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The changing landscape of Public Service Interpreting in the UK: A survey of the Profession

by Mirela Watson

December 2016

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Words: 1073

Please find an extract of my dissertation. For the full version, do not hesitate to get in touch.
Undoubtedly, the United Kingdom (UK) professional Public Service Interpreting landscape currently finds itself in “a zone of uncertainty” (Inghilleri, 2005:76) and as such a critical position, due predominantly to government budget cuts and a significant degree of outsourcing to large agencies. The recent controversy over the Ministry of Justice interpreting contract has brought to the fore the extent to which the interpreting profession suffers from a lack of status and has thereby created the perfect conditions for a storm.   This observational research project centres on a short survey and interviews, designed to investigate the views and perceptions of public service interpreters regarding their working conditions as well as the possible steps to be taken towards the professionalisation, statutory regulation of the interpreting profession and protection of the title of Legal Interpreter. In particular, the research focuses on the theoretical discussion of professionalisation models and the current configuration of the UK market related to public services by highlighting the professionalisation of interpreting and its importance in the Criminal Justice System and thereby raising the profile of this profession.   The objective of the current research conducted was to encapsulate the state of the unregulated UK language services market to date and to elicit the need for recognition and professionalisation of public service interpreting activities, in particular legal interpreting. At the time of writing, there is a strong momentum and widespread awareness of the global need for it to become a well-defined profession with legal protection and legal accountability, rather than just “a hobby” or a part-time activity for the unqualified (Lalmy, 2009:13), pseudo-professionals or proto-professionals, as suggested by Bell (2000).   This dissertation concludes by highlighting a number of recommendations, as well as questions arising from the research results. It highlights the need for a continued, regular dialogue between the government and interpreters via their representative bodies, which may, in due course, lead to the ultimate objective of achieving the desired recognition and statutory protection of the work done by the public service interpreters. This dissertation may serve as a compass to help readers understand the issues at hand, solve the associated problems and potentially make a decision regarding the future of Public Service Interpreting as a profession. It also performs the tripartite role of presenting a snapshot of the current situation of the UK interpreting profession as it exists in 2015, whilst gauging the practitioners’ opinions about the present state and the future prospects of their profession. The major thread and the central idea is a call for a mechanism of statutory regulation for the PSI profession, thereby protecting both stakeholders and interpreters, aiming to maintain high standards and working conditions and provide a “public face” for the profession. This regulation would provide minimum standards for entry and increase client awareness of exactly how important it is to have only qualified and highly skilled PSI practitioners. The key questions are related to the level of awareness and the degree of recognition of interpreters on a socio-economic level in the UK.   The Public Service Interpreting (PSI) profession in the UK is currently operating in a very challenging and continually changing environment, due to the Government’s tough political and immigration standpoints, coupled with harsh on-going cuts to public services resulting from the “mixed” economic austerity. This is happening in parallel with the multifaceted challenges of a globalised 21st century society. As a result, the status of the PSI profession remains uncertain at this present landmark time, which has seen the recent commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta on the 15th June 2015, considered as the foundation of English common law, which established the principle that everyone was subject to the law. The uncertain status of the PSI profession is ubiquitous.   The choice of topic was motivated by the researcher’s own work as a public service interpreter in the UK Criminal Justice Sector (CJS) over a number of years. The desire to find specific answers to questions arose from the researcher’s experience in this field. The current unevenness of professionalisation in the interpreting field and the consideration towards an international consistency has prompted the researcher to look into it at greater depth.   “Practiced since time immemorial” (Joudenais &Mikkelson, 2015), documented and recorded “since the time of the Pharaohs” (Harris, 1997) and the Ancient Egypt, interpreting is an essential part of human interaction at all levels, where more and more people are employed as interpreters in government settings, public agencies, the court system, non-governmental institutions, private industry and conferences. Public Service Interpreting amongst other language services has a very complex role in the formation of the nation.   With almost 6,500 spoken languages in the world and 100 different languages spoken across London and the wider UK alone[1]and the equivalent to just almost 7 million people having a first language other than English, the demand for interpreting and/or a translator services is high. This demand is reinforced by the principle that every non-English speaker, subject to the UK justice system is entitled to receive support from an interpreter. As such, the role of an interpreter is a crucial one.   This dissertation will be concentrating on the major characteristics of the professionalisation process of interpreting profession and on the definition of a regulated profession, by providing an overview of the Tseng model, the establishment of training institutions and professional associations, as well as the codes of ethics in order to assess which of the key players and/or ingredients are missing, if any.   More than ever, the interpreting service provided at court, police stations, prisons and immigration centres to name a few, need to be recognised for what they are: a professional public service provided by a professional, namely: the interpreter. Recognition thereof means that, the stakeholders would be able to gain a better understanding of the interpreter’s role and this would constitute a central movement towards the professionalisation. It would enable those working with interpreters to behave in a uniform way and have realistic expectations, as well as to see the profession for what it is, and that is: a profession.   The focus of this dissertation is PSI professionalisation – not professionalism. The latter refers to the beliefs of those who aspire to be considered professionals, while the former refers to the characteristics and criteria identified with professionals and the profession.

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