Bad interpreters or bad system?

The Swedish Tolkprojektet (interpreting project) has been working since 2008 to shed light on the situation of community interpreting in Sweden. They presented their conclusions and rounded off their project at a conference i Stockholm at the end of August. Their conclusions got quite a lot of press in Sweden, especially since they said that too many unqualified interpreters are used in court trials and hospitals. The news even made it into the Facebook and Twitter discussions. You can read articles in Swedish here, here and here. Read the conclusions here (in Swedish)

This is no news, for quite some time qualified and certified interpreters in Sweden have been struggling to get different Swedish authorities to understand that they need to raise their demands on interpreters’ qualifications. The Swedish system for recruiting community interpreters got a severe blow in the early nineties when interpreting was sold out from the municipality agencies in order to be exposed to competition. Instead of municipal interpreting agencies users of interpretation now had to deal with private agencies with a strong desire for gain. The interpreters were still the same people but now procured through different private agencies. Since agencies desired to raise their own income (private companies usually do, nothing wrong in that) and users of interpretation (hospitals, police, courts etc) were unhappy to pay more for the service, agencies started recruiting less qualified interpreters in order to lower the cost of interpreting fees.

The final blow came with the EU directive on public procurement. Interpretation services were administrated by purchasing staff also responsible for procuring paper, chairs, pens and so forth. Needless to say a ruthless race to the bottom began. Quality was nothing, low fees everything. Of course, agencies committed to always send a certified interpreter if available, but since it was more expensive for the agency to send a certified interpreter, it rarely happened. Actually interpreters reported that as they got their certification assignments went down. Another horrible tale about the agencies I heard during this period was that interpreters who were favored by the interpreting agency also were given assignments to top up their month (i.e. being able to almost survive on interpreting), the top up assignments were not necessarily in the interpreter’s working lanugages, it only had to be languages that he most likely mastered.

At that time (after the EU directive) I met with several procurement officers in my role as regional representative for AIIC trying to convince them to stress (and pay for) quality in their procurement, and they all had the same message: If the quality of the service delivered was poor, then the users would complain, the procurer had then broken his contract and would have to adapt, and worst case for the next round of call for tenders the situation would be solved.

Now, the problem with that argument is that:
1) users of interpretation rarely complain, because a) they are immigrants with little power and lack of knowledge on how to complain or b) they are stressed professionals (MDs, lawyers, social officers etc) how just deal with the situation as well as they can.
2) the conclusion that most Swedish users of interpretation draw when interpreting breaks down is often “interpreting doesn’t work” rather than “the interpreter was bad”. This is due to little experience with and exposure to interpretation.

People tend to just live with it and do the best they can. A few years ago some journalists and media started to discover the alarming situation and there were some articles, but the debate never really took off. Mostly, I believe because, again, the big group of individual users of community interpretation is a weak group with no strong public voice.

Now, it should be said that a lot of work has since then been done in Sweden to improve community interpreters’ competence and to certify as many interpreters as possible. There is also ongoing discussions about the agencies and their role in interpreting quality. Buyers of interpreting services have also increased their demand on the service delivered. But we are far from a well working, stable and situation, and for at least 10 of the past 20 years regression rather than development has been the term to describe the interpreting industry in Sweden.

And thanks to Tolkprojektet the spot light is now put on the absolute strict demand that we need to put on both courts, hospitals, police (society in short) and interpreting agencies as well as interpreters to make sure we provide good, secure interpretation for people in need of it. And of course also making sure that professional interpreters have a descent chance to survive on what they do for a living.

Update:
Read this post about outsourcing in the UK. And The liaison interpreter’s post about being “bad”.

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