Lack of interpreters for foreign nationals (SBP – 24th September 2006)

An article of mine from today’s Sunday Business Post:

Foreign citizens living in Ireland could receive harsher treatment by the courts and may even be wrongly convicted due to a lack of qualified interpreters in the country, according to the author of a new report to be published this week.

The report by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), which will be released on European Languages Day on Tuesday, calls for the introduction of a national advisory body to regulate interpreters and encourage more Irish people to become multi-lingual.

‘‘Interpreters will not always be top-of-the-range people who have the expertise we need because they’re not properly trained,” said the report’s coauthor, University of Ulster academic, Pol O Dochartaigh, chairman of the RIA’s modern language committee.O Dochartaigh said that poor translation could lead to vital information being omitted in hospitals and the courts.

‘‘You could easily get a situation where people get a stiffer sentence than they would have otherwise and in a worst-case scenario I suppose you could find someone being found guilty when in fact the mitigating circumstances might have led to their acquittal,” he said.

O Dochartaigh said that the shortage of qualified interpreters in hospitals and the courts could lead to legal challenges if an underqualified translator was employed.

He called for a new system to be introduced similar to one used in Germany where an interpreter cannot operate in a court unless they have a recognised qualification.

He argued that this would ensure that interpreters were representing individuals properly.

The report criticises the lack of regulation and the shortage of interpreters in Ireland.

‘‘When patients come into a hospital seeking treatment, it can be delayed because they don’t know how to explain what’s wrong with them in English,” said O Dochartaigh, arguing that greater emphasis needs to be put on languages in the education process, even at primary school level.

‘‘By the time you call for an interpreter the situation can get worse and even when you get one they may not be completely familiar with medical language.

‘‘You could even have a situation where the problem is explained in the patients’ native language and the interpreter mistranslates it.”

O Dochartaigh said that Irish people’s increasing deficiency in languages could have a negative effect on the country’s position in the global economy.

‘‘You have declining numbers taking up French, German and Spanish, never mind any other languages, and what we need is a change of attitude,” he said.

‘‘There’s toomuch of this old belief that the whole world speaks English so you don’t need anything else. If the Irish want to make an impact in the export market, they’re going to have to learn languages.”

The report found that 2,500 fewer students studied a language at Leaving Certificate level in 2005 than in 2001, while during the same period the points required for language-based courses at third level did not increase at the same speed as for other subjects.

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