How can you tell if an interpreter is good at their job? Are they accurately interpreting what they hear or are they distorting the meaning to what has been said?
As part of wide ranging research on the practice of language interpretation Middlesex University has created quality assessment software that can capture an accurate snapshot of the performance of an interpreter. Led by Brooke Townsley, Senior Lecturer in Public Service Interpreting and Translation in the School of Health and Education, the exciting package was developed as part of a project conducted in conjunction with Spanish media company Lucentum Digital. Using the software interpreters can take the quality assessment test online from a PC or laptop. Their performances are transferred to a secure server which allows the data to be shared with assessors located anywhere in the world. In the case of rare languages, this can be a major asset. It's a practical tool resulting from much reflection on quality in language interpretation.
Townsley explains: "This provides a cost-effective way for public service officials who want to 'quality check' the performance of their existing body of interpreters; it can also be easily adapted to deliver training in specific interpreting skills as well. Built into it is a set of scoring templates, and it has the capacity for large numbers of candidates to be quality checked at the same time in different locations. It's a diagnostic test, not a pass or fail test, so it can be used to support existing full certification exams, but is not intended to replace them. Essentially, we are using digital technology to deliver materials and capture a snapshot of interpreting ability".
Townsley – who worked as a legal interpreter and translator with English and Turkish in the criminal and civil justice systems before joining the university in 2000 – has also coordinated an EU-funded project, involving partners from the UK, Spain and Holland, to develop online streaming videos for professionals throughout the justice systems in member states across the European Union who have to work through interpreters (the Building Mutual Trust 2 project). It has developed a range of video clips and other test material and each video sequence includes interactive 'learning points' highlighting particular features of the interpreting process, with linked background reading and reference materials. It's a project that responds to a very pressing need for, as the project website suggests, "As more and more people move around Europe, crossing borders to look for work or to relocate to another country, the call for language assistance in law enforcement and judicial activities grows". It's vital, then, that the police, the courts and civil authorities have access to an evidence-based approach to language interpretation skills assessment and training. Moreover it is essential for justice systems to take the quality of legal interpreter and translator training seriously when resourcing law enforcement.
After all, when the decisions of courts or public officials can depend upon the mistranslation of a single word of testimony, the integrity and fairness of our judicial processes may depend upon it. Justice demands, perhaps, no less.