Poor interpreting having impact on patients, victims of crime and those seeking asylum
Ireland is home to people from every country in the world. Many have excellent English, others have enough for work and everyday situations while still others have very little or no knowledge of the language.
Even those who are reasonably fluent in English may find themselves outside their comfort zone in certain situations.
Interpreters are needed to ensure that limited English speakers can access services, can understand and be understood, and that people interacting with them can carry out their work. They are generally made available in garda stations and the courts but not always in other settings.
However, despite the obvious need for interpreting, interpreter provision in Ireland is very problematic.
Public procurement processes have resulted in unattractive rates of pay and working conditions. There is a pervasive assumption that anyone who speaks English and another language can interpret.
In reality, interpreting is a highly skilled activity involving processing information in one language and conveying it accurately in a second language.
Interpreters need high levels of proficiency in both languages and interpreting skills. They need to understand the context of their assignment, the information they are interpreting, and ethical principles such as confidentiality, impartiality and accuracy.
No accredited training
While some interpreters on the Irish market are no doubt very able, the key problem is that there is no accredited training course for interpreters. Nor is there an accreditation system to establish if interpreters are competent or even a system of quality control to monitor interpreting.
Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of reports on problems around interpreter provision.
Over the last two decades, the Irish Translators’ and Interpreters’ Association has sent many submissions to various government bodies advocating for change. A number of NGOs have also highlighted the issue as have reports on direct provision.
There is no shortage of laws either. In criminal proceedings there is a longstanding right to the free assistance of an interpreter, a right that was reinforced by an EU directive that urges member states to take concrete measures to ensure quality, including a register of qualified interpreters.
The directive was transposed into Irish law in 2013 but absolutely nothing has been done to improve the service.
Expected to bring own interpreter
The Public Sector Equality and Human Rights Duty obliges public bodies to actively promote equality, protect human rights and eliminate discrimination. It is clearly discriminatory if people with limited English proficiency are not provided with an interpreter when they go to their GP or when they are in hospital. This sort of solution is very unsatisfactory as people may prefer not to discuss medical issues in the presence of someone they know. In a domestic violence case, the abuser could be the interpreter.
Consequences of inaccurate interpreting
What happens if interpreters are unable to provide a competent service?
In international protection interviews, inaccurate interpreting can result in inconsistencies and an interviewer not believing an applicant’s account of why they are seeking asylum.
In a garda station the account of a suspect or a witness or a victim of crime given through an interpreter may be distorted, unclear or even incomprehensible.
In court, a defendant may not understand evidence against them. A victim of crime may not understand court proceedings. A patient may not understand the nature of their illness.
These issues do not only affect people with limited English proficiency. They also affect all the professionals who are trying to do their job as well as possible.
GPs and other medical professionals will find it difficult to carry out their work if they are unsure what exactly the problem is, and whether or not patients understand their diagnosis, prognosis and medical advice.
Members of An Garda Síochána may be concerned that evidence provided during interviews will not stand up to scrutiny if the recordings are later checked for accuracy. Judges and lawyers have to try and manage situations where confusion arises in court due to poor interpreting.
The State needs to step up and the relevant government departments – Justice, Health, Housing, Social Protection, Employment – need to work together with government agencies to bring about an interpreting service that meets the needs of twenty-first century Ireland.