My job as an interpreter is too often telling deaf people they won’t get help
We, British Sign Language interpreters, are under threat from outsourcing and cuts – but our clients still need us.
“I’m really sorry, but we have done all we can.” I slowly pick my hands up to tell the 19-year-old eastern European girl in front of me that she is going to have to wipe her eyes and walk back out of the council offices, homeless, hungry and at risk.
The council officer to my left is wearing the same steely, but resigned look that I have seen on the face of every council officer I meet. I tell the deaf client, in sign language, that the appointment is over and watch her face fall. No matter how many times I do this – and it has been hundreds – it still hurts knowing that I am the person to tell them there is no hope left.
When it is over, I smile at the deaf person, who thanks me profusely for doing my job. She tells me that even though the council couldn’t help her get a flat, at least they provided an interpreter for the meeting – that wouldn’t have happened in her own country.
Despite the heavy heart I carry after these assignments, I love my job. I moved into the role quite unexpectedly after meeting a group of deaf children at an event and, after learning the basics, found that I had a real aptitude for sign language. Ten years later, I was able to qualify and started working on a freelance basis.
I now work across all public services – the NHS, courts, police stations, prison services, counselling, mental health, immigration, mediation and education. As a freelance, I manage my own diary. My next booking, made via an agency, is an antenatal appointment. That’s all the information I have. I don’t know if the client is newly pregnant, if they are having complications or if this is just a routine appointment.
But when I turn up another interpreter is waiting for the same client. We have been double-booked. After some pleasantries, I realise that the other interpreter is not a professional interpreter at all and has only a basic language certificate in BSL, probably enough to talk about what you are having for dinner and where you are going on holiday, but less able to describe the intricate workings of someone’s uterus. I send the other interpreter home and offer to sort it out with the agency later.
This is not uncommon. Most of our work is outsourced by the government to large interpreting agencies, which have undercut each other and then outsourced the work to specialists. After the agencies take their share, there isn’t much money left and we are often asked to take a pay cut – despite the government paying hand over fist for translation services.
Many larger agencies lack understanding about what we do, with BSL too often simply added onto the list of languages available. Sometimes the agencies bypass professional interpreters completely and opt for untrained signers who come cheap. This is particularly apparent with legal and court interpreting. Five years ago, legal work was taken on by the best interpreters. Now, they are all agency staff and often inexperienced. The results are clear, with thousands of court cases being adjourned due to failures in interpreting services.
Back at my appointment, when my heavily pregnant client arrives we sit together in the waiting room. She and her husband were going to decide whether or not to find out the sex of their baby today, but her husband has been held up at work and she doesn’t know what to do. We go in and I stand near the radiographer, who asks if my client wants to find out if it is a boy or girl. My client suggests the radiographer can tell me, and I write it down on a piece of paper so she can take it home and they can decide later. As we walk out, I ask my client whether she has a preference. She laughs and says she is ecstatic; she knows they are having a girl. Turns out, she is pretty good at lip-reading.
BSL makes up a tiny percentage of all interpreting services, but our funding comes from the same pot. Some people argue that many interpreters are paid to help those who should learn English, but deaf people cannot learn to hear.