Translating legal cultures

News last week of the Justice Select Committee’s report, ‘Interpreting and translation services and the Applied Language Solutions contract’, underlined the importance of high standards of translating and interpreting to the maintenance of any equitable judicial system. An article in last week’s Guardian reported that the outsourcing a year ago has been ‘nothing short of shambolic’, with the result that trials have been caused to collapse and suspects have been unnecessarily remanded in custody; at the same time, evidence of regular mistranslation by unqualified interpreters clearly compromises the credibility of the legal process. According to the report, central to the reported chaos has been the failure of the Ministry of Justice to understand the complex nature of court interpreting work. Outsourcing also led to a reduction in remuneration, meaning that many qualified professional interpreters with experience of legal translation have boycotted the new arrangements, with the result that an inadequate volume and quality of interpreting services have been available to courts and tribunals. The report is a substantial one, and the evidence included provides a fascinating insight into the intricacies of court interpreting work as well as into the practicalities of being a professional translator. I was particularly struck by the evidence of one professional translator, who underlined the extent to which court and legal interpreters require specific skills that are not required in interpreting in other fields: ‘We need to understand how long it takes to learn a foreign language to a certain standard, in order to be able to interpret from and into it within a specific sector. First of all it takes decades to learn the language itself and later you need to obtain a specific set of skills that are required in order to interpret. You need to be able to translate legal terminology within seconds during a court session and sometimes it is very difficult even for the best interpreters out there. You need to take into account that it is a job that requires due diligence, great listening and verbal skills, ability to transfer a vast amount of information that is encrypted in a different language within a short time frame.’

The ‘Translating Cultures’ theme is of direct relevance to explorations of the importance of language and interpreting in the legal sphere. Of particular interest is the project in this area at the University of Glasgow on ‘Translation and Asylum Claims: Matters of law, language and silence’, full details of which are available here.


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