The Court Interpreter.
The European Convention on Human Rights demands that anyone brought to trial should understand the case brought against them. Fulfilling the convention has become an increasing challenge for British courts.
Immigration has increased enormously over the past decade, and there are now around three million people in the United Kingdom who were born in a country where English is not one of the official languages, and inevitably some of them will end up in court, where they may well need a court interpreter.
The laws of England and Wales require a court interpreter to hold a Diploma in Public Service Interpreting, which is equivalent to a degree. It guarantees that the court interpreter has a native-level fluency in both languages, extensive knowledge of court proceedings, familiarity with everything from legal terminology to street-level slang, and a good all-round knowledge of the world. Understandably there is a shortage of such people.
But if a DPSI seems a needlessly high entry requirement, then consider the case of Scotland. In Scotland a DPSI is only a recommendation – and the courts have suffered for it. Scots courts have seen cases where the interpreters collude with the defendant – offering them lifts home, advising them of the implications of a plea. One case was forced to a retrial because the interpreter didn’t realise his client was speaking a different dialect of Chinese. In some cases a DPSI court interpreter may be imported from England – which may theoretically be ‘just over the border’, but which also has a completely different legal system.
So what makes court interpreting so difficult? It’s not just the extent of knowledge that a court interpreter has to acquire. Most court interpreting means simultaneous interpretation – that is, translating someone’s speech as they’re saying it. It requires deep concentration, and the number of people who can do this is relatively limited – and the failure rate for the exams is high. And in the courts you don’t generally find the relay teams of translators that you’d expect at the United Nations or the European Parliament, and which allow individuals to get a break.
Plus there are the unsociable hours – it’s hard to find a court interpreter who is enthusiastic about coming out to the police station in the middle of the night because that’s the time when the police choose to detain the client. And there’s a requirement for strict neutrality: court interpreters often come under pressure from their own clients, who think that because they speak the same language in a foreign country they are in some way ‘comrades’, and expect the interpreter to plead their case for them instead of just translating it.
Court interpreting is such a unique environment, with such unique pressures, that it’s no surprise the law insists on strictly vetting interpreters before they can practise it, and on limiting recruitment to experts with specialist training and certification.