Services | 22.03.2010

Are we experiencing a shortage of interpreters?

Ready access to qualified interpreters at short notice is of vital importance to the smooth running of legal systems around the world and a shortage of interpreters can have a serious effect on people’s access to justice and a fair trial.

The Australian media have reported that there is concern that defendants are being kept in custody for too long at Port Augusta in South Australia due to a shortage of Aboriginal court interpreters. Interpreters often arrive late or fail to turn up, delaying trials by days or longer. A recent trial expected to take up to 10 days took almost a month at a cost of about £6,000 per day. Furthermore, concerns have been raised about interpreters’ abilities to cope with the various aboriginal dialects and the tendency of interpreters to elaborate on questions to witnesses without translating that back to the court. A Supreme Court judgment last year commented that Aboriginal defendants were being denied proper access to justice because of interpreter issues.

Closer to home, Scottish courts are being forced to draft in interpreters from England for a high-profile murder case because of a shortage of qualified interpreters based in Scotland. Scottish interpreting agencies have recently come in for criticism after claims their translators were poorly trained and not qualified to assist in trials. A trial was recently halted on the second day of evidence after it was revealed an interpreter had no qualifications. While a Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI) is a minimum prerequisite in England, this is only a preference in Scottish courts.

In America, non-English speaking defendants are also suffering from a shortage of qualified interpreters. The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators says many states find it hard to recruit, train and test interpreters, and warns the shortage is affecting people’s legal rights. According to Voice of America, in 2007, interpreters were required in a quarter of a million cases appearing in district courts across the United States of America interpreting in and out of 115 different languages. About 2,500 people are certified to be court interpreters in the United States. Because of a lack of local resources, some courts have used telephone links to interpreters in different parts of the country to provide a live interpreting service. One judge however, expressed a concern that an interpreter based remotely may not give their complete attention to the task in hand.

This shortage of interpreters has had grave consequences:

• Five years after a Mexican native arrived in an Oregon prison to begin his life sentence for murder, his conviction was thrown out when the courts determined that he didn’t get proper translation services during his trial. A Spanish translator was offered but his native language is Mixtec, an indigenous language spoken in pockets of Mexico.

• In 2007 a Maryland court dismissed a pending sexual-abuse case against Liberian native Mahamu Kanneh because the case had been repeatedly delayed when officials couldn’t find an interpreter proficient in Vai – Kanneh’s native language.

In Australia, new research has found that untrained interpreters can lead to incorrect verdicts in court cases involving people from non-English speaking backgrounds. A study by the University of Western Sydney shows that the speech and mannerisms of interpreters influence the way in which witnesses and defendants are judged.

Associate Professor Sandra Hale, from the UWS Interpreting and Translation Research Group, stated:

“In the court of law, witnesses and defendants are judged not only on what they say, but how they say it,” says Associate Professor Hale. “When the testimony of a person who cannot speak English is required, the impression they make within the court is completely in the hands of their interpreter.”

“If even the smallest change is made to the person’s style or the content of their speech, the believability of their testimony could be affected,” she said.

Professor Hale added that people assess each other’s intelligence, credibility, personality, trustworthiness, and competence on the way they speak.

“During legal proceedings, magistrates and juries may inadvertently judge the testimony of a witness or defendant based on the speech and mannerisms of the interpreter,” she says.

“As the perceptions of the magistrate and jury often dictate a person’s future, it is of the utmost importance that court interpreters undergo training to ensure that their interpretations of testimonies are complete and accurate.”

The Translation People do work with a network of fully qualified, experienced, tried and tested interpreters. If you have any queries about your interpretation services or new requirements, please don’t hesitate to contact us.


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