Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Behind Bars

Aida Martínez-Gómez

 Although Aida Martínez-Gómez lives quite close to me at Alicante, a mere 170 km away, I've only recently become aware of her research. She's one of the new generation of Spanish translatologists who got their PhDs since the 90s, when translation studies really took off in Spain. Now those graduates have spread to other countries, and so Aida also teaches at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. Her interest is in interpreters – interpreters in an unusual environment, namely prisons. She isn't the only researcher in this area; there's also Linda Rossato of the University of Bologna, who gave a paper at last year's Forli conference (see References). But it's a very special interest.

There are particular difficulties in collecting data in this area; for which reason, Linda says, "academia has tended to miss out on this productive field of research." First it's necessary to get permission to enter the prisons and meet the prisoners. Linda did it by giving Italian lessons. Aida laments that though she was able to make audio recordings, she was not allowed to make the videos she would have needed for studying body language.

So who needs interpreters? In both Italy and Spain, almost half the prison population is of foreign extraction, first or second generation. But this is a poor indication of language needs. In the case of Spain,
  • Many prisoners have learnt Spanish before or during incarceration
  • Many more knew Spanish anyway before they came here, because they're from Spanish-speaking Latin American or African countries.
Therefore only a minority needs help. Nevertheless, the need exists.

Today's videoconferencing technology would in theory allow the use of Professional Expert Interpreters in prison without the interpreter being physically located there. This is in fact what happens in a few jurisdictions, for example in the UK, where it's been analysed and criticised by Yvonne Fowler (see References). But it's still exceptional and for special occasions, considered expensive and not for daily life behind bars.
"The general reality of European Union penitentiaries as regards treatment of foreign inmates is one of difficulties that arise because of language barriers. These barriers leave them disadvantaged, as compared to the natives, in access to medical care and legal assistance, work training and even some of the games and recreational activities. To solve the problem so far as possible, there is reliance on help from fellow prisoners, and to a lesser extent on prison staff, who provide ad hoc interpreting services on a voluntary and altruistic basis."
And so we are back to Natural and Native Translators, and on an institutional scale. Linda sees it as a form of adult Language Brokering. Only in the UK, it seems, has the contribution of 'trusty' prisoner interpreters been officially recognised by the grade of Foreign National Prisoner Orderlies and some training given to them. But then the Brits also have a Foreign National Prisoners’ Resource Pack, "which is remarkable not only for its full content and the range of languages in which it is provided but also for including information directed to prison staff."

The situation in Spain is much as in the other EU countries. Except that in 2004 the Interior Ministry awoke to the dangers of Islamic terrorism and engaged 30 professional Arabic translators to deal with the communications of the many Moroccan and Algerian inmates. However, it was decreed that "the translators are not allowed into the interior of the institutions," so it hardly changes the life of the prisoners. And in general it looks as if this is an area that will rely for a long time to come on Natural and Native Translators.

  • Aída Martínez-Gómez Gómez. La integración lingüística en las instituciones penitenciarias españolas y europeas. (Linguistic integration in Spanish and European Penitentiaries). In Luis González and Pollux Hernúñez, eds., El español, lengua de traducción para la cooperación y el dialogo, Proceedings of the 4th El español, lengua de traducción Conference , Toledo, 2008, 485-500. The PDF version is here.
  • Linda Rossato. Inmates mediating between languages and cultures. Paper to 1st International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, University of Bologna at Forli, 2012. To be published in the proceedings, 2014.
  • Yvonne Fowler. Interpreting into the ether: interpreting for prison/court video link hearings. Paper to the Critical Link 5 conference, Aston University, UK, 2012. In Sandra Beatriz Hale et al., eds., The Critical Link 5: Quality in interpreting – a shared responsibility, Amsterdam, Benjamins, 2009. There's a PDF version at
Aida Martínez Gómez Gómez. Source: XING 
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