Just as you thought the court interpreting contract was delivering savings... Two unrelated reports from independent sources (a solicitor and a court reporter) resurface:


Case study

But a spokesman for the MOJ said in January: “Since we introduced a new interpreting contract in 2012 we have spent £38 million less on language service fees than was projected to be spent under the previous arrangements.”

A case study at its best...

Whoever thought public service interpreting was easy or trivial...

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In the case of Hak v St Christopher’s Fellowship the claimant, who had some understanding of English, requested the assistance of an interpreter in advance of the tribunal hearing. Unfortunately there were no interpreters available on the day of the hearing. The claimant was asked at the outset of the hearing whether he wanted to proceed without an interpreter. He confirmed that he did and, when his claim was struck out, he appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal.

The EAT held that a reasonable opportunity had been afforded to the Claimant to have an interpreter as he had been given the choice of proceeding with the hearing, without an interpreter, or waiting until an interpreter could be found. Provided the Judge was satisfied that the litigant understood the choices available, this was sufficient.

It should be noted that, where a litigant’s understanding of English is poor, a choice for the hearing to go ahead without an interpreter should not be given and the hearing should only proceed once an interpreter has been sourced. 

Cost pressures affecting public bodies are risking the quality of translation services, a survey has suggested – potentially creating further costs through medical misunderstandings, delays to court proceedings and other errors.

There is now a “critical shortage’ of skilled language professionals willing to work in the public sector, according to the Association of Translation Companies (ATC), with providers increasingly “walking away from public sector opportunities”. This is because smaller companies especially are struggling to break even as public organisations try to save every penny in their contract negotiations.

Following an in-depth survey, the ATC says: “A near unanimous view is that the procurement of language services is treated too much as a commodity with insufficient understanding of how to assess and monitor quality of service. There is a preeminent over-focus by procurers on the cost of service, with a disconnect in understanding of the quality that can be provided under any agreed budget.”

The public sector as a whole is the largest client for language services providers.

The ATC is particularly concerned at the apparent failure to learn lessons from the Ministry of Justice procurement in 2011, despite an in-depth examination of what went wrong by the Commons Justice Committee in 2013.

The Crown Commercial Service and the Ministry of Justice are currently procuring language services worth hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money for government departments, and the ATC is worried that short-term cost savings are again taking precedence over quality and long-term value.

The world's governments would be lost without interpreters. Meet the old hands at the UN headquarters and the students who will help us understand one another in the years ahead. Without these guys, nothing gets done.

It’s Friday morning at the UN headquarters in New York and Sophie Louyot – chiffon scarf wrapped tightly around her neck – is marching around the corridors of power. In a few minutes a discussion will start in the recently renovated General Assembly Hall about changing the archaic make-up of the Security Council. As acting head of the organisation’s interpretation service, Louyot will need to make sure all of her staff are promptly in place to help the 193 member nations decipher the formal prologues and impassioned speeches of each other’s delegates.

Perched above meetings in booths that curve around the circumferences of the main debating halls, interpreters provide an invaluable service, often making it look far easier than it is. Hunched over microphones, they peer through tinted windows at the delegates, simultaneously interpreting the audio feed from their headphones (usually into their mother tongue, often fired out in a rapid staccato to keep up with the interlocutor below). The mental acrobatics taking place are second to none, which may explain why interpreters only work half-hour shifts at a time.

“You have to be listening and you have to be talking at the same time,” says Belgian-born French interpreter Véronique Vandegans. “If you interpret literally that isn’t going to work. And if you have time, which isn’t usually the case, you have to be able to correct yourself.” As well as making split-second decisions and performing multiple tasks, understanding what is happening doesn’t simply involve following the speech. Interpreters, whose salaries start at about €44,000, have to be abreast of the inner machinations of the UN, from jargon to current affairs. This is a seven-days-a-week job where, in their half days and free time, staff need to be reading up on official documentation and making sure they are consuming media in the multiple languages from which they interpret. “But the main language we have to master is our own,” says Vandegans who, for a recent meeting, had to learn how a nuclear power plant worked, along with all the accompanying vocabulary. “You need to be able to express yourself in a way that is easily understood by all delegates.”