A few years ago we had a plasterer working in our living room. He was a real good plasterer, my husband said that he wanted a good professional because if it's not done right the walls are not polished but scarred and we are the ones that will have to live with the results. As he was working, making it look so easy, I asked him how long it had taken him to become a good plasterer to which he replied 5 years. He said he underwent his training and started working straight away but it still took him 5 years to get to the stage where he could work with speed, accuracy and quality.
When I first took my DPSI (Diploma in Public Service Interpreting) course in 2007 I thought interpreting was going to be a “piece of cake” for me, after all I started learning English at the age of 10, by 13 or 14 I was fairly fluent and since then I have had always been in contact with the language and had plenty of practice, watching English/American films, reading articles, cultivating friendships with English people that were living in my home country Portugal and then moving to the UK in 2006, where my contact with the language increased dramatically. Now 6 years after I took my DPSI, I confess that at the beginning I didn’t have a clue of what the job really encompasses. I took my exam and passed it with flying colours but when it came to the crunch and I found myself on my first interpreting job in court, that is when I realised how underprepared I actually was. The whole scenario at court was quite intimidating, the judge, the jury, the barristers, the wigs…fortunately the case was over very quickly and I made it! (or should I say, I got away with it) From that time onwards it has been a learning curve that I feel, 6 years on, still has not stopped and will never really do so. I have come to appreciate how difficult it is to be a good interpreter. You see, most people that I talk to, think that an interpreter doesn’t have to think too hard, he or she only has to convey the idea or the meaning of what is being said or asked into another language. That couldn’t be further from the truth. As I started gaining experience in courts and police I came to realise how important details are. Interpreters don’t have to convey only the general meaning or idea of what is being said, instead they have to interpret the exact meaning, all the details, they cannot let any piece of information to get “lost in translation”, as this will be done at somebody’s expense, the defendant or the victim.
The type of questions that a defendant, victim or witness are asked during a trial can be so subtle that one could almost think they are irrelevant: The colour of a car, what difference does it make? The colour of a piece of clothing - black, dark grey, or blue, does it really matter? What difference does it make whether the incident happened at around “9ish” or towards 9:30? How many people were present, 2 or 3? I dealt with a case where the person I was interpreting for nearly went from being the victim to the perpetrator, so do details really matter? Well they do and an awful lot! The difference might lead to a defendant misunderstanding the question, it might lead to a witness not being considered credible, and ultimately it might lead to a miscarriage of justice.
Some might think: but doesn’t the interpreter do mostly consecutive interpreting in a trial/court scenario? Well, true but I personally find that consecutive interpreting is actually harder than simultaneous. When I do simultaneous interpreting in a conference I find that as long as I can “stay close” to the speaker, I don’t have to retain much in my memory, I can just hear in one language and immediately interpret into my target language. When doing consecutive interpreting, very often it is harder as one has to memorise a lot of information that is being said in just a few seconds of speech. For instance only 15 to 20 seconds of speech can contain a lot of details. Is it important to retain every single piece of information? It certainly is.
Also when it comes to the legal jargon, for as much preparation you may do when you take your DPSI, you will never be able to remember all the terminology as each case is different. It is really only with experience that an interpreter becomes better and better and he or she should naturally have the curiosity to increase their skills.
Then there is the factor of confidence. Confidence to speak up when you cannot hear. Confidence to interpret before the whole court, confidence to interpret before a colleague that might be sat in the audience working for the defence solicitor. Confidence to ask if you didn’t quite understand the question.
As time was passing by and I was gaining more experience I realised how difficult interpreting is and how skilled one has to be. When working on a translation, one has the time to look up a certain word on the dictionary, time to do a search on the internet to find the exact word. An interpreter just does not have that time. An interpreter needs to be accurate, quick and yet not lose vital information.
As we know in August 2011 the Ministry of Justice signed a new framework agreement with Applied Language Solutions (ALS) which was later on bought by Capita. There are numerous reports of “interpreters” being used by this company that are simply people who have no qualifications, their criminal records are not being checked, most of them do interpreting as a side job, as it does not pay them enough to do it as a full time occupation and worse than that, I have heard reports of solicitors complain that some of them don’t even speak English!
The truth is, interpreting involves a lot more than simply being able to speak two languages. It is a skill and skills need to be honed before one can say they have truly mastered their profession. This process does not happen overnight. Like the plasterer I mentioned earlier, if unskilled interpreters are used the end result will not be a polished finish, rather it will be a scarring of the entire justice system and all of us will be the ones that have to live with that.