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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 November 2005, 02:32 GMT
Lost in translation
By Chris Summers
BBC News

A shortage of trained interpreters in courts and police stations is posing a threat to justice, says an industry body. But why are interpreters so important?

Business is booming for UK firms supplying interpreters, but many public services - especially the police and courts - are struggling to find enough people willing to do what can be a stressful and demanding job.

In the last year there has been a massive increase in demand for languages spoken by those coming to work in Britain from the countries of the enlarged EU, with Polish especially popular.

Sita Kisanga, who was convicted of abusing a child accused of witchcraft
Lingala interpreters were needed in the "witchcraft abuse" trial in June

But there is also a dearth of Arabic and Chinese interpreters and there are increasing problems with defendants and witnesses from Africa, many of whom speak obscure dialects.

Alan Wheatley, general secretary of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, said: "It's not uncommon for a police force in, say, Leicestershire to ring at 2am and try to acquire an Arabic interpreter from Cornwall because they can't find one locally.

"Maybe they have an accident on the M1 and an Arabic-speaking lorry driver."

Polish in demand

The Metropolitan Police has about 280 freelance interpreters on its books, who speak up to 75 languages.

Court interpreting is very intense. You are hearing one language and speaking a different one almost simultaneously
Interpreter

The force used interpreters in 32,100 assignments between April 2004 and April 2005, which considering they are often paid up to 30 an hour, was a sizeable chunk of Scotland Yard's budget.

Police forces in most urban areas tend to have more interpreters to choose from and the problems are often most acute in rural and remote areas.

Inspector Phil Guilbert, of Guernsey Police, said: "We have large Portuguese and Latvian communities but we are fairly well served for interpreters for them. But we have had problems recently with Egyptians, Yugoslavs and some Chinese dialects."

He said his force had flown interpreters from London to help in a case involving a drug importer.

More often than not they use an over-the-phone service provided by a company called Language Line, based in London.

The company, which is employed by 36 UK police forces, promise to have someone on the telephone within 20 minutes who can speak whichever language the force needs to translate.

An interpreter sits behind Tony Blair during a visit to China
Interpreting is a highly skilled profession

Court interpreting is a specialist skill and requires proper training, resulting in a diploma.

The Department of Constitutional Affairs said that at least three million people living in the UK were born in countries where English was not the national language.

"Ensuring interpreters are readily available means everyone can participate in the justice process in a meaningful way," a spokeswoman said.

"It's what the public wants and expects and if justice is seen to be done, it's more likely to inspire confidence in the way courts deliver to their customers."

One interpreter told the BBC News website: "Court interpreting is very intense. You are hearing one language and speaking a different one almost simultaneously.

"It requires considerable skill, especially when you are talking about legal jargon, and you need to keep your voice down so as not to interrupt proceedings. Whispering interpreting is a distinct form of interpreting."

But it is not just criminal courts which need linguists.

The amount spent on interpreters in the county and family courts, and Royal Courts of Justice, rose from 178,700 in 2002/03 to 249,400 in 2004/05.

Most interpreters charge an hourly fee and will charge for a minimum of three hours if, for example, they are asked to travel to court and provide help during a short court hearing.

Lancashire-based Lifeline is one of several companies providing public service interpreters to the police and courts and its founder, Lynn Everson, said there was a general lack of acknowledgement for the skills and professionalism of trained interpreters.

'Snowed under'

She said her firm - which offers certain public services 24/7 coverage - was "snowed under" and had noticed an increase in demand for interpreters, especially for Polish.

Ms Everson said her firm charged 45 an hour for court interpreters but she criticised defence lawyers who often "got in a pickle" and did not know how to access public funds to pay for interpreters.

There are highs and lows in this business. A few years ago demand for Albanian and Serbo-Croat was very high during the Balkan crises
Neil Payne,
Kwintessential

She said rates had not risen in recent years and police and court budgets often ran out before the end of the financial year.

Kwintessential is another firm supplying interpreters and manager Neil Payne said demand for Polish had "gone through the roof" recently.

He said: "There are highs and lows in this business. A few years ago demand for Albanian and Serbo-Croat was very high during the Balkan crises. But after a while these immigrants improve their English skills and the demand goes down."

Many interpreters feel their skill and professionalism is not recognised, especially by lawyers.

One told the BBC News website: "Being a linguist is rarely considered as valid a career as being a doctor or lawyer, but the training takes the same amount of time.

"There is an attitude to interpreting and translating which needs overcoming in this country. People think it's not important. But it is a valid career and can be a fabulous opportunity for someone with good language skills."

According to the Department for Constitutional Affairs it recognised there was an increase demand for interpreters and for those interpreters to be properly certified.

"Although it is extremely difficult for any one government agency to influence the numbers and geographical spread of interpreters in England and Wales, steps are being taken across government to address the increasing demand for professional and suitably qualified interpreters," said a spokeswoman.

Interpreters working in the criminal courts and in police stations were, where possible, registered on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters. When this was not possible, checks should be carried out to ensure that interpreters met the necessary standards, she added.




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