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  • Yelena McCafferty

The hidden side of public service interpreting

Updated: Apr 9, 2023

As the debates are heating up in the run-up to Britain’s referendum on its EU membership, news editors seek stories with any links to the issue. And in roll articles about public service interpreters. Naturally, the focus is on the cost to the tax-payer and whether it could be justified. Police forces point out that interpreters are used more widely than to interpret just for suspects. In fact, they play a vital role in the investigation by working with victims, witnesses and officers in the course of their work.

To give them their due, people working with interpreters do recognise and appreciate the painstaking work they do. But to the uninitiated some of the less appealing aspects of the job, its hazards and risks often remain unknown.

The stories are actually out there in the local news, but the attention of an average reader is unlikely to be drawn to such small details. The details interpreters themselves see straight away and identify with.

In this report by Manchester Evening News, for example, a court interpreter gets seized by the neck by a defendant staging an outburst of hallucinations. Outrageous? Yet it happened in daylight, in a public place, in a court room, in front of the jury. An occupational hazard? Most definitely.

On Twitter a court reporter gives yet another example:

Fancy experiencing it on your own neck? I doubt it!

However, it’s not always negative emotions that defendants disburden on people who happen to be next to them. One defendant hugged his interpreter after being cleared of an offence and hugged and kissed his lawyer too, Plymouth Herald reports. At least the interpreter laughed back. I am not sure how the lawyer felt.

In yet another tweet a barrister tells of a court interpreter becoming a victim of an accident at work: “The court interpreter has been hospitalised by a falling panel from the ceiling hitting him on the head in the courtroom #mojcuts.” Oops, I suppose things can happen anywhere.

This personal safety issue aside, has anyone considered the risk of catching “exotic” infections and illnesses? Interpreters do come into contact with people of all sorts of backgrounds, often less fortunate. And getting caught up in the middle of those personal dramas and arguments… A disproportionate amount of that type of work and it’s not long until emotional exhaustion hits and post-traumatic stress may not be out of the question either.

Who would have thought? Well, it’s true. Every profession brings its occupational hazards. Even public service interpreting. And most of us do the job with dedication and perhaps a certain degree of self-sacrifice.

[Tip: to book a Russian interpreter, call us on 0207 043 6940 or email]


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