Lost in translation: ‘You can be shocked by the bad news you have to interpret’

Lack of minimum standards for interpreters has knock-on effect for vulnerable people

Ali* had never worked as an interpreter when he applied for a job with one of the State’s leading interpreting and translation companies in 2019. He was surprised when the company immediately requested that he come in for an interview.

“The man talked to me for maybe two minutes and then said I’m going to print out a contract. To be honest there was no interview, they just knew I was in college. Half an hour later they called me asking that I go to a hospital for my first job.”

With no experience as an interpreter, Ali felt very nervous as he approached Dublin’s Coombe. “It felt very awkward being there. The wife didn’t speak English and her husband didn’t want me to be there. He had come to translate for his wife but the hospital said they needed an interpreter. Some men don’t like that.”

Despite being a competent English-Arabic speaker Ali says he never received formal training. He continued working in hospitals and also attended interviews with asylum seekers applying for international protection. A refugee himself, he had experienced at first hand the anxiety and fear of being interviewed by the International Protection Office.


"When I came to Ireland I saw the interpreter as someone with power or influence. It was a very strange feeling being in that position. Some people I interpret for, they don't read or write and their Arabic is totally different to mine. You need to learn how to explain in their way; it's not translation word for word.

Ali is one of the many thousands of foreign nationals working for translation and interpreting companies in Irish hospitals, Garda stations, courts and with asylum seekers. However, poor regulation of the sector and inadequate training for interpreters by some providers is seriously impacting people’s lives, according to Mary Phelan, chairwoman of the Irish Translators’ and Interpreters’ Association (ITIA).

Interpreting is highly skilled and requires proficiency in both languages combined with an understanding of “confidentiality, impartiality and accuracy”. But most people in Ireland believe anyone who speaks English and another language can interpret, Phelan says.

Without proper skills, the experiences of asylum seekers applying for international protection may be misconstrued by immigration officials while in Garda stations, the account of a suspect, witness or victim of a crime may be distorted, she says. In court, a defendant may not understand the evidence against them and in a hospital, the patient risks misunderstanding the severity of their illness or what medication they need to take.

Untrained interpreters also risk inadvertently taking sides or offering advice during a conversation, adds Phelan. She also has concerns that some interpreting firms used by the State do not test competency of staff who say they are qualified.

While NUI Galway runs a master’s degree in conference interpreting, this does not prepare people for interpreting in community settings, says Phelan, who ran a graduate certificate in community interpreting at Dublin City University between 2004 and 2009. But the DCU graduates often found they were not prioritised for work and were placed on a par with those without formal training, she says.

“There’s no training course in Ireland, that’s the key problem. Most people without training haven’t learned note-taking techniques, which is very important. They just rely on their memory but notes are needed for names, places and dates.” There is no minimum qualification or competency requirement in Ireland for translation services.

In a 2019 submission to the government, the ITIA described Ireland’s interpreter provisions as “very problematic”. While the State spends significant amounts on interpreting services, it has “no guarantees whatever as to the quality of the work”, it wrote.

In March of this year, the ITIA wrote to the European Commissioner for Justice, warning interpreting standards in Ireland were “wholly unsatisfactory”. Training and testing of interpreters and translators is essential to reduce the “risk of a miscarriage of justice”, said the ITIA.

In February, the Department of Children and Equality said in its White Paper to End Direct Provision that it would introduce an interpreters’ code of conduct, training for interpreters working with international protection applications, and independent inspections. This month a spokesman for the department said the implementation of the White Paper was still “in the early stages with the new model to be fully in place by the end of 2024”.

Phelan has also called for international protection interviews to be recorded so that the interpretation of an asylum seeker’s story can be double checked. “Interpreting is crucially important for international protection officers trying to understand a person’s story. With no recording of interviews, no system of checks and balances or quality control of interpreting, it’s a huge problem. It’s totally unfair on the asylum seeker.”

Hassina Kiboua, a resettlement officer with the Irish Refugee Council, provides training for interpreters working with asylum seekers. Accurate interpretation during an asylum interview is crucial, she says. "The officer will rely on consistency in accounts and inconsistency can really impact the outcome. The role of the interpreter is not only to pass on the same information but to keep it in chronological order. You need to give training on boundaries and confidentiality."

The interpreter must also be able to explain legalistic language to an applicant who may not have attended school or doesn’t understand the terminology being used.

Through her own PhD research, Kiboua has found that Australia has "perfect regulation and training", while Sweden and the US also have good training systems. In the UK, interpreters working in hospitals or courts must undergo training and asylum interviews are recorded, she adds.

Nuances are really important in taking any medical history. If it's coming through a filter, how do you know you're making the right diagnosis? It has such far reaching implications

A Department of Justice spokesman said he could not discuss its procurement of interpreters as it related “to matters which are currently before the court” and it would be inappropriate to comment on matters which are “sub judice”. Details of the case were not provided.

A spokesman for An Garda Síochána said the force was "satisfied that all of our current operational needs are being met". All contracts for these services are organised by the Office of Government Procurement, he added.

In hospitals, it’s often accepted that friends and family interpret for a patient, a senior HSE nurse (who asked not to be named) told The Irish Times. She has witnessed children explaining a cancer diagnosis for their parents and has been surprised at the lack of interpreting standards in some Irish hospitals.

The nurse, who has worked outside the Republic, says in her previous job “there was an expectation you never assess somebody in a certain level of distress until you get an appropriate translator”.

In cases of domestic abuse, friends or community representatives may be reluctant to interpret because they know the abuser, she says. Sometimes a trafficker might be interpreting to the patient and then that person just disappears, she adds.

“Nuances are really important in taking any medical history. If it’s coming through a filter, how do you know you’re making the right diagnosis? It has such far reaching implications.”

A HSE spokesman said it was “developing an appropriate model for the provision of interpreting services” as part of the Government’s Migrant Integration Strategy. Interpretation and translation services are currently provided to patients “where it is deemed appropriate” and each community healthcare organisation and hospital makes “local arrangements for these services individually,” he said.

The HSE’s Emergency Multilingual Aid [including a language identification card and tailored phrase books], is used before an interpreter is called or while waiting for an interpreter to arrive, he added. The HSE’s website recommends that healthcare centres refer to the ITIA database when looking for an interpreter.

Mariana Ciocca Alves Passos, an ITIA member, works as an interpreter in hospitals and has trained in medical translations. She has not undergone interpretation training but is experienced in using terminology for diseases and medical procedures.

“I can’t really imagine a person without training working in a hospital,” says Alves Passos, who interprets between Portuguese and English. “There are names of diseases or parts of the body like internal organs that most people don’t know how to say in their native language, let alone their second language.”

She often spends hours with a patient, joining them for blood tests, examinations and procedures. “I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to deliver really bad news to a person. If that information is not provided clearly the patient will feel even more anxious.”

Alves Passos also works in social services where she says good communication skills are key. “We have to rely on our own soft skills, there’s no training for that. This work can be a very happy thing to do but you can also be shocked by the bad news you have to interpret. You must make sure not to fall apart yourself.”

Recently, Alves Passos worked as an interpreter for contact tracing during the pandemic. “Most of the doctors I worked with had never used an interpreter before, it took much longer than normal tracing calls. But doctors realised this was necessary, otherwise people wouldn’t know what to do about Covid.”

She knows many interpreters who have left the industry because of bad pay and poor regulation. When companies rely on the worker with basic English to speak to other staff rather than hiring an interpreter she says it “undervalues the study people go through to make a living from that work”.

Phelan agrees that low pay acts as a disincentive for those who are qualified to take up this work. Most people working as interpreters in Ireland are highly qualified in other areas, with many holding master’s degrees and even PhDs, she says. However, without the requisite training, they risk causing more harm than good, she says.

“Training is essential but we need buy-in from the Government. We need it to say this has gone on far too long.”

*Name changed to protect his identity