Monday, July 23, 2012

European Directive on Court Interpreting

At the beginning of this month I went to a conference on court interpreting at the Jaume I University in Castellón de la Plana (Castelló in Valencian), which is on the coast one hour north of Valencia. I went because the people organising it at Castellón have been very kind to me, and because many court interpreters in Spain and elsewhere are Advanced Native Translators, not Experts. Furthermore, even if they're paid, many of the Native ones are only occasional Professionals. I ought to have known that at a university meeting there would be little presence or discussion of non-experts or non-professionals, but I did learn some interesting things.

There were two ‘hot topics’. One was the tussle going on in the UK since the recent privatisation of court interpreting services and the government’s determination to put it all in the hands of a single commercial agency. It’s a professional matter and so beyond the scope of this blog, but one consequence is that Expert Interpretation in the British courts has receded for the moment in favour of untrained and untested interpreters. Click here if you want to know more.

The other was the impact in Spain of the European Union Directive on court interpreting (see Reference). It's as remarkable for what it doesn't say as for what it does. We were told that the gaps are due to the fact that EU directives must be approved by all the Member States and so they represent a lowest common denominator.

A good example is training. The Directive is progressive in that it requires Member States to
"request those responsible for the training of judges, prosecutors and judicial staff involved in criminal proceedings to pay special attention to the particularities of communicating with the assistance of an interpreter."
This is something that is indeed necessary. In some jurisdictions, lawyers even regard interpreters as an interference rather than a help, because they blunt the cut and thrust of cross-examination. On the other hand, nothing is said about the training for the interpreters themselves. Is it because the delegates couldn't agree about what kind of training is suitable, or who should provide it, or how to pay for it? The people at the Castellón meeting seemed to take it for granted that in Spain the universities should be recognised as the providers. However, that's not realistic. The universities are ill-equipped to provide the training at the level and in the numbers needed. Valid candidates for training don't necessarily meet university admission conditions and are in urgent situations where what they need is a 'crash course'. In Canada, the most successful court interpreter programme, the one at Vancouver Community College, is given outside the universities at the community college level.

A related consideration is pay. What's the point of getting training for a highly responsible job if the pay is miserly compared with what conference interpreters and lawyers earn? Several Castellón participants mentioned it, and it's a problem in Canada too (see References). Yet the Directive has not a word to say about it.

It's 'motherhood' to say that all court interpreters ought be trained Experts. Justice demands it, and also expediency. If a mistrial is declared because of faulty interpreting, there are serious costs and delays. The Directive goes some way to offering a recourse for bad translation:
"Suspected or accused persons have the possibility to complain that the quality of the translation is not sufficient to safeguard the fairness of the proceedings."
But it only mentions it in connection with written translations; and "complain" falls far short of the "grounds for an appeal" that's available, for example, in Canada.

So the reality is that court interpretation will continue to be provided by Native Interpreters for a long time yet, because
* Administrations won't or can't pay what Expert Interpreters would cost. (The Spanish government is all too obviously in no position to incur any additional administrative expenditure at present.)

* Without attractive remuneration, there's no incentive to get training.

* In any case, training facilities are completely inadequate.

* Even if all the above were taken care of, it would be virtually impossible, in this era of population shifts, to keep up with new demands for 'exotic' languages. The whole community interpreting movement in Canada started with the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people and their language in the 1970s, and there was another crisis two decades later when a sizable community of Somali language speakers came on the scene. In Spain, it's been the several Eastern European languages that weren't taught here.
Nevertheless, it's to the credit of the Directive that it does offer one innovative avenue of hope. This is its encouragement of remote interpreting using videoconferencing:
"When using videoconferencing for the purpose of remote interpretation, the competent authorities should be able to rely on the tools that are being developed in the context of European e-Justice (e.g. information on courts with videoconferencing equipment or manuals)."
The implication is that the courts will accept videoconference interpreting as legally valid. It would make it possible to supply interpreters from a small pool of Experts to widely dispersed courtrooms. It requires investment in electronic equipment and research (or trial and error) to determine the best set-ups, but the internet provides a network infrastructure that can be used for other purposes besides interpreting.

Directive 2010/64/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 October 2010 on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings. Click here for the text.

Presente y futuro de la traducción y la interpretación ante los tribunales en Europa. VIII Jornadas de Traducción Jurídica, Universitat Jaume I, Departament de Traducció i Comunicació, Castelló de la Plana, 2-4 July 2012. The programme is here.

Mike Sadava. Misinterpretation: crisis in Canadian court interpreting. The Lawyers Weekly, 2010. Click here for the article.


  1. Thank you for an interesting overview of the situation in Spain. Two things to bear in mind though. This is a first step. It is the first time the European Commission has succeeded in putting court interpreting into a legal text. As in practically all other areas of EU cooperation and standard-setting, changes are incremental.

  2. Second: the Member States have decided not to give the EU decision making powers or competence in the area of education policy. This means that under the current Treaty the EU could only make recommendations and that if the Member States set up professional qualifications for court interpreters, the EU could attempt to harmonies their recognition across the Meber States

  3. Hmmmm.... The editor freezes after a while and typos can no longer be corrected. :-) The last word is of course Member States.

    1. This is such a nice and interesting post! Ian is also brilliant posting his comments. Very well, said.

  4. Thank you, Ian, for the clarifications.

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