The truth lost in translation

There is concern that poor-quality interpreting can lead to injustice for immigrants.
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Imagine that you are sitting in a room, being questioned by an official. Although tired, confused and frightened, you are trying to defend yourself. But the words are being contorted, and the official hears something quite different from what was intended. Instead of helping you, what the official hears condemns you.

It sounds like a Kafkaesque nightmare. But this difficulty in communication is what applicants face when the interviews they must undergo to be considered for asylum are channelled through a Home Office interpreter.

The Home Office estimates that 90 per cent of applicants, who now number more than 32,800 a year, will not be able to speak English to the standard needed to answer questions. Interpreters are brought in, but there is increasing evidence, from the legal profession and independent interpreters, that rather thanreflect what the applicant is saying, many act like a distorting mirror.

"He was trying to say he was apolitical," says Naomi Roberts (not her real name), an independent interpreter who attends Home Office interviews on behalf of an immigration solicitor's firm, to check the standard of translation. "In French, he said he was `apolitique'. But the Home Office interpreter translated this as `politician'."

Ms Roberts works with Zaireans coming into the country, and has both witnessed many such linguistic travesties. "One client was asked if he belonged to a political party. He said `Yes'. The interpreter asked if he knew what UDPS (the acronym for the Zairean opposition party) stood for, and though the answer that went down was `No', he insisted he said `Yes'. The inconsistency in his views was later used as one of the Home Office's reasons for throwing him out of the country."

But a spokesman for the Home Office insists that there is not a major problem. "We employ professional interpreters and if people want to complain, we have the machinery to deal with it." To initiate action against a Home Office interpreter who fails to meet acceptable standards, two formal complaints must come from a solicitor involved with the asylum-seeking process. But often, , the complaints do not go through, either because the solicitor's firm does not have time to pursue them, or because in cases where an independent interpreter is not at the interview, faults of interpretation are too difficult to prove.

"My clients have complained time upon time that what has been written down in the interview is not an accurate reflection of what they said," says Duran Seddon, a barrister at Garden Court chambers, London. Others working in immigration talk not only of inaccuracy but also of interference. One well-known example is of a Turkish woman who said in her interview that she had been placed in solitary confinement in prison. The interpreter had worked in that prison in Turkey some years before, and contradicted her.

Cases of biased interpreting - for instance, when Turks translate for Kurds and vice versa - are also reported by Jane Coker, a leading immigration solicitor. They are much rarer than reports of linguistic inaccuracy, but both demonstrate a lack of thoroughness in the vetting procedure that Home Office interpreters undergo.

There is no formal training, except for an induction course that lasts a few hours, minimal testing and a haphazard qualification demand - anyone from a native speaker of the language to someone who has attained a relevant A-level is eligible. This despite the findings of the Nuffield Interpreter Project, set up in 1991 with Home Office funding, which highlighted "serious miscarriages of justice" and in some cases death due to shoddy interpreting in other areas of the public services. The constraints of time and money meant that though the project has led to improvements in many other areas, it was not able to cover immigration. But it is here, as recent publicity has shown, that the Government now has the greatest need to refute accusations that it is allowing gross miscarriages of justice.

Claire Thomas, casework manager at the Refugee Legal Centre, is especially disturbed by the way in which the Home Secretary, Michael Howard's proposed "white list" (of countries whose citizens he regards as facing no serious risk of persecution and unlikely to deserve asylum in Britain) could affect interpreting. She points to the complex nature of translation. "If four competent translators were asked to transcribe a tape from one language into another, I am certain they would all come up with slightly different versions. One man, for example was translated as saying he had abandoned his children. In a subsequent interview, the interpretation was that he had lost touch with them." In French, the verb abandonner can mean both actively to abandon something or someone, or to give up and therefore lose touch with it or them. In language it's a question of nuance, but in life it can be an issue of culpability.

An interpreter who is prejudiced against an asylum-seeker - as might well be the case when translating for an applicant from a country on the white list - could easily determine the outcome of the application by picking on one nuance of a word instead of another. Even an unprejudiced interpreter could distort an applicant's story simply by being unaware of the different meanings a word can carry.

In addition, as the Nuffield Interpreter Project points out in its report, Access to Justice: "It is not just language competence that is required to make a good interpreter. Interpreters also need to have a good cultural understanding ... and they need to understand the context [eg, immigration procedure] in which they are working. Furthermore, interpreters are acting for individuals who are confused, frightened and, in some cases, straight from countries where officials are known to be untrustworthy. Though the first interview is short, the second can last from between four to 12 hours, and there is wide scope for error."

It isastounding, then, that the selection procedure for Home Office interpreters is so basic. Although the transcript of an asylum-seeker's interview is read back to the applicant, who is asked to sign each page to acknowledge its accuracy, after several hours of interviewing, tiredness and vulnerability make it unlikely that the interviewee is either able or willing to pick up on interpretational faults.

This, combined with the low pay that Home Office interpreters receive (pounds 8 per hour on average) is an indication of the importance that the Government gives the issue. There are many working in immigration who would agree with Naomi Roberts when she says, "The immigration services just don't take this problem seriously enough."