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Applied Language Solutions: I say ‘Tomato’


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I say ‘Tomato’, interpreter says ‘Potato’. I say ‘Potato’, interpreter says ‘Tomato’. Tomato. Potato. Potato? Tomato? Everyone thinks I’ve given inconsistent evidence, my credibility is shot to pieces, I’ve lost my case.

Applied Language Solutions, the agency who won the Ministry of Justice’s contract to supply all courts and tribunals with interpreters, does not seem as yet to have quite understood its mandate. It surely can’t be that difficult to understand so I am left confused as to why it’s all going so wrong. Under the terms of the agreement, ALS provide police stations, detention centres, courts and tribunals with suitably experienced and qualified interpreters to assist the non-English speaking. I use the word ‘interpreter’ deliberately. I don’t mean people who can speak another language as well as English, but trained, qualified linguists. But this goes without saying . The MoJ would have never agreed to having under qualified interpreters being used. Of course they wouldn’t. In order to provide the justice system with interpreters whose abilities match or exceed the gravity of the task set for them ALS will of course offer them pay, terms and conditions of employment befitting their skills and experience and….oh…I see now.

It’s not surprising that in the run up to the start of the new contract I was saying sad goodbyes to a number of interpreters who had been used by the tribunals hearing scores of appeals I was involved in. We all know the type. These were the ones who when we saw them enter a Tribunal hearing room at the start of the day we’d know that whatever else we had worry about on behalf of our clients, the quality of the interpretation was not one of them. For a system which can act to prevent the voices of applicants, appellants and witnesses being heard, it was unimaginably comforting to know that those we represented were at least able to express themselves accurately. It has been reported that over 90% of the 1200 or so interpreters who had worked under the old system refuse to work for ALS. The pay and conditions of employment offered are so dire they are walking. This explains why there have been so many hearings in the last few weeks where no interpreters have shown up.

We’re seeing new faces now and, it has to be said, many of those faces have expressions of sheer terror on them, their owners not having been inside a court before. Every one of us I’m sure has a story to tell of recent experiences (Renaissance Immigration Group has been tweeting like crazy over the last few weeks: @RIGBarristers). Here’s one of mine: A Pashtu interpreter was booked by the Tribunal for the 18 year old Afghan appellant. No problem. In my experience, prior to ALS there had never been a shortage of excellent Pashtu interpreters. But a Pashtu interpreter who I’ve never seen before arrives at court 3 hours late. And he’s looking scared. Hearing starts. After about 10 minutes the Afghan appellant begins to answer questions in English (thankfully he had been here for 3 years and had studied very hard). Judge politely tells him to give all answers in Pashtu. Afghan appellant explains to the Judge that although the interpreter does speak Pashtu, he is speaking Pakistan Pashtu dialect and not Afghanistan Pashtu and that the interpreter is not translating the questions or his answers properly. Not the most riveting or witty of stories I grant you (if you want funny, the one about the man being charged with perverting the course of justice but being told via an interpreter that he was being accused of being a pervert is a good one) but it at least serves as an example of the dangers of the new system. Had the appellant not had a command of English no one would have been any the wiser, his answers would have been lost in translation and it would have been within the Judge’s power to determine his appeal on the basis of the appellant’s evidence being confused, vague and inconsistent. A potential miscarriage of justice was thus averted by the appellant being conversant in English and having the courage to speak up for himself. This can rarely be said of the scores of appellants who on each working day attend Tribunals up and down the country not knowing that under this new contract with ALS the threshold for proving their cases has suddenly been set even higher.

The obvious problems with some recent ‘interpreters’ are a salutary reminder to us all that ‘exact’ interpretation is a myth. We must all be extremely vigilant.

So now back to the song: Let’s call the whole thing off.

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Iain Palmer

Iain Palmer is a barrister at Lamb Building specialising in immigration and refugee law.


16 Responses

  1. Oh to have been a fly in court when the man were told he was accused of being a pervert. Hilarious!

    1. is not funny at all, we talking about someone’s life, not a game on facebook, it just shows what can happen to you or me, any time you need an interpreter, imagine you need a urgent surgery and the interpreter says you have the pain on your left side or else like that,and the surgeon cuts you on the wrong side, it is awful, this government wants to save money at the expenses of the wellbeing of the Community, not caring if the service is been provided properly.

  2. I was recently in the awkward situation of being able to understand what my client was saying in their language when I was examining them – and knowing that the tribunal’s interpreter was not translating properly. Thankfully I had gone prepared – with an experienced interpreter who was able to assist in having the case adjourned on this basis. But it wasn’t easy. It’s relisted this week, I’m hoping the same thing won’t happen again. However I think almost everyone I know in our line of work has a story like this and it might just get worse before it gets better.

  3. I’ve working in the translation and interpreting industry for quite a few years now. ALS are very quickly gaining the reputation as the Ratners of the industry. Language agencies in the main treat their translator, interpreters and clients with respect and quality is always the highest priority. It’s shame to see our industry, which adds so much value to the legal profession, as well as business as a whole, dragged through the mud by one company.

  4. Love the start of your post, actually made me chuckle. Credibility is a high enough hurdle to get over as it is but now with dire interpretation potentially being the norm is there any hope!!!!

  5. THE Centre for the Study of Emotion and Law (www.csel.org.uk) have been running a study (funded by the BIG Lottery Fund) looking at this under controlled conditions – recording repeated interpreted interviews with refugees, looking at discrepancies & having a second speaker of the interpreted language check the recording for whether the discrepancy was actually there in the original. Still some work to do on it, but we’ll be sure to let you have the results, to add to the evidence from practice.

  6. Good, conscientious, interpreters do a marvellous job. But when interpreters are even a little below par, or just inexperienced, things can go badly wrong.

    As an expert witness who is fluent in the language of the country I write about I have seen, and again and again had to deal with, significant consequences of interpreters’ failings. They range from translating “war martyr” as “suicide pilot”, hilarious but not for the appellant, to not knowing enough English to differentiate “midnight”, “deep in the night” and “dawn”, to not even beginning to understand the meaning of legal terminology in the first language, let alone rendering it in English (immediately transforming a plausible narrative into one that is “not credible”)

    The situation might be a remedied if a country expert alive to such issues is instructed. Cases where I have been able to intervene with a report taking in the subject of poor translation have mostly succeeded. But what happens in the many more cases where representatives themselves do not see the problem, and expert advice is not sought? The appellant loses on often totally unjustifiable grounds.

    The most frustrating experience of all is to be present in court and hear an interpreter mistranslate without being able to intervene (unless the reps have sent their own interpreter to monitor, very rare in current circumstances).

    When I am asked to report, again and again my thoughts go to costs. If a statement, asylum interview or document had been properly translated in the first place the cost of appeals, experts, barristers etc might have been avoided. Yet I see even the best solicitors, constrained by budget, settling on a cheaper translation agency with appalling results.

    1. You’re quite right to raise costs as a central issue. It is rare for there to be sufficient funds available to asylum seekers to ensure the presence of another who is able to check the accuracy of the court interpreters.

  7. Dear writer and readers:

    I am one of those that you used to have the peace of mind that I would not mix Tomato with Potato simply because I would not do the job if I did not know that I could.

    What Gavin Wheeldon has done, is very simple: he thought that interpreters like me have all come to the UK looking for a job because may be British £ would convert to Iraqi Dinars in a logarithmic scale. He must know that I have a family in the UK and unlike him I have a Ford Zetec to run.

    To be fair on him, what he has managed to do is promise the MoJ that he would take the blame when a fellow Kurd is told that ‘pleading guilty’ means ‘accepting the blame’. What Gavin does not know is that UK courts are not ‘courts of convenience’. One way or the other, a lawyer like yourself would have to tear one of his interpreters apart who also fail to know that UK courts are not ‘courts of convenience’.

    Thank you for supporting our ‘applied language disposition’ cause.

  8. Having inside knowledge on the workings of ALS I can tell you that is is all about the profit margins and there is a cutlure of “head nodding” to anyone just to get the money in… It goes without saying that with more experienced linguists who have earned a right to charge more you get less margin but with “fresh meat” you can pay less and therefore increase your margin. This is the same for both translations and interpreters.

    The staff do not see much return for the hard work they put in and whether it be sales, marketing or projects and when it comes to end of year bonus slip it’s empty despite record years. This is mainly because the profit is pumped into the pet project of ALS aka “Machine Translation” or “T4ME” or paid to people who are being “carried” as workers by the organisation due to their loyalty. The marketing department should be called the bragging then putting out fire department…

    There are positives to having a contract in place between organisations but it should be to benefit all parties in price and quality not just one not have a knock on effect on the end user of these services i.e. Legal representatives and their end clients.

    It is important to note that “Applied Language Solutions” was born of the same mold of the other company competing for the contract “The Big Word” and things would not be much better their “rule”.

    Thanks for reading and best of luck to all getting a fair deal.

  9. The problem is that we have now in the whole of the UK, thousands of certified interpreters, who are not working as such, or just doing it on a part-time basis, because the work is just been given to those 1200 on the register of the Met Police, or those on the National register, and at the same time we have people with skills and a family to look after, who cannot refuse a job even if underpaid, specially taking in account the national minimum wages,ALS and the MOJ know about this and are using people, knowing that there are desperate people out there looking for work.
    The Government should intervene and stipulate the rates of pay, in a fair proportion, that way all this vulturing and preying on people on need would end, if they do not do anything it is because they do not care with the people, they are just looking at us as if we were just numbers, not human beings.

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