Interpreters: part and parcel of police interviews
Updated: Jan 11
From the moment an allegation is made to the police to the moment the case has been processed, interpreters are an integral element of the criminal justice system, they are its part and parcel. By facilitating communication interpreters are there to ensure the process is fair, regardless of the outcome.
The event I attended this month in Lincoln was focused on the art of police interviewing - a course designed specifically for interpreters and led by Zakon Training Ltd. Police officers and interpreters work together from the very first stage the officer starts planning an interview where a foreign language speaker is involved. “PEACE - Preparation, Explanation, Account challenge, Closure, Evaluation” is the interviewing model used by UK police forces. Preparation is where the cooperation between the officer and the interpreter begins: it’s considered best practice to brief the interpreter prior to the interview. When providing the interpreter with some details of the case (the suspect’s name, nature of the allegation), the officer can also use the opportunity to check with the interpreter for any cultural sensitivities. On the other hand, it is at this stage that the interpreter can declare any conflict of interest or other anticipated issues, questions can be clarified so it’s unfortunate that the pre-interview briefing sometimes gets missed out in practice.
As an interpreter, I am well aware that during the interview itself, we often have to deal with language issues which don’t quite translate “word-for-word”. If we take the English for “cousin”, it denotes both a male and a female cousin. In Russian there are two different words for it. Or a “friend”, a different word is used depending on the gender. Some languages don’t have articles, and in others they may be crucial in how a question is asked. Even with something as basic as giving a date of birth, e.g. 1982-05-06: is that 6th May 1982 or 5th June 1982? Dates are written differently in different countries. And an interpreter often needs to clarify where the month and the day are in this sequence before interpreting the answer to the officer conducting the interview. Simple? It becomes simple once clarified.
It’s useful to know that officers apply two main techniques for interviewing, the cognitive method is used for talking to witnesses to retrieve their memory, and conversation management is more appropriate for interviewing suspects. And interpreters know better than others who have never experienced police work first hand, that answers to questions largely depend on the way such questions are worded. This in itself is a skill which requires that “loaded” questions, or “forced choice” questions should be avoided. And an interpreter’s job is to make sure that the same technique is observed when each question is interpreted.
To illustrate the point, questions such as “Was it large or small?” are based on personal perception, while questions, giving the interviewee a number of things to choose from, cloud or even change their memory. I have also learnt this from another course, Forensic Psychology: Witness Investigation, run by The Open University online. As interpreters we often have distressed victims looking at us for help with a specific word, even in their mother tongue, and my feeling is it’s best not to give any prompts at this stage as they may distort the victim’s initial recollection and affect their memory.
A successful interview with an interpreter also means questions are asked one at a time; a series of questions in one go will be counter-productive in any interview, and with an interpreter, it may lead to confusion on the part of the interviewee or partial answers, simply because what was asked requires a multifaceted detailed response.
These days most interviews are audio or video recorded, however, in the event where an interview is not audio recorded and the officer makes a written record instead, we need to bear in mind that an interpreter is required to do the same in the language the evidence is interpreted from, and keep such notes, in case they are to be relied on in court at a later date.
The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) states that a person must not be interviewed in the absence of an interpreter if “they have difficulty understanding English” and if “the interviewer cannot speak the person’s language.” This suggests that in the latter case, a French-speaking officer may interview a French-speaking suspect without an interpreter, something that raised eye-brows at the Zakon Training event considering that to be admissible in court such interviews would still need to be transcribed and translated (presumably by an independent translator). Because when it comes to making a written statement (as opposed to conducting an interview), interpreters are used to record it in the language of the witness and an official English translation is made afterwards (PACE Code C Paragraph 13.4).
One of the guidelines of PACE, relevant to interpreters.
It’s equally interesting that according to legal guidance even if witnesses are bilingual, an interpreter option should still be considered.
The workshop in Lincoln also introduced us to the guidelines on the use of interpreters stipulated by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Law Society, with instances when a different interpreter may be required (multiple suspects, interpreter can’t meet the needs, etc).
And while officers need to follow certain rules to achieve best practice in criminal proceedings, interpreters, too, should follow their Code of Conduct and know their limits. Working day in, day out with traumatised victims and on intense cases may lead to something known as vicarious trauma. Sadly there is still very little counselling offered to police interpreters.
What happens in practice doesn’t often match policies in place, and this isn’t something characteristic of only police work. There are rules and exceptions in every job, every area, and sometimes practical approaches simply need to prevail. But it is equally practical to know where we stand within the system.
Yelena McCafferty, Magdalena Collison, Natalia Yordanova attending the event.
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