Intermediaries Working With Interpreters

Communication aid in family proceedings: Intermediaries working with interpreters

Published: 02/08/2022

Author: Kerry Chatterje

Not all words translate well into another language and this can create a language barrier rather than assisting to remove one as I try to do.

In my work with defendants or with parents and children in family proceedings, I have supported someone who did not understand English names, for example, so I needed to use more culturally specific names for that person at assessment. Things like idiomatic phrases are very culture-specific and so don’t translate well. In Romanian, for example, I learnt there are three different words for ‘oath’ which can also mean ‘vow’ - (as in marriage vows) - something that caused confusion when I was trying to establish what a client knew of the family court process and what it means to take the oath. 

Thinking about the little French I remember from school, ‘La plume de ma tante est sur la table’ means literally ‘the pen of my aunt is on the table’ – illustrating that sentences structured differently in other languages can lead to misunderstandings. I have also been told that someone who learns a language will speak it differently to someone for whom it is their native tongue, so in that way interpretation may also vary. 

There can also be an issue just getting the person who doesn’t speak English into court. If the interpreter is not there before they arrive, I have found it difficult just getting them past security (particularly during COVID-19 when they were being asked if they had any symptoms). At times, in desperation when there has not been an interpreter present, I have had to resort to using Google Translate (which I’m told by interpreters does not provide an accurate translation).  

I recently worked on a long case where booking interpreters was an ongoing issue, often with them not being booked at all, sometimes booked to attend remotely when they were required to attend in person and sometimes more interpreters than needed were booked!  

I have been placed in a separate Cloud Video Platform (CVP) room with a person and interpreter where there was simultaneous interpretation but no pauses. This meant that all I could hear was the interpretation and very little of what was said in English. As a result I was unable to ascertain what the person understood, and I also couldn’t interrupt to make explanations, or the interpreter would have missed what came next. Because we were in a separate CVP room it was impossible to get anyone’s attention using the chat box to alert the court of my difficulties. I came out of that particular hearing having made very few notes and feeling clueless. 

Even when interpreters are physically present in court, there can be difficulties. I recently sat with my client between one interpreter and another who was interpreting for another party, so I had interpretation in ‘surround sound’. I had to ask the other interpreter on more than one occasion to keep her voice down, but I still had to concentrate really hard to hear what was said in English, which was exhausting. 

In my experience, it works better when there is a court interpreter who translates for the whole court. This ensures that there are pauses after each sentence for interpretation and it makes everything much simpler. This method takes much longer than simultaneous interpretation, which is sometimes a consideration for the court as they are always under pressure to get things done as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, this still does not give the intermediary the opportunity to make any explanations, unless you are fortunate enough to also have a personal interpreter sitting with you, which I was once lucky enough to have during the whole of a fact-finding hearing. 

I have worked on a case where I have attended remotely from a solicitor’s office along with the client and her barrister, where we have had a court interpreter, translating to the whole court via CVP. We have also had a separate interpreter with us in the office for legal meetings, who for some reason was not allowed to be involved in the hearing. This meant that I was again unable to determine what the client understood during the hearing and had to simply make notes and go over things with our interpreter in breaks. 

I even had one instance where the interpreter was overtly not translating verbatim and explained to the court that she needed to give the client some background and context to what was being said. She was told by the judge that she must just interpret what was said. In legal meetings she continued to give elaborate interpretations even when told by the barrister to desist. Even the client was amused by her and said that she wasn’t very good. The trouble is, you don’t know what is being said in the other language, so you have no idea if what you are trying to say is being interpreted appropriately. I have experienced asking via the interpreter what has just been said by the barrister, and the client saying something completely different back to us.  

My conclusion is that you can never be sure if the difficulties displayed by the person you are supporting are cognitive differences or are due to a language barrier. In either circumstance, I believe that assistance from an intermediary could be appropriate. 

A suite of open access resources for front-line practitioners and strategic leads aims to provide support for decision-making and families in pre-proceedings (PLO) and the family court.

View the pre-proceedings and family justice hub resource hub (open access).

Kerry Chatterje

Kerry Chatterje

Kerry Chatterje has worked as an Intermediary for an organisation called Triangle since successfully completing their in-depth training course in December 2015. She has personally assisted over 260 young people in various court settings.