When words mean everything

Are basic human rights being compromised for want of a qualified court interpreter? Graham Cross believes they are. Graham Cross is chairman of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting. There is increasing concern about the quality of interpreting provided in this country for foreigners involved in legal or social procedures. Should we be worried?

If a British national were denied justice overseas, it would provoke national outrage, but there seems to be little public debate about it happening the other way round.

Sarah de Mas leads an EU-wide research programme at Fair Trials Abroad, an independent organisation concerned with the rights of European citizens facing discrimination in the administration of justice outside their own country.

She says: 'It is a fundamental principle that everyone is equal before the law. Those unable to speak or fully understand the language of the legal system in which they are involved must be provided with a competent interpreter and translations of all relevant documents if they are to stand truly equal before the law.

'A defendant who cannot understand court proceedings is technically absent, and should not be convicted.'

But it seems there is an increasing number of cases where the needs of non-English speaking people in the UK are simply ignored, and there still appears to be an unacceptable level of prejudice against them in court.

The UK is becoming increasingly multicultural, with more tourists and itinerant workers than ever before. As such, the problem is constantly growing.

Ellen Moerman, a court interpreter for 24 years and a qualified barrister, is uniquely placed to comment on the inadequate quality of interpreting provided in court.

Moerman has a list of horror stories in which interpreting has been given by unqualified stand-ins, such as a Chinese cook, a French au pair, an

A-level language student and, worst of all, a retired English colonel, who had to search his memory for an archaic form of a language which he last used while on colonial service many years ago.

The main problem, in her opinion, is that lawyers and courts try to save costs by employing cheap, unqualified interpreters. The result is that they invariably spend more by wasting court time.

In one recent case, an overseas student was asked to interpret for two Cantonese witnesses at the Old Bailey. Translation difficulties were obvious and, after the student had spent the entire morning with them in the witness box, the jury was instructed to disregard all the evidence taken thus far. A professional interpreter was then brought in and took just 45 minutes to present the witnesses' testimony.

Some interpreters even suspect that there are lawyers who claim legal aid funds allocated for interpreting and then fail to hire a qualified interpreter. Pilar Charlie, who specialises in interpreting for Latin American immigrants, believes this has happened more than once.

Charlie works for Praxis, a voluntary organisation which helps protect the rights of immigrants, refugees and migrants. She sits in on Home Office interviews at Heathrow Airport.

She believes that official interpreters appointed to act on behalf of the Home Office are not always technically up to the job and, far from being neutral, may be totally unsympathetic to the foreigner being interviewed.

'I once did the unthinkable and actually asked for an interview with a distressed Venezuelan woman to be suspended,' she says. 'She spoke South American Spanish and could not understand this upper crust English gentleman's mainland Spanish. I could hear that he was using inaccurate vocabulary. What is more, he made it quite plain he thought she was lying.'

Insufficient interpreting resources have also resulted in distressing events in the medical world.

Thomas Chan, who manages the Advocacy and Interpreting Services for Camden and Islington Community Health Services NHS Trust and trains medical interpreters, tells the story of a Chinese woman who had an abdominal operation and attended a clinic for fertility treatment several years later.

On examining her, the doctor found that she had previously had a hysterectomy, and that the operation had not been explained to her in her own language at the time because no interpreter was available. She had been completely unaware that her womb had been removed.

Medical and legal interpreters almost always need to go further than simply translating words. They also have to put questions in context and make them intelligible. A foreigner may find himself not only in hospital but also in contact with the law, for example, being assessed under the Mental Health Act.

Chan's advocacy training helps medical interpreters understand clients' perceptions of the regime with which they are coming into contact and explain how the British legal system works.

The interpreters are empowered to speak on behalf of the client and, in that context, are generally welcomed by consultants as part of the medical team.

The same cannot be said of lawyers and the courts, it seems. For this reason, the Institute of Translation and Interpreting aims to make the issue of human rights lost in translation a major topic of debate in 1998.

The hope is that this will be a first step on the road towards a better understanding and more efficient use of interpreters in the legal system.

The institute of translation believes that members of the judicial system lack foresight when dealing with non-English speaking clients, often leaving it too late to call a qualified interpreter and ending up with someone who is unqualified for the task. As chairman of the institute, I believe that they do not allow adequate briefing time, more of which would speed up rather than delay proceedings.

Lawyers often insist on word-for-word interpreting but, because of cultural differences, this can leave the foreigner totally confused if the interpreter is not allowed to add his own explanations. Interpreters claim that all this adds up to a denial of the basic human right to a fair hearing.

Even courtroom design can work against the interpreter, who is often trying to hear proceedings through a bulletproof screen or above the rustle of papers.

Moerman says: 'Miscarriages of justice do happen.

I know of a situation where a defendant's statement was taken and translated by an unqualified interpreter at a police station. It was so riddled with inconsistencies and errors as to be almost unintelligible. This was supposed to be the cornerstone of the prosecution case, but the statement was thrown out by the court because the quality of translation was so appalling. It was ruled that it had no evidential value.'

The Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) currently has a working party examining the problem of how to ensure that foreign nationals have their rights safeguarded by being given a proper interpreting service. It is likely to issue a directive to all UK courts to use interpreters drawn from a national register. What concerns the institute is that the existing register is neither comprehensive nor reliable.

The institute wants to ensure that those included on it are appropriately trained and experienced. It wants the LCD to allocate responsibility for the register to a public body advised by the profession, so that only those with adequate credentials are included and are graded.

The institute believes that basic human rights will continue to be compromised until the legal profession and government departments accept responsibility for providing qualified interpreters to non-English speaking people confronted with situations in which a miscarriage of justice could be a very real risk.