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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