A day in the life of a police interpreter

Leo is a part-time freelance interpreter who interprets exclusively for the public sector, on behalf of Capita TI.

Approximately 40% of the non-English speakers whom Leo interprets for are native Spanish, approximately 30% are Latin American Spanish speakers and the remaining 30% are people who opt to be dealt with via the medium of Spanish, having picked up a smattering of the language during a stay in Spain, on their way from their country of origin to the UK.

We asked Leo about the world of an interpreter, and in his own words, he has shared below what he refers to as ‘several incidents, accidents, expedients and even a few achievements’ in police interpreting that is all part of a day in the life of an interpreter!

The importance of professional interpreting

Occasionally I am called upon by the prosecution or the defence in a criminal case to provide secondary interpreting – assessing and reporting on the work of another interpreter. On one such occasion, I was sent a tape of a police interview, whose admissibility in evidence had been challenged by the defence. I was asked to advise as to whether it should be admissible in the trial, and it took me only a short time to report with absolute confidence, that it should not. It begins as follows:

Police officer (giving a detained person the caution): “You have the right to remain silent. However, it may harm your defence if you fail to mention when questioned, something which you later rely on in court. Anything you say may be given in evidence.”

Interpreter: “You have the right to remain silent, but I advise you to answer these gentlemen’s questions because, otherwise you will pay dearly for it.”

Best practice dictates that interpreters should interpret everything that is said, and remain impartial to the situation.

In this case, the previous interpreter had not only summarised what the office said, but also offered opinion/suggestion to the detainee – causing the trial to go on for longer than necessary.

Stand-by interpreting

A by-product of the fact that most Spanish speakers in the UK know some English is the frequent use of the ‘stand-by’ mode of interpreting. This is the mode in which the people involved in the dialogue agree, either in advance or as the exchange goes along, that they shall proceed in English, but that the interpreter will speak up if anyone requests help or if the interpreter detects a misunderstanding.

This mode has its own difficulties, one being that the interpreter must remain very alert, even when not actively participating, because he or she may be called upon to interpret something that has already been said.

A Spanish speaking victim, is explaining in English how she was assaulted:

Police officer: “What did you do when the assailants left your house?”

Victim: “I remained asleep.”

This confused the police officer because up to that point, the victim had obviously been wide awake. It was clearly a misinterpretation of ‘quedé dormida’ however, the interpreter must be careful not to appear to be contradicting the victim, whose evidence is crucial, or imparting to her something different from what she has said:

Interpreter: “There are good linguistic reasons to consider that when the speaker says she remained asleep, she means that she fell asleep.”

The victim immediately confirmed this and apologised for her mistake in English.

Interpreting in difficult situations

A recurrent difficulty that I personally face is the risk of laughing or giggling. This may sound silly, but in the rich life of an interpreter, you come across many stories and situations, some of which can be amusing – but of course, strict professionalism has to be maintained at all times! At one particular interview however, the investigator, solicitor and I were all unable to speak for laughing, while the detained person remained impassive. We were watching CCTV footage of the detained person riding a bicycle and repeatedly falling off, which prompted the following conversation:

The police officer asked: “Why do you keep falling off the bike?”

The detained person replied: “I’m trying to put the jacket on whilst riding the bike.”

The police officer asked: “Why don’t you just get off the bike?”

The detained person replied: “Because the police are after me in the car.”

The police officer asked: “What are those items you are carrying under your arm?”

The detained person replied: “They’re the other jackets I took from the shop.”

The police officer asked: “How many jackets did you take from the shop?”

The detained person replied: “Six.”

The police officer asked: “And why are you trying to put one on while carrying the other five under your arm?”

The detained person replied: “No, if you look closely, you’ll see that what I am really trying to do is put on the six jackets, I thought if I was wearing them, the police wouldn’t notice I had taken them”.

At the end of the interview, the police officer, solicitor and I agreed that we hoped no one would ever listen to the tape!

Interpreting in other languages

Believe it or not, I’ve been assigned an interpreting task, only to find that the non-native English speaker doesn’t speak either English or Spanish. 

I attended an assignment for a Polish gentleman who requested a Spanish interpreter, but he was unable to follow the questions in either Spanish or English. When asked why he requested a Spanish interpreter rather than a Polish interpreter, he replied:

“I have never been in a Spanish speaking country and I wanted to practice my Spanish.”

More extremely, a conversation between a solicitor and a detained person who knows no Spanish whatsoever goes as follows:

Solicitor: “Why did you request a Spanish interpreter?”

Detained person: “Because I don’t speak English.”

Solicitor: “I mean, why did you ask for a Spanish interpreter and not a Polish interpreter when you don’t know any Spanish?”

Detained person: “Because I want to learn Spanish.”

These stories recount some of the realities of my interpreting career and are the reasons that make interpreters working with the police, at least this interpreter, enjoy what they do. Yes, it can be tricky, challenging, unpredictable, frustrating, crazy and precarious, however, you do see life! 

Interpreting in these situations can often be challenging, but it’s important as an interpreter to remain professional, calm and unbiased.

Qualified interpreters, like Leo have years’ of experience and have received the relevant training in order to be able to handle and interpret even the most difficult situations.



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