Public Service Interpreting: The Spanish Case

Once upon a time I was on a trip to China, enjoying my holidays and the wonderful landscape the Great Wall was offering me, when… I twisted my ankle! “No worries, I can use my Boy Scout first aid knowledge to bend it”. After that, I continued my walk, but my initial pain turned out to be permanent and unbearable. “Ok, I’ll be brave and take a look at it…” Unfortunately, my ankle was more similar to a ripe grape than a human limb and the pain was awful… “Accept it, there’s no way, you need to go to hospital”, my friend said. Until then, we were always with the tourist guide, who spoke English and was very nice to help us find the nearest hospital. But once there… we were alone in the hospital jungle. What could we do in such a situation? I’m sure many of our readers have ever had a similar situation at some point in their lives…

That’s why Public Service Interpreting was born. This type of interpreting is offered by public bodies, such as health centres, courts, police offices or job centres for those people, living or not in the country, who can’t properly communicate in the country’s official language/s.

This service is basic for countries with a strong tourism industry, as is the case of Spain, and it has gained importance in recent years due to globalisation. However, this is still a very young profession in many countries, with different circumstances depending on the country. Surprisingly, this type of interpreting is not properly considered, since, as you may imagine, any of us can be in a similar situation where our job, legal situation or even life can depend on the interpreter’s performance.

We can easily think, therefore, about the interpreter’s great responsibility, who does not only need to know both languages perfectly as well as the specific professional field, but also needs to know both cultures, as there are nuances that need to be known to avoid major conflicts, (have you ever tried to use the ok sign in Greece? If you make the round “okay” sign with your thumb and forefinger it can be taken as highly vulgar…)

In order to have a better idea, we have had the pleasure to interview Carmen Toledano Buendía, Professor at the University of La Laguna, Tenerife, and Head of the Postgraduate course in Translation and Interpreting for the Community Services (EUTISC).

Carmen, it is an honour to have you in our blog. First of all, we would like you to introduce the figure of the public service interpreter in Spain. What are the requirements to work as a Public Service Interpreter (PSI)?

At the moment, there are no specific requirements to work as a PSI in Spain. This profession is not properly regulated yet and we can find different situations, even in the different public bodies: some translators/interpreters have passed a public exam, others are hired through translation agencies, and sometimes they are directly hired by the public body or the client. The common factor is that there is no specific training or diploma required (not in translation and interpreting or Public Service Interpreting) to work in this field.

We know that this profession is well recognised in other European countries, such as the United Kingdom, is this the case in Spain? Can a non-professional interpreter work in this field, despite not being the best option? Do you need to be member of a chartered organisation of any kind?

There is no public register of PSIs in Spain or a chartered institute in this sense. However, there are professional associations that are working hard in the process of recognising this profession, as well as to offer a solid training to their members. This is not the best situation though. It is widely considered that interpreting in a public service context does only need language skills, but this is a very complex difficult task. Therefore, most language needs are solved in an improvised way: employees with some language, volunteers, or even the client’s relatives (sometimes even their children). Different studies have stated the significant lacks in communication processes carried out by non-professional interpreters: less accurate information (what is said and how it is said), adopting a wrong role during the interpretation (e.g. acting as advisors), and even violating the PSI code of ethics by not respecting neutrality or confidentiality, with serious consequences both for the client and the public body. These lacks can jeopardise the PSI user’s well-being or health, and also affect the public resources available for the citizens.

Given that PSIs can work in all kinds of situations -trials, doctor visits…-, to what extent are interpreters responsible for their work? If there were a translation error, who would report it? Are they protected by any organisation or body?

In Spain, only criminal procedures mandatory require interpreters when the user (defendant, witness, etc.) does not speak Spanish. In this case, the interpreter needs to sign an oath committing to accurately transfer the complete information. However, the actual situation is that many times malpractice is not punished, as different platforms like Jueces para la Democracia (Judges for Democracy) have constantly reported. Regarding the professional’s protection, this is a controversial topic in our field, especially in legal and police contexts. Only a few weeks ago public translators and interpreters have received a reference number, and we hope this is the first step to protect their identity. However, there are still many legal documents that openly include the interpreter’s personal details (full name and Spanish ID number), making them unsafe towards criminals’ retaliation if they felt the translation was not convenient for them.

As we have talked about training, could you please tell us the kind of training needed to work in this field (i.e., training offered by EUTISC)?

If you want to work as a professional PSI, you need to perfectly know the working languages, the different dialects and registers, the specific terminology required (medical, legal…), have a good command of the different interpreting modes (liaison, consecutive, whispered or phone interpreting), and translation techniques to translate the required documents. It is also important to know the different contexts and action protocols in communication and cultural situations requiring public service interpreting.

At EUTISC we train interpreters so they can work in legal-administration settings (courts, police offices, immigration offices, etc.) as well as social-health settings (hospitals, social services, schools, etc.) Language and translation and interpreting lessons are backed by a series of seminars and conferences about interesting topics such as procedural law, labour law, immigration law, domestic abuse, health care, asylum seeking, etc., so the students can familiarise with the different working settings. At the end, the students need to complete 60 hours of practical work interpreting in different public bodies, so they can have first-hand knowledge of the profession.

Back to the Spanish case, how can public bodies hire a PSI? Is there any public language service available? Or, are interpreters directly hired without intermediaries?

As there are no official credentials required to work in this field, there is not an official list of professional interpreters either. I would suggest those public bodies requiring language services in these contexts to contact professional associations or university centres where this discipline is taught, as they could contact professionally trained interpreters.

As for the client, i.e., the person who does not speak the language and needs the PSI service, do you think this option is widely known by the foreign community in Spain? Does a client need to pay any fee in order to use this service?

As I said before, under the Spanish legislation a non-Spanish speaker is entitled to a free interpreter only for criminal procedures. For other situations, both legal and medical, the government does not guarantee public service interpreting, therefore, the client needs to hire them on a personal basis. In locations where tourism is very important, some health centres have telephone interpreting services, and police offices also offer PSIs to address the needs of the foreign population, although this is not very common. For example, some of our alumni have British clients living in Tenerife who hire them for their doctor appointments.

In your expert and researcher opinion, what kind of improvements has this profession found in the last years?

There has been significant progress during the last year regarding research and formal training in public service interpreting, as this was a less known branch in Translation and Interpreting studies. However, there is currently a gap between academic research and professional practice. The research carried out needs to reach the different actors and service providers so they know the importance and advantages of hiring professional interpreters as well as regulating this field. I think they are not completely aware of the risks and consequences resulting from a non-professional interpretation, which can be carried out by people of good will who are simply not properly trained.

There would be, therefore, a lot to do yet, which are the main aims in the short and long term?

In the short-term we are aiming to design an interpreter accreditation system in order to accomplish the Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings (2010) that needs to be implemented in all Member States by October 2013. This Directive aims to guarantee the right to professional interpretation and translation in the criminal proceedings taking place in the EU, provided that they don’t speak or understand the language in which the procedure is conducted. This document expressly mentions that translators and interpreters attending the suspect, arrested person or defendant in court should be properly qualified. It also suggests that Member States should set a specific system to control the translation or interpretation quality.

At the same time, we should also raise awareness among authorities, users and non-formally trained interpreters regarding the importance of training in order to offer a high quality service.

In the long-term, we aim to have public service interpreting models similar to those already working in Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, where public service interpreting is a solid profession recognised by the society and public bodies involved, with formal training that responds to this situation.

We love to see how professionals like Carmen are working hard to raise standards in this profession, and we would like to finish our post with those aims in mind: let’s make a common effort to have high quality public service interpreting in Spain!

About wiredintowords

We are a language service company (translation and interpreting among others). We love teaching, learning and translating languages, and we are passionate about the culture, traditions, cuisine and history of the countries where those languages are spoken. ///// Somos una empresa que ofrece servicios lingüísticos (traducción e interpretación, entre otros). Nos apasionan los idiomas, su enseñanza, aprendizaje y traducción, además de todo lo que les rodea: cultura, tradiciones, gastronomía e historia de los países en los que se hablen.
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