14 May 2013
How to get ahead in … public services translation
Bilingual rent arrears officer Mohammed Ali uses Bengali every day to speak to tenants living in Tower Hamlets for whom English is not their first language.
It is something he has done instinctively since he joined Tower Hamlets Homes (THH) — the arm's-length organisation responsible for 22,000 council homes in the east London borough. But as of last October he is one of 25 of the organisation's employees who are now paid a community language honorarium of £50 a month for either regularly using a language other than English to help communicate with tenants, or for interpreting or translating.
"Bengali is my first language and I've always spoken to tenants in Bengali," says Ali. "If English isn't their first language it's normal for me. It saves time because I don't have to book a translator but it's also satisfying as tenants understand what you are saying."
The social landlord introduced a community language honorarium for staff to reward and recognise bilingual staff who naturally used languages other than English routinely in their work. But it also hoped it would encourage other bilingual staff to offer their language skills on an as-needed basis to improve the quality of services it offers to residents.
Peter Brown, the business innovation manager whose team designed the scheme, says: "It's also something that has come from residents. They wanted us to make a stronger offer around languages."
According to the organisation's figures, 9% of its tenants cannot speak English and 7% cannot understand written English. Its housing advisers receive 10 calls a day where the conversation takes place in Bengali. The staff are a rich source of language skills: 90 staff speak 26 languages between them, of whom 69% say they are fluent or native speakers while 56 staff have used a language other than English to help provide services in the last 12 months.
Brown is optimistic that its talent pool of in-house interpreters and translators will grow as knowledge and confidence in the project increases. He says: "I think more people will come forward as colleagues start to talk about their experiences. Inevitably, if anyone goes on a list or database there is that initial worry about how often they will be called upon. But I would hope that we will be able to double the number we have at the moment."
Details of the project came to light following comments by communities secretary Eric Pickles that councils should stop automatically translating information into foreign languages because it was a waste of money and a disincentive to residents to learn English. Tower Hamlets Homes, along with other public sector translators, condemned his comments as short-sighted.
Kasia Beresford has a diploma in public service interpreting and has worked freelance across the public sector, specialising in Polish, for the last six years. She says Pickles' comments about the value of translation were a gut reaction based on emotions that were neither "rational nor sensible".
"People only look at interpreting as a cost but we save money because our purpose is to enable communication," Beresford says. "There are techniques involved with interpreting: you interpret in the first person, for example, you try to imitate the register of the speaker, such as using slang if they use slang. People don't seem to understand the skill involved in interpreting. When I interpret on behalf of a medical patient, the doctor is always very positive, but at an organisational level what I do can be completely unappreciated."