Direct end users of interpreting services need to be included in the Community of Practice for Interpreting

This week, on the 11th and 12th September, I attended a very good interpreting conference in Newcastle University: talking to the world. Two days of inspiring presentations and discussions, networking and socialising with interpreting on centre stage. I always feel it is a privilege to take part in such forums.

One presentation in particular grabbed my attention; the role of the educational interpreter: A dynamic model by Herculene Kotz√©, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa.

Herculene explains how at a superficial level the role of the interpreter seems to be well defined in most codes of conduct, despite some controversies. In South Africa, there are 11 official languages. As such, universities face the true challenge to decide on their language strategy and choose official languages to use in the classroom and still remain inclusive. North West University, Potchefstroom decided to use English and Afrikaans. As such, educational interpreters are used to interpret lectures every week. In the UK, they would be called public service interpreters. 

In her study, she looked at what end users expected from their interpreters, what interpreters truly did in reality and what interpreters are supposed to do when abiding by the code of conduct. She looked at ways to reconcile what end users expect and what interpreters do on the ground on a daily basis, such as clarify, explain, reformulate and simplify.

As I was listening to Herculene, my mind was cast back to my own research and the writing I had just submitted to my supervisors where I strongly recommended that communities of practice for interpreting MUST include 'end users' of interpreting services.

When does 'end users' mean? 

The terms 'End Users' or 'Users' define any party communicating via an interpreter. In the context of conference interpreting, end users are referenced as 'Delegates'. In the context of public service interpreting, community interpreting, court and police interpreting, end users can be  the 'Service Providers' (English speaking person who provides public services such as a police officer, solicitor, doctor or housing officer) or the 'Client', term mainly used in the UK to define the non English speaking person.

Within interpreting users, we can differentiate direct and indirect interpreting users.

A direct interpreting user is a person who communicates with another person via an interpreter in settings such as a meeting, conference, court hearing, medical consultation or housing assessment needs meeting. An indirect user is a person who organises or purchases interpreting services. Nowadays, interpreting agencies book interpreters, get feedback from interpreting performance, manage interpreting needs but are not present during the interpreting assignment.

As I was listening to Herculene, I also remembered the Language Day organised by the organisation Freedom from Torture in September 2012. A Turkish interpreter, also psychologist had engaged in a qualitative research and interviewed Turkish direct end users about their thoughts on their interpreters. As she spoke Turkish, she could ask direct questions and get feedback.  I still remember the reaction of the audience when she explained that the Turkish end users she had questioned preferred interpreters who were helpful, who could give advice, go the extra mile and solve certain issues.  So here again, direct end users are expressing what is useful to them, what they need and what makes a difference to them.

We are not used to that. For the simple reason that direct end users do not have a voice. They are not systematically represented in interpreting conferences or in interpreting professional organisation meetings. It may not be said as abruptly as I am going to say it but this is what everyone thinks: 'consider yourself lucky to have someone who speaks your language; it is expensive and it is a nuisance. On top of it all, it costs money'. And I could add that the tabloids often remind the wider audience that it is the tax payer's money that pays for interpreting services in hospitals, schools, immigration services and access to social benefits.

Why do we attend so many debates about interpreting and the code of conduct, ethics and communication management in the absence of the non English direct users' voice?

At the European Commission, the Directorate General Interpretation (DG SCIC) at the European Commission often conducts research and provides questionnaires to their delegates to find out what they perceive as quality and client satisfaction.In the world of business interpreting, if the direct end users are not satisfied, it is as simple as letting the interpreter know straight away; they either never call the interpreter again, refuse to carry on with the meeting or do not pay. But in the world of public service interpreting, direct users are often so grateful to get an interpreter to help them access public services that they simply go along. When they blame the interpreter, it sometimes is used as a strategy to gain time but this is only a minority of cases. 

The disconnection between the interpreter and the direct end user is often reinforced by the increased use of remote interpreting where the interpreter is on a different site or at the end of a telephone line. 

photo from

Finally, how could the direct end user communicate their feedback? They do not speak the official language and I do not think that public services are too keen to pay an interpreter to find out how the interpreting assignment was carried on from their point of view.

In September 2012, following the Public Service Interpreting and Translation Network Group conference, 10 recommendations were made; recommendation 7 is relevant.

There is a need to explore ways of harnessing feedback on PSIT from the key stakeholders in the process, the non-English speakers, whose views usually go unreported, for lack of a reliable reporting mechanism.

Photo A Gerada

The PSIT NG was pleased to welcome Mr Jabeer Butt, Vice Chair Race Equality Association who gave us a true insight of the challenges of the non English direct end users when accessing appropriate interpreting services in the mental health sector.

I truly hope that via the community of practice model that my research (PhD) encourages, the interpreting profession engages with direct end users who do not speak the official language and generates opportunities to open a dialogue that would project the profession and its values at a more professional and mature level. I could be naive, but I am looking forward to the day when I can attend a conference on interpreting services with presentations from direct ends users who will tell us exactly how they perceive the code of conduct, ethics and their needs. Call me optimistic, but I am certain that day is not too far if we all communicate, engage and commit as a community of practice.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author’s own and should not be taken to represent the official positions of universities, networks or associations.


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