Lost in translation

Bogusia Temple is a reader in research methodology at
the University of Salford, working across health, housing and
social care fields.
Rosalind Edwards is based at London South Bank University,
researching families and social capital.
Claire Alexander is senior lecturer at the London School of
Economics, with expertise in race and ethnicity

English language usage among migrant communities has become
central to debates about multiculturalism, citizenship and social
inclusion. English language competence is seen as essential to
ensure integration into British society.

People who speak little English need interpreters in order to use a
range of social care and other welfare, legal and education
services. Providers of interpreting services are emphasising
professionalisation as the way forward, with recognised training
and qualifications for interpreters. They emphasise, for example,
codes or guidelines for standards of behaviour and practice that
include maintaining impartiality and avoiding prejudice, fidelity
to meaning in interpreting and intervention only for the purpose of
clarification, and maintaining confidentiality.

Despite government and service providers saying they want user
views, there is little research about what users of interpreting
services would like. A study funded by the Joseph Rowntree
Foundation examined the experiences and understandings of people
who need interpreters.

The researchers looked at the views of 50 people in Manchester and
London from Bangladeshi, Chinese, Indian, Kurdish, and Polish
groups who needed interpreters in order to use social care and
other services. The five ethnic minority groups were chosen for a
range of established and recent migrant views. Given these
different histories, each group had access to varying formal and
informal networks of people who could act as interpreters.

People decide whether they need an interpreter, and who is best
able to meet this need, according to the level of English they feel
is necessary for particular occasions. Sometimes they can manage
themselves, but at other times they want a family member, friend or
professional interpreter to help them.

An interpreter’s proficiency in both English and their own mother
tongue were seen as important. People told us that service
providers were often unaware of the range of dialects within each
language and provided unsuitable interpreters.

A good interpreter is seen as someone who does more than change
words into another language. People prefer interpreters who can
plead their case, empathise with them, and help them with
understanding systems and procedures. The personal character,
attitude and trustworthiness of an interpreter are seen as
crucially important.

Generally, people told us that they did not know the status of
interpreters who have been provided for them by services. They
often assumed that if interpreters had been provided, they were
members of staff who spoke the language rather than professional

Also, people did not know how to find a professional interpreter
for themselves, or who would meet the cost. Even when they did know
how to find one they had difficulties in obtaining their services.
The service cannot always be booked unless you speak English. Other
difficulties mentioned were lack of reliability, no interpreter who
speaks their language available when they need one, or a booked
interpreter turning up too late or not at all.

Experiences of professional interpreters are mixed. Some people had
positive things to say, including their knowledge of the way
service procedures worked and of specialist terms, especially in
medical or legal matters. They also mentioned how important their
code of confidentiality was and that they held no hidden personal
or institutional agenda. In particular, good experiences of
professional interpreters were built up over time with the same
interpreter. This meant that they could get to know and trust

But most were critical of the interpreters who had been provided
for them. Nedim, a Kurdish man, says: “I went to housing and they
brought an interpreter. We asked them to pay my housing but they
told me they didn’t pay my rent anymore. So I came back and brought
one of my friends. He explained my situation and they accepted it.
This is the difference between good and bad [interpreting]. I know
that the interpreter didn’t interpret my words exactly. That’s why
they refused me the first time. Actually, I look on [an interpreter
from a service provider] as a government agent. I don’t feel

Most people had used informal networks to obtain interpreters.
Informal networks of family and friends were more available, could
help with everyday matters and with transport, and did not require
payment. There were drawbacks to this including embarrassment,
concerns about privacy, a lack of knowledge of service procedures
and specialist terms. Generally, however, people preferred drawing
on these informal networks in all but important legal and medical

Di Wu, a Chinese man, says: “My friends are good enough, they will
interpret for me… I may need help to buy something or solve some
problem. The advantage is that my friends will treat me sincerely
and they will always tell me the truth and provide good
suggestions… Professional interpreters have too many clients each
day, they do not have the time and energy to please

Several recommendations came out of the research. Service providers
who use professional interpreters or bilingual staff should receive
training about differences within communities in terms of age,
gender, dialect and political context. When people are accompanied
by family or friends who act as interpreters, service providers
need to use simple language that can be easily communicated.

Where possible, procedures for professional interpreters should
include taking responsibility for a “case load” of clients with
whom they establish an ongoing relationship based on trust.

People should be provided with more information about how to access
professional interpreters. Professional interpreters should clarify
their role when they meet their clients and should be prepared to
take on a more proactive role.

Short courses on providing interpreters should be made available to
members of different ethnic minorities who are bilingual,
especially those regularly acting as interpreters for family
members or friends. Such courses could provide information about
health, legal and other service procedures and specialist

In our research we found that what is being put forward in
professional codes of practice is not the same as the qualities
that are valued by the people who need interpreters. People who
speak little or no English usually need to use a professional
interpreter at some stage. They recognise that knowledge of service
procedures and specialist terms is beneficial. However, they see
the role of interpreter as involving more than the transfer of
words between people who do not speak the same language. In
particular, they value a proactive interpreter and place particular
emphasis on their personal character, attitude and trustworthiness.
They want the advantages of familiarity and knowledge of the person
who is acting as interpreter for them.

This article reports on findings from a research
project looking at user views of access to services with
interpreters. It examines the experiences and preferences of people
who use professional interpreters and informal networks of family
and friends. The researchers found that people generally preferred
to use informal networks as these were developed over time and
based on trust. Professional interpreters were valued for their
knowledge of specialist terms and procedures.

Further Information

  • The full report, Access to Services With Interpreters: User
    Views by Claire Alexander, Rosalind Edwards and Bogusia Temple with
    Usha Kanani, Liu Zhuang, Mohib Miah and Anita Sam, is published by
    the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and is available from www.jrf.org.uk
  • M Robinson, Communication and Health in a Multi-Ethnic Society,
    Policy Press, 2002
  • Department of Health, Guidance on Developing Local
    Communication Support Services and Strategies, DoH Equality and
    Human Rights Group, 2004
  • Institute of Linguistics’ Code for Professional Conduct and
    other information: www.iol.org.uk

Contact the authors



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