Recently the interpreting industry has been in the media in both France and the UK, the most recently publicized being the catastrophe that occurred last year when the UK government contracted a private company to provide court interpreting services and this company struggled to cope with the demands. In France, the interpreting industry has also been a topic of discussion of late and as a French student currently pursuing translation studies in France, I feel concerned about how interpreters and translators are perceived and treated. I am from the Lorraine region in the North-East of France, and on the 14th February this year, a local newspaper called Le Républicain Lorrain published an article explaining how difficult it can be nowadays to be a court interpreter in France.
To those in the language industry, it is a constant source of frustration that translators and interpreters are often not well-respected for their skills, and sometimes the fees that they command for their important work sometimes come under scrutiny. Translators can sometimes be paid as little as €0.01 per word, and with agencies all over the world there are many that try to exploit translators and look for the cheapest instead of the most qualified. Nowadays in France, another problem within the language field is coming to the forefront. Unlike most translators, interpreters are usually well-paid, and those who work for the courts have even seen their hourly wage rate increasing… but if they could only receive the wage!
In recent years in France court interpreters have in some cases had to deal with up to one year delays in payment and in these cases they have threatened to stop working. In 2008, interpreters in France obtained an increase in their hourly wage rate, from €11 to €24 per hour, which gave them some hope regarding how their job is considered. However, this hope was in vain. Still nothing has changed as they are continually being paid with huge delays (up to 1 year and sometimes more) in certain regions of France.
In the past few years, as a result of increased immigration in France the demand for interpreters in the courts has risen, however as interpreters are still being paid with delays some refuse to work and therefore the quality of interpreting services is degraded as replacement interpreters are sought to cope with demands. A similar situation has occured in the UK recently which is still ongoing – in 2011 the British government signed an agreement with a private translation agency called Applied Language Solutions (ALS) for court interpreting services and this came into effect as of 2012. As all criminals who do not speak English have the right to follow procedures in their own language, there is a huge demand in the UK given the multicultural nature of the country. This agreement was signed with a view to the government achieving significant cost savings but there was little knowledge at the time of the complexities of court interpreting or knowledge of the required working conditions, including pay for interpreters. This agreement allowed the government to save £18 million but considerably reduced the quality of interpreting services.
Why? It quickly became clear that ALS could not meet the demands for interpreters so service levels were not being met. In addition the agency reduced the remuneration of interpreters by 50% and refused to pay travel expenses. Consequently, most of the interpreters refused to work in those conditions and ALS in turn was stuck and began to hire anyone who would accept them. The quality of the services decreased awfully, provoking serious mistakes as most of the interpreters were not qualified. For instance, it was reported that on one occasion when a judge accused a defendant of ‘perverting the course of justice’, an interpreter who was obviously less than qualified to interpret in the courts, interpreted this as if the judge was accusing him of ‘being a pervert’. Mistakes such as these can lead to serious consequences and this situation could easily happen in France if the government continues to pay interpreters with such delays.
But how interpreters can cope with that? Why is this happening? The problem seems to lie in the budget for court fees and with the cases in both the UK and France, seems to be wider issue than a localized one. Indeed, although the fees for interpreters increased by 13% in 2013 in France, it is still not enough to cover all expenses and paying interpreters seems to be the least of their worries.
If the situation does not change, the best that qualified interpreters can do in order to show how essential they are is to stop working and they will all realize that without them, justice could not be dispensed.
By Elodie Miliani
Elodie is from France and is studying for a Masters in Foreign Languages and Modern Translation Tools at the Université de Lorraine. She is currently working with DCU LS as a trainee with our project management team.