Interpreting for people with learning disadvantages

Last year, I interpreted in a case with four defendants charged with counts contrary to Section 18 A. Just before their PTPH, a duty barrister and I got down to meet “my” defendant in the court’s custody so the barrister could talk with him. We had not much time, maybe twenty minutes all together to get back to a courtroom. 

Anyone who has ever interpreted for a prisoner during a legal visit in a prison or in custody had a chance to experience that inmates ‘know’ better the law and they teach or instruct their defence barrister or solicitor on the best line of defence. This specific ‘legal knowledge’ has been shared among prisoners, from these ‘more experienced’ to those who were imprisoned for the first time. This was the case with this defendant. He had some ‘knowledge’ taken from other inmates while in prison waiting for his PTPH (Plea and Trial Preparation Hearing). Thus he was rather reluctant to listen to his duty barrister.

Nevertheless, this was not a challenge. There was also another issue I noticed right from the beginning of my interpreting. I immediately became aware of the fact that the defendant had learning difficulties. Therefore, I advised the barrister that, as I couldn’t change his words whilst doing interpreting, about my concerns of the defendant struggling with the understanding the meaning of the words used by the barrister which I kept interpreting in line.

The barrister caught it immediately, he changed his vocabulary and started using simpler words along with a very plain way of explaining all the possibilities that would have resulted from what the defendant was charged with and a possible outcome from pleading guilty or not guilty.

The time was flying and the twenty minutes dedicated to a consultation passed in a blink of an eye. The vast majority of that time was dedicated to an explanation to the defendant the difference between to intend vs to plan.

Some linguists may agree with me that when it regards the semantic (no matter what language) it doesn’t make a big difference between the meaning of ‘to intend’ and ‘to plan’. However, from the legal point of view, i.e. Section 18 A, it does. It does, like hell.

By the end of the consultation, we had an impression that the defendant had understood the legal difference between the two words. I remember the barrister showing a mocked punch in a self-defence and another mocked punch when a victim lies already on the ground. And another one punch, and another one, and then he mocked stamping on an imaginary victim’s head. He really did his best.

Back in the courtroom, when the defendant was asked whether he pleaded guilty or not guilty, he answered:

“I can plead partially guilty because I didn’t …. I didn’t plan it.”

The barrister’s application for an adjournment for his client’s PTPH due to “kind of learning difficulties” was accepted by the Judge.

Three months later, yet awaiting for his PHPT, the defendant committed suicide in his cell.

Why am I giving here such an example?

Let’s imagine a situation when you are a deaf person. You are between two people who are talking to each other. You can see their body language, their micro-mimic, you can feel their energy, emotions. But you cannot hear what they’re talking about. How would you feel then? Close your eyes for a moment and try to imagine such a situations. Right. This is exactly what does a person we interpret for feel.

Let’s take the next scenario. You are an adult. There is a little child who needs to understand a legal issue. How would you talk to them? What kind of words would you use? How would you explain the difference between e.g. to plan vs to intend? Right. This is how it works during interpreting for a person who has learning difficulties.

If someone would like to accuse me of being unjust or unfair because I’m using the example of a little child compared to a person with learning difficulties, then, firstly, I would urge such an opponent to give any other, better parallel. Secondly, I would guess that such an opponent has never worked, either as a professional or an interpreter, with learning disadvantaged people.

What kind of words do you use when you have to build a bridge in understanding between a child and an adult?

I believe that doing interpreting is about bridging communication between two parties.

I believe that it is not only about interpreting the words but fore-more about a careful choice of the words when we know that our native language’s client struggles with understanding not only the meaning of a word but also principally with understanding its collocation regarding the matter being discussed. Or trying to be discussed.

It’s also up to an interpreter’s ability to join sometimes very difficult legal words to a making sense sentence.

Without over-interpreting, with no under-interpreting, the most accurate interpreting must be delivered.

But on the other hand, we are not redeemers. We are there neither to fix our clients lives nor to save them from their mess. Yes, they get attached to us as we are the only people they can understand. But it doesn’t mean that we must accept and/or/ sympathize with circumstances that had brought them to the Court.

Sometimes cases take a long time, e.g. trials, and we get involved if not emotionally yet mentally in all the matters taking place during the job for a client.

It is up to our intelligence and experience how to get tuned in to a client’s capability of absorbing, perceiving, and understanding our interpreting. But it’s also up to our mindfulness and awareness when to inform an English spoken person that his/her interlocutor struggles with the understanding the matter of a case.

I admit that nobody is perfect, however, I do also know that a failure in an approach to this job begins when interpreters think that they are the most important ones during an interpreting.

We are not the most important. It happened to me that I had been interpreting during a case where a fellow interpreter started his job firstly with patronising me, then he patronised the Judge, then he made… some linguistic mistakes that had to be corrected immediately to prevent misunderstanding.

The most important ones are the two parties an interpreter interprets for and an interpreter is there to bridge their communication and understanding of each other. The outcome of their communication depends not only on the quality of interpreting but also on an interpreter’s energy, body language, face mimic, a tone of voice.

The best interpreters are those who are almost invisible during their work. And those who don’t use their hands whilst interpreting… Of course, I’m not talking about a sign language interpreters.

Interpreters will contribute much more when they inform an English spoken person that (if) they find that a non-English spoken person may not understand the meaning of words being used.

It should never make an interpreter feel superior. It certainly can be done in a gentle and subtle way with the deepest respect to all the parties involved.

Misinterpretation leads to misconstruction, misreading, misjudgement, misconception, misbelief, miscalculation, misunderstanding, and confusion. Sometimes, it also brings a tragedy to someone’s life.

A quality of each bridge depends on the quality of all the elements used for its construction.

An idea of being a modest, careful, and mindful builder of a bridge of understanding along with keeping your presence almost invisible sounds great. How many people are able to do that? Nobody’s said it’s gonna be easy. And nobody’s said that being multilingual is enough to do the job.

Interpreters are hunting for bookings, they sleep with their phones next to their beds, their incomes are not equivalent to the responsibility that lays on their shoulders. They have right to feel angry and frustrated. In the today’s world, where every and each government’s institution seeks savings, interpreters are at the end of the queue to be gratified. Most of them keep on doing their job simply because they love what they do.

Is this love strong enough to resist the economy?




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