December 05 2023
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Communication breakdown

Communication breakdown

As a police station advisor, there is nothing guaranteed to make my heart sink more than a client who needs an interpreter for their interview. You can read John Storer on the crisis in court interpretation services HERE. The interpreters, who up until recently had been attending the police station, were extremely good and very professional. However, because there were so few of them it usually took some hours before they could attend the station due to the distances they had to travel. This meant that clients arrested early evening would always have to stay in custody overnight awaiting an interpreters’ arrival the following morning.

In the meantime, in order to ensure that they had no urgent medical or dietary needs, I would have to resort to drawing diagrams and miming to satisfy myself they would be OK in a cell for the next 12 or so hours, sometimes fetching food from the custody block kitchen to try and identify what they could and couldn’t eat. All of this of course relies on the custody sergeant’s indulgence, and might not be possible at very busy times.

The initial booking in procedure is carried out via a system called language line. This is a cumbersome call centre type of telephone call whereby the sergeant says what he wants translated to an operator, the phone is then handed to the detained person, and the phrase translated, and so on and so forth. It’s not a great system, but it’s only meant as a stopgap until an interpreter can attend the police station in person for the interview. The problem with that is that there can be many hours between that initial booking in procedure and the interview.

Rabbit in the headlights
In the meantime, the detained person who doesn’t speak English has no means of communicating with the custody staff, which I imagine must be a very frightening situation to be in. On many occasions I have arrived at the police station to find a foreign national looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights because they’ve been locked in a cell for the last 12, even 18 hours, without a clue what’s happening to them – some of them trafficked to the UK in the back of lorries in horrific conditions.

If you add into the equation the appalling human rights track records of the countries some these people come from and you can begin to see just how frightening it must be. Imagine being shut in a cell, not knowing what’s going to happen or when, and not being able to communicate with those around you.

All too frequently, custody staff simply do not believe that the arrested person doesn’t speak any English (‘… if he can swear at me, he can ask for food if he wants it’). Interpreting a language is a skill, and interpreting the law into another language, where everything can hinge upon the very specific meaning of a word, is highly skilled. It takes a very thorough understanding of both languages, plus other skills such as patience and integrity. Interviews which take place through an interpreter take a very long time. There are not only language differences, but cultural differences too.

Men from some cultures have a resistance to taking advice from a woman, so there can be barriers to overcome before starting to translate the very precise words needed to understand whether someone is guilty of an offence or not. If an interpreter is not up to scratch it can cause enormous difficulties. The main difficulty of course is that we may never know. Unless the interview tape is translated by another interpreter, there’s no way of knowing if the job was done properly. I have had concerns in the past and reported them to the authorities responsible. One male interpreter clearly didn’t agree with the reasons for arrest or the advice I was giving and told my client to make no comment rather than to admit it and take the caution that was available.

Just thinking something shouldn’t be unlawful doesn’t quite cut it in the police station, and this demonstrates a culture and language issue. Another very young female interpreter had to suffer the indignity of being leered at and abused by an extremely unpleasant and aggressive man arrested for sexual offences.

Being an interpreter requires great professionalism, and that professionalism should be properly rewarded. This is not an area where costs can be shaved; as yet again it’s an area where the cost to the judicial system in terms not only of miscarriages of justice, but a lack of duty of care, might just outweigh the savings.

I for one don’t want to be part of a system that treats people in the way I’ve described, and neither do any of the professional interpreters I’ve met.