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Applied Language Solutions: I say ‘Tomato’

Applied Language Solutions: I say ‘Tomato’

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.

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

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