Framework Fantasies: number of interpreters working under FWA
We are now over 6 months into the MOJ's Framework Agreement (FWA) for interpreting in courts, and throughout, rather than treating interpreters as stakeholders in the judicial process, the politicians and officials at the MOJ have persisted in attempting to impose the Framework on interpreters and in the delusion that they can force highly-qualified, intelligent, freelance professionals to work for them under clearly unacceptable arrangements.
One of the Framework Fantasies is that interpreters are low-skilled automatons, who just spurt out translations word for word, expendable Google Translate skivvies who can easily be replaced from amongst all the newcomers in this country and, if it weren't for a few “militants”, the FWA would operate smoothly, everything would settle down and the "teething problems" could be forgotten.
The reality is that the professional interpreters, who are able to facilitate efficient and effective communication in court, are voting with their feet: refusing to work both for the chosen contractor and, in many cases, for any body which participates directly in the FWA. Good interpreters are intelligent individuals and well able to assess the current situation. We can see that there is no future at all in public service interpreting while this farcical FWA persists.
In fact, in a recent letter to John Leech, Crispin Blunt answered my MP’s question about how many ALS interpreters are registered on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters. Applied Language Solutions supplied the information that they had 301 NRPSI interpreters as at 6 July 2012. Unverified figures provided by ALS are known to be less than reliable and it is not in its interest to understate this number. So, at best, 13% of NRPSI interpreters might be available to work under the Framework Agreement and it is clear that at least 87% of NRPSI interpreters reject it outright.
Both ALS-Capita and MOJ representatives have repeatedly maintained that properly qualified, experienced and vetted interpreters are signing up to work under the FWA in droves. They seem to think that by repeating it frequently, they can make it come true: that, if they can make interpreters believe it, they will follow like sheep.
We know that ALS/Capita has made many statements about the numbers of interpreters working under the new arrangements quoting wildly varying figures. The context always implies that the number relates to proper interpreters working under the FWA, but the words are always suitably vague, so that they cannot be pinned down.
The MOJ surely could be expected to do better? It wouldn't be hard to be a touch more impartial, objective and reliable than Gavin Wheeldon's creation.
In an article in the Independent on the 21 May 2012, the MOJ is quoted as follows: "Close to 3,000 interpreters are now working under this contract."
In a letter dated 31st May 2012 to Sir Alan Beith, the Chief Executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service, Peter Handcock, answers a question about how many interpreters are providing services via ALS.
He explains that each language for which an interpreter is qualified counts separately "as a single entity" giving "a figure of almost 3,000 interpreters (by language)". The normal terminology for this is "3,000 language listings", as saying "3,000 interpreters" lends itself to misleading quotes such as the one in the Independent mentioned above.
Mr Handcock continues: "This equates to around 1,500 individual interpreters providing services under the contract." In actual fact, it is extremely improbable that 3,000 language listings equates to 1,500 interpreters properly qualified in all their listed language pairs. Why could Mr Handcock not tell the Chair of the Justice Select Committee how many people were actually providing services as interpreters? Perhaps, because the figure is substantially lower than 1,500? Or maybe the 3,000 figure is poppycock? Is disingenuous obfuscation a reasonable way to reply to the Chair of the Justice Select Committee? Or could it be possible that Mr Handcock really is blithely unaware of what is happening in the service for which he is responsible?
Similar information was conveyed to the House of Lords on the 9th July 2012 during a debate instigated by Baroness Coussins. Lord McNally said: "At the moment there are about 1,500 interpreters under contract and they are equivalent to about 3,000 interpreter persons, which means that many of them speak two or more languages."
Anyone knowledgeable about the realities of legal interpreting in the UK will instantly recognize this as twaddle, because the vast majority of legal interpreters work in only one language pair. There are some combinations of languages where it is more common to work in multiple language pairs e.g. Urdu<>English and Panjabi<>English or Cantonese<>English and Mandarin<>English, but most interpreters have only one pair for which they are properly qualified to interpret.
The proposition presented by Lord McNally and Peter Handcock might be taken at face value by those unfamiliar with the field because misconceptions about what is involved in interpreting are common.
The most high-profile type of interpreting is conference interpreting and people may be aware that it is common for a conference interpreter to work with multiple languages. However, it is common only where the interpreting is in one direction i.e. the interpreter understands a number of languages, but speaks only in his or her native tongue. Court interpreting is bi-directional i.e. you interpret to and from both languages in the pair. Few interpreters are qualified or capable of interpreting bi-directionally between multiple pairs of languages to a high standard.
The second misconception is expressed in Baroness Sharples' question: "how many languages each interpreter is expected to speak?" A legal interpreter doesn't just have to "speak" a language - social chit-chat or getting by communicating in everyday situations - the interpreter has to interpret between two languages and needs specialised terminology in both, a huge breadth of vocabulary in both etc. I have degree-level French and Russian and "I speak" a bit of Spanish and Italian, but I only interpret professionally between Polish and English. If holiday-level language skills are included, then 1,500 interpreters could easily become 3,000, or far more, “interpreter-persons”.
My arguments above are confirmed by the actual figures provided to me by the National Register of Public Service Interpreters. Currently 86% of NRPSI interpreters are registered for one language pair only, 12% interpret in two language pairs and 3% in three language pairs. The ratio of language listings to interpreters is 1.17, which means you would expect to have 17% more language listings than interpreters - not 100% more as Lord McNally claimed!
It is a matter for embarrassment, to say the least, that this was presented as a serious proposition in the House of Lords and to the Chair of the Justice Committee. It points to dilution of standards and quality on a massive scale, which is wholly incompatible with complying with the EU Directive on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings, due to be fully operative in October 2013.