, we become second hand experts in pretty much everything, from the role of diatoms in murder scene forensics to post tibial transfer physiotherapy, from colonoscopy bowel prep to aggravated burglary sentencing guidelines, which makes us infuriating know-it-all to friends and family. 

So far so incredibly rewarding, isn’t it? You might even be tempted to feel a pang of jealousy. Don’t be.

At the time of writing, PSI is hardly a profession at all. It’s an unregulated industry, a free for all, anything goes chaotic madhouse, a trapeze act with no safety net, a chancers’ paradise and what frequently follows, a recipe for disaster for vulnerable non-English speaking service users. 

Interpreters in the UK do not enjoy the legal protection of title, which means that unlike doctors, nurses, midwives, barristers, social workers, chiropodists, or architects, to name a few, anybody can call themselves an interpreter, if they so wish. 

This leaves  the doors to abuse of title wide open to anybody who believes they have good enough skills to act as an interpreter. After all, as long as you are fluent in another language, how hard can it be. 

Registered professions, which enjoy the legal protection of title require their practitioners to be registered with their respective Councils in order to be allowed to practise.  The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), for example, is the independent regulator for nurses, midwives and nursing associates in the UK. The registration with the NMC is the condition of practice.

No equivalent exists for public service interpreters.

What does exist is the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI). To an untrained eye, the name sounds like this entity would a good candidate to fulfil the same function for interpreters that the NMC does for nurses and midwives. Unfortunately, at the moment, it has no regulatory powers. The best qualified, most experienced interpreters are encouraged to register with the NRPSI, but a lot of them choose not to, as they do not see any quantifiable advantages of spending the annual membership fee. The NRPSI membership is a professional status symbol, but unfortunately not much else at present, as the membership is not a requirement to work for any of the major PSI clients, such as the NHS, the courts, and the police. Several cash-strapped interpreters see it as a vanity badge that they can ill afford in the current economic climate.

As things stand, at the moment, there is nothing stopping an unqualified, inexperienced, unvetted person, whose only credential is fluency in another language, to accompany a vulnerable non-English speaker to a medical appointment, and act as their interpreter. The overworked NHS staff are only too happy to see that their patient has brought their own ‘interpreter’, which means one less thing for them to arrange.

This opens a Pandora’s box of potentially nasty consequences. 

Firstly, there is an issue of a code of practice. An unregistered interpreter does not have a code to adhere to. Professional interpreting fundamentals, such as confidentiality, impartiality and performing to the best of one’s skills and ability do not apply to cowboy interpreters. 

Second on the long list of issues in the world of unregulated PSI is lack of accountability. In the absence of an entity to impose legally enforceable sanctions, serious errors, omissions, and inaccuracies, which would amount to gross misconduct in a robustly regulated professions, go unpunished. 

Anecdotes of incompetent interpreters doing their worst have circulated among practitioners for years. 

I would like to share here a couple of examples I personally witnessed, to give a flavour of what can happen. 

Example one. Police custody suite booking in procedure. An officer goes through a set of routine questions with a detainee, an interpreter is present.  

The officer asks whether the detainee would like to see a duty solicitor. Unbelievably, the interpreter renders ‘duty solicitor’ as ‘deputy solicitor’, which the detainee is not impressed with, and loses his temper, shouts that he knows his rights, and he is entitled to see a proper solicitor, not a deputy, and what the effing eff  is a deputy solicitor anyway. An interpreter’s embarrassing mistake causes a routine situation to escalate unnecessarily. I can only assume that the interpreter was unfamiliar with the term duty solicitor and misheard it as deputy. Oops. How on earth did she convince an interpreting agency that she was good enough to interpret for the police? Another oops.  

Example two. Physiotherapy consultation. The therapist informs the patient that she suffers from hyper-extension in her knee. The interpreter renders hyperextension as hypertension in the patient’s language, and ‘helpfully’ adds her own explanation to the patient, that hypertension means high blood pressure. The patient is very confused, and more than a little worried about what is wrong with her. Oops. 

Harm caused by incompetent, unaccountable interpreters is often more insidious than in our two ‘oops’ stories. Interpreters who undertake tasks above their skill level have been known to go to great lengths to cover up their professional deficiencies by making things up as they go along, interpreting what they think they hear rather than what is being said. They do not ask for clarification or repetition, for fear of appearing exactly what they are, incompetent. 

More often than the public has the right to expect, poor interpreting effort resembles the practice we have all indulged in on occasion, of singing the wrong lyrics to hit songs, until we realise, with a tinge of awkwardness that the Rolling Stones did not in fact sing “I’ll never leave your pizza burning”. 

Oops. A bit of a laugh, no harm done. Unlike the interpreters mishearing what service providers are saying and running with it even after they realise their mistake.

Public service interpreting desperately needs a robust legal framework, within which interpreters will become accountable for their professional conduct. It needs protection of title with all its consequences. Will I see this within my interpreting career lifespan? I sincerely hope so, although as I am planning to retire within the next few years, so I am not holding my breath. 

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