Broken Britain: Blame the Interpreters?

“People in Britain who cannot speak English have cost the taxpayer almost £180m in interpreters over the past three years,” says a prominent report by Kevin Dowling and Mark Hookham in a recent Sunday Times article (23.10.11, page 7). In fact, the topic is considered so important by the Sunday Times that it also gets discussed in an opinion piece (‘Immigrant integration gets lost in translation’, by Dominic Raab, Conservative MP for Esher & Walton, page 31) in the same issue of the newspaper.

In the course of these two articles, interpreters are held doubly responsible for the state of the nation. For one thing, they are – we’re told – a huge drain on public resources at a time when we can least afford it. And for another, they stop immigrants settling firmly into the community by enabling them to resist any requirement to learn English.

The “enormous” expense of interpreting services, says the MP, “highlights the hidden costs of uncontrolled immigration”. The solution, we’re told, is pretty straightforward. Interpreters will be hired through a private contractor and paid £22 an hour. Now, let me think, what might suffer if the sums spent on interpreters are so sharply reduced?

Oh, yes – that would be quality. Why is it hard to understand that the knee-jerk of paying poorly will just create different problems?

One, it will mean that experienced professionals will not take on this kind of work. The gaps will be filled by less-qualified people. Now, which other public service professionals – police officers, teachers, doctors who will not be able to do their jobs properly without effective interpreting – would consider £22 an hour to constitute fair and appropriate recognition of their skills?

Two, it will mean that the interpreters available will not be as well-trained for the task. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to spot the clamour for reducing the training required for surgeons or riot police. What’s behind this disparity? Could it be the myth that any bilingual can automatically interpret?

Thirdly, and most importantly, cutting corners and therefore failing to put effective communication in place is a false economy. This Department has argued long and hard for some serious accounting for the real, hidden, long-term costs of inadequate interpreting. Where are the public policy economists who will work with us on this issue? We’re more than ready to take up the challenge.

From 1993-1995, I researched court interpreting (click here for some published results of this research) with one group of minority language users in the UK. I watched from the public gallery as a lengthy trial collapsed owing to inadequate interpreting. That false start alone – back in the mid-90s, mind you – cost over £1m.

And, fortunately, the problems in that instance were noticed. What happens when they’re not? What then is the cost in mis-diagnosis, wrongful imprisonment, lost business and, above all, the loss of human well-being?

Of course money shouldn’t be squandered. And without doubt, it is good to facilitate English-language development enthusiastically and in appropriate ways. But, please, let’s not fool ourselves that the cost of decent interpreting can disappear by magic. These measures will not remove those costs, but only ensure that they come with a side-order of misery.

Author: Graham Turner

18 thoughts on “Broken Britain: Blame the Interpreters?

  1. Thank you for raising these important issues.
    The Sunday TImes piece on interpreting costs was a rather cheap snipe, but we did at least managed to get some small mention in the article of the concern felt by all the professional bodies for interpreters:

    Nick Rosenthal, chairman of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, said: “Effective and experienced professionals will no longer be able to afford to carry out this vital work in the public sector.”

    Interestingly, ITI and the CiOL are currently carrying out a rates and salaries survey. From that, our team identified that the median income for an interpreter in the police and courts sector is around £15,500 per annum. We did share that information with the editor of the Sunday Times, but they have not yet seen fit to publish factual data.

    Nick Rosenthal
    Chair, ITI Council

  2. Thank you for adding to the topic; however it seems that the issues of quality dont seem to be taken as top priority. It appears streamlining the process and costs are at the heart of the decision to structure it the way they have.

    Time will tell!

  3. hmmm 22 pounds per hour is not very much considering transport costs and the type of work – Police and Court or Social Services work is not always very easy, plus you’re on your own and don’t have any relief interpreter, and the interview can last for hours!

  4. Unfortunately we are in an era of “do-it-on-the-cheap” public services where cost is the primary motivation for Government departments regardless of the effect on quality. Having worked in the public sector I can only say that no amount of reasoning, pleading or logical argument will convince public sector decision makers to adopt a different mentality – until the next “new idea” pops into their heads. Don’t worry though, that “new idea” will be nothing more than an adaption of what has gone before when times were more prosperous – it’s just a matter of waiting for the media to report on the string of injustices and the waste of money caused by the current dogma, then the politicians will realise that they should have left things as they were before!

  5. Thank you for your article. We need to mention here that 22 pounds an hour is the maximum rate under the new government agreement. Most jobs would be 16-pounds-per-hour jobs. From the total you would need to deduct any travel time, travel expenses, parking, tax, pension contributions and provision for holiday and add to this the uncertainty of the job itself. Due to the freelance nature of the business you could work 1 hour or 12 hours a day or do no work at all!

  6. Incidentally, just to clarify – £22 an hour might be a different matter if it were feasible for interpreters to be paid in this way as a FULL-TIME job. That’s not often the case, which makes that rate of pay problematic.

    • The article highlights some very interesting and important points. There is no doubt that the MOJ wants to get a good service on the cheap. This will not happen. I was a police and court interpreter for almost 10 years and assisted with investigations in many high profile cases. I made a reasonable living and enjoyed my work. Following the MOJ’s award of CJS interpreting to one single provider I did my calculations and realised I could no longer make a living as a CJS interpreter. Like many of my colleagues I have left the profession and now live in Cyprus. Without wanting to blow my own trumpet I genuinely believe that my departure is the profession’s loss. With a Ph D in linguistics, a PGCE secondary in English, two Diplomas in Public Service Interpreting and 10 years’ experience, I was one of the highest qualified CJS interpreter in my languages in the UK. I would like to point out that the supplier actually pays £16, £20 or £22 per hour depending on the “tier” of the assignment. No minimum payment is paid and no parking or public transport expenses. Mileage is only paid after the first 10 miles (each way) at 20p per mile. Most of my work was in police stations and courts situated about 9 miles from my home. If I attended a tier 2 assignment lasting one hour under the new provision, I would be paid £20 but no travel expenses and no parking. I would be lucky to come out with £10 in my pocket for 2 hours work. This could well be my only job this day and I would get paid less than the minimum wage. Had I not moved to Cyprus and had I not been able to go back to education, I would have been much better off on the dole. I have no doubt that this will lead to a mass exodus of professionals from CJS interpreting in the near future.
      Dr Zuzana Windle
      Former RPSI, MCIL

  7. I am not surprised to read this. Quality is not regarded as a priority in the Uk and instead of asking for a professional agency which offers interpreting services in that very specific field, companies tend to do it their own way. As a consequence, we as interpreters are not given the right pay for a job which is mostly only considered as a pure “translation of words”.

  8. Excellent article – with the example of the collapsed trial costing over £1m cited in the article, we could do no worse than “educate” the legal profession about the quality of interpretation in trials and to challenge the competence of sign or spoken language interpreters used by the courts. This can lead to an increasing number of mistrials which will have an impact on the public purse far greater than the savings in paring off a few pounds per hour on the interpreters’ hourly rates.

    I am sure that some defence lawyers and barristers would relish this angle of attack in order to defend their clients…

    All the best


  9. I have 2 diplomas in interpreting, a diploma in international studies and 13 years of experience in legal interpreting. I have spend many nights and weekends in police stations and have always put interpreting first, to the detriment of my family and social life, and now I am invited to be re-examined in order to be able to work for less then the minimum wage, on a irregular basis.
    No thanks, I have more important things to do. The MOJ will soon realize what a stupid idea outsourcing was, when all the qualified interpreters have disappeared, but it will be to late then.

  10. In response to Yelena’s comment we feel that it is important to clarify the inaccuracy that “most jobs would be 16-pounds-per-hour jobs. From the total you would need to deduct any travel time, travel expenses, …”

    This in absolutely not the case as Tier 1 and Tier 2 interpreters will be carrying out the majority of jobs under the new agreement and not Tier 3 interpreters (which is where the £16 per hour applies). We expect this payment to apply to approximately 5% of MoJ jobs booked within the new framework agreement. The other 95% will be booked and paid based on the higher tier rates.

    Additionally we would like to confirm that travel expenses are paid to interpreters for journeys exceeding 10 miles each way. The details can be found here

    Finally, it is worth pointing out that contrary to some rumours circulating within the interpreter community, higher out-of-hours payments will be made at times outside of 7am-7pm Monday to Friday.

    We hope this clears up any confusion surrounding the payment terms within the new MoJ agreement.

  11. Hi, just a food for thoughts from an interpreter in a developing country. I was once asked to assist in the interrogation and court proceeding of an Australian citizen who was charged with 5 kg of marijuana possession, a crime that can carry either life sentence or even death penalty. I was hired for the interrogation part by the police and the first court proceeding by the prosecutor. However, I was dismissed for the remainder of the court proceeding by the prosecutor who thought that I was ‘too expensive’. They hired a ‘cheaper’ interpreter for the remainder of the proceeding and the defendant was found guilty and was given a 20 year imprisonment. The defense counsel immediately appealed, citing ‘inadequate interpretation of the court proceeding as well as the testimony and cross examination of the defendant’ as one of the causes. Needless to say, it created a huge uproar and the court was blamed for hiring an ‘fly-by-night’ interpreter. I should say that my colleague who was hired after me was not qualified to do simultaneous interpretation, and the audience (prosecutor and defense counsel) did not understand the difference between a simultaneous and consecutive interpretation. Since I did all of my interpretation simultaneously to the defendant and I did not assist for her testimony and cross-examination, the prosecutor and defense counsel took my way of work as a standard. I was censured by the prosecutor for ‘charging exorbitant fee’ for my service, which was actually only 50% of my fee for my private clients (less than $20/hour). I was also censured by my fellow interpreters for charging too low!!! So, even after years passed I’m still confused whether or not I’m doing the wrong thing.

    • @Michelle,

      “So, even after years passed I’m still confused whether or not I’m doing the wrong thing”.

      Well, your story tells me that you are obviously not self-confident enough to charge what you deserve without letting people “censor” you for it. You definitely did not charge enough and why in the world did you charge only 50% of your usual fee??? However, I would like to know how you did simultaneous both ways, i.e. when speaking to and when speaking for the defendant. Normally the first one is whispered simultaneous and the second is shortened consecutive (i.e. sentence by sentence – or two or three sentences, depending on the situation). If I were to try simultaneous when speaking for the defendant there would be a huge uproar in court because nobody would be able to understand anything when defendant and interpreter speak (out loud) at the same time!!

  12. Having worked on and off as a public service interpreter (I mainly translate, and very occasionally still interpret for private clients, including companies), I have to say that I welcome the attitude that offering interpreters on tap at every point discourages immigrants from integrating. I have seen cases where an immigrant spoke no English after 10 years in the country, which cannot be right. I have also seen cases where the person being interpreted for spoke perfectly adequate English, but insisted on being provided with an interpreter, sometimes for days on end. My feeling is that if you want to live in this country, make the effort to learn its language.
    This is not to say, of course, that where interpreters are used they should not be paid properly. None of this whole problem is the fault of interpreters: it’s the government’s fault, employed by us to sort out the mess and regularly failing to do so (well, it’s not easy for the employer, i.e. the tax-payer, to fire the entire Home Office, is it, as would be the case in the real world).
    I hear a lot of protesting from ALS, but remain unconvinced. We’ll see, won’t we? Not that I can work of these rates at all, and would refuse to do so.

  13. I totally agree with the latest posts. It really seems that the issues of quality are not taken as top priority today.

    In the London translation business today, the majority of the clients are surprisingly not British. Whether this means that they do the translations themselves or that (quite unlikely) they do not need any of these services, we do not know.

    What is certain is that, as Leah says, it is not the interpreters who should be blamed but the whole British society, still too proud of its own language that it does not want to finance language courses or Erasmus projects.

    Consequently, becoming a translator or an interpreter today in the United Kingdom is absolutely well paid off!

  14. Nowhere did I say or suggest that “the whole British society [should be blamed, for being] still too proud of its own language that it does not want to finance language courses or Erasmus projects”. If anything, I said the opposite: that immigrants to the UK should learn English, which is the language of this country. If they want to integrate, that is. If they don’t, I really don’t see what they are doing here.

  15. Funny how for a Tory £200m saved by stopping winter fuel allowance for wealthy pensioners is “a paltry sum”, yet £180m to ensure natural justice is done is “enormous”.

  16. Pingback: Broken Britain: Blame the Interpreters? | Legal...

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