Interpreting and the police

A combination of globalisation and immigration has resulted in the UK’s public sector organisations experiencing an increased requirement for interpreting services. Many people, whether they are seeking asylum, or just looking to build a new life, enter the country unable to speak English, or speak English in varying degrees as a second language. In the last five years, the UK population has witnessed a net migration of approximately 1,000,000.

This change in the population has had many effects, both positive and negative including an increased and more flexible labour market, an increase in the number of people paying taxes, cultural diversity and increased innovation. Negative effects sometimes include security issues, an increase in crime, exploitation, difficulties integrating with local communities and increased pressure on public services.

The UK police have been preventing, detecting, dealing with crime and protecting the public peace since Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act 1829 created a full-time, professional police force for greater London, known as the Metropolitan Police. Today, there are 43 police forces in England and Wales.

The police use both face-to-face interpreters and telephone interpreters on a regular basis in order to conduct interviews, interrogations and take witness statements. The interpreters are required to interpret for persons detained, witnesses and other interlocutors.

Telephone interpreting is instant and ideal for an officer who requires an interpreter very quickly, whereas face-to-face interpreters need to be booked in advance and are used more frequently in police stations and custody suites.

In some cases, people detained or interviewed by the police can speak some English however, they will request an interpreter. This is because the interpreter will be able to explain the process, and they feel safe and secure having someone fluent in both their native tongue and English, to assist them with the language barrier – they feel their liberty depends on it.

Best practice interpreting

Given the importance and seriousness of the work our police forces do, it is very important that only suitably qualified and fully vetted interpreters undertake police assignments, regardless of whether it’s face-to-face or telephone. Interpreters who undertake police assignments are professionals, and have a wealth of experience in interpreting in this environment. If an appropriately qualified interpreter is not used, and the interpreting is not conducted to a satisfactory standard, it could result in a complete breakdown of the case, should it go to court.

It is important to remember that whilst an interpreter is required to interpret word for word, different words and gestures mean different things in different languages and cultures, and not every language has an exact equivalent word. An experienced interpreter will know exactly how to manage this, in order for the police to obtain the correct information, at the same time as ensuring the non-English speaker is heard appropriately.

A day in the life of a police interpreter

We interviewed Leo Hickey, an interpreter who has interpreted almost exclusively for the public sector in legal situations from English to Spanish and Spanish to English. We asked about the challenges of interpreting in police interviews.

Leo said “An interpreter hears words, but almost never sees the realities behind them, apart from the occasional exhibits. One of my favourite examples of this is my experience with bollards:

The solicitor said to the client “The police allege that you crashed into a line of bollards.”

“Spanish distinguishes several different objects, which in English would be called bollards, however I had no idea of knowing which kind of object was involved here. In such cases, one tactic is to encourage the non-English speaker to be the first to utter whatever word suits the reality known to them. This can usually be achieved by providing a generic or general interpretation of what has gone before. In this case I said:

“La policia alega que usted choco algo?” (“The police allege that you coincided with something?”).

“This elicited:

“Si, unos pivotes” – (“Yes, some bollards” – the type of which the non-English speaker knows to be relevant).

“Many criminal offences, legal concepts or fuguras do not coincide in Spanish and English, and it is important not to mislead an interlocutor into thinking that an English concept (e.g. offence) is identical to a Spanish concept, with which they may be familiar, or which sound familiar.”

Leo’s account highlights the importance of how important it is that the police use only qualified and experienced interpreters. At Capita TI, our interpreters are sourced locally in response to the specific requirements of our clients’ the qualifications, security vetting and experience are assured.

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