A few years ago we had a plasterer working in our living
room. He was a real good plasterer, my husband said that he wanted a good
professional because if it’s not done right the walls are not polished but
scarred and we are the ones that will have to live with the results. As he was
working, making it look so easy, I asked him how long it had taken him to
become a good plasterer to which he replied 5 years. He said he underwent his
training and started working straight away but it still took him 5 years to get
to the stage where he could work with speed, accuracy and quality.

When I first took my DPSI (Diploma in Public Service
Interpreting) course in 2007 I thought interpreting was going to be a “piece of
cake” for me, after all I started learning English at the age of 10, by 13 or
14 I was fairly fluent and since then I have had always been in contact with
the language and had plenty of practice, watching English/American films,
reading articles, cultivating friendships with English people that were living
in my home country Portugal and then moving to the UK in 2006, where my contact
with the language increased dramatically. Now 6 years after I took my DPSI, I
confess that at the beginning I didn’t have a clue of what the job really
encompasses. I took my exam and passed it with flying colours but when it came
to the crunch and I found myself on my first interpreting job in court, that is
when I realised how underprepared I actually was. The whole scenario at court
was quite intimidating, the judge, the jury, the barristers, the
wigs…fortunately the case was over very quickly and I made it! (or should I
say, I got away with it) From that time onwards it has been a learning curve
that I feel, 6 years on, still has not stopped and will never really do so. I
have come to appreciate how difficult it is to be a good interpreter. You see,
most people that I talk to, think that an interpreter doesn’t have to think too
hard, he or she only has to convey the idea or the meaning of what is being
said or asked into another language. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
As I started gaining experience in courts and police I came to realise how
important details are. Interpreters don’t have to convey only the general
meaning or idea of what is being said, instead they have to interpret the exact
meaning, all the details, they cannot let any piece of information to get “lost
in translation”, as this will be done at somebody’s expense, the defendant or
the victim.

The type of questions that a defendant, victim or witness
are asked during a trial can be so subtle that one could almost think they are
irrelevant: The colour of a car, what difference does it make? The colour of a
piece of clothing – black, dark grey, or blue, does it really matter? What
difference does it make whether the incident happened at around “9ish” or towards
9:30? How many people were present, 2 or 3? I dealt with a case where the
person I was interpreting for nearly went from being the victim to the
perpetrator, so do details really matter? Well they do and an awful lot! The
difference might lead to a defendant misunderstanding the question, it might
lead to a witness not being considered credible, and ultimately it might lead to
a miscarriage of justice.

Some might think: but doesn’t the interpreter do mostly
consecutive interpreting in a trial/court scenario? Well, true but I personally
find that consecutive interpreting is actually harder than simultaneous. When I
do simultaneous interpreting in a conference I find that as long as I can “stay
close” to the speaker, I don’t have to retain much in my memory, I can just
hear in one language and immediately interpret into my target language. When
doing consecutive interpreting, very often it is harder as one has to memorise
a lot of information that is being said in just a few seconds of speech. For
instance only 15 to 20 seconds of speech can contain a lot of details. Is it
important to retain every single piece of information? It certainly is.

Also when it comes to the legal jargon, for as much
preparation you may do when you take your DPSI, you will never be able to
remember all the terminology as each case is different. It is really only with
experience that an interpreter becomes better and better and he or she should
naturally have the curiosity to increase their skills.

Then there is the factor of confidence. Confidence to speak
up when you cannot hear. Confidence to interpret before the whole court,
confidence to interpret before a colleague that might be sat in the audience
working for the defence solicitor. Confidence to ask if you didn’t quite
understand the question.

As time was passing by and I was gaining more experience I
realised how difficult interpreting is and how skilled one has to be. When working
on a translation, one has the time to look up a certain word on the dictionary,
time to do a search on the internet to find the exact word. An interpreter just
does not have that time. An interpreter needs to be accurate, quick and yet not
lose vital information.

As we know in August 2011 the Ministry of Justice signed a
new framework agreement with Applied Language Solutions (ALS) which was later
on bought by Capita. There are numerous reports of “interpreters” being used by
this company that are simply people who have no qualifications, their criminal
records are not being checked, most of them do interpreting as a side job, as
it does not pay them enough to do it as a full time occupation and worse than
that, I have heard reports of solicitors complain that some of them don’t even
speak English!

The truth is, interpreting involves a lot more than simply
being able to speak two languages. It is a skill and skills need to be honed
before one can say they have truly mastered their profession. This process does
not happen overnight. Like the plasterer I mentioned earlier, if unskilled
interpreters are used the end result will not be a polished finish, rather it
will be a scarring of the entire justice system and all of us will be the ones
that have to live with that.