Interpreters being scapegoated; access to services for BSL users being denied – I cannot be a bystander….


As a freelance interpreter I take direct bookings from a hearing or deaf person but also accept work through interpreting agencies. With large public bodies no longer able, or willing, to pay interpreters on an individual basis they  are starting to use agencies to make booking interpreters easier and to make the agencies  responsible for sorting most things , e.g. invoicing, assignment details, etc.

Since working as a sign language interpreter I feel I have good working relationships with a variety of agencies. However, one agency in particular, has not improved its working practices, despite numerous meetings with sign language interpreter associations, legal action taken individually by interpreters, feedback from the local, deaf community or letters sent by unions. Alarmingly, these, seemingly,  poor working practices are being disguised as interpreters not turning up to appointments, i.e. BSL/English interpreters are being used as scapegoats.

Before the agency was awarded the contract for a public service, it was operated by a local, BSL specialist agency. Maybe it’s true what they say, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Because, now that BSL specific agency no longer exists (it ceased operating December 2017), it has left a gap in sourcing interpreters for a  specific domain that this new agency has been unable to fill. It has also meant that we, as interpreters, know how a good agency can be run, e.g. woking alongside its freelance interpreters, rather than seeing them as something that needs to be tolerated.

Among other issues, there are two significant problems which have been a regular occurrence for this agency not only in this new contract but in other contracts they hold in the South West (and from what I am aware of from other interpreting colleagues across the UK, these issues may not be exclusive to the South West peninsula). These issues are: 1) providing a non-registered, unqualified interpreter to medical appointments, and 2) persistent late payments for work undertaken to interpreters and /or no payment at all.

  1. Medical assignments are inherently complex, with high risks if information is misunderstood. The ‘Sick of It’  report published in 2014  found that BSL users had worse health outcomes than the general population. Not only does this mean missed diagnosis and poor treatment for BSL users, but it costs the NHS £30 million per year. Therefore, any agency providing non-registered interpreters to such assignments are increasing costs to their client- which contracting an agency is supposed to make more less costly. For example, I was told  by an organisation that it is cheaper for them to outsource their interpreting bookings to an agency than it would be to pay someone to manage interpreting bookings because of the costs of a full time salary and the benefit associated with that (sick pay, holidays, etc). Yet, this agency’s policies and procedures stated that they only recruit interpreters who are NRCPD registered When challenged about this it was stated that this was because the agency was finding it hard to find interpreters who want to work for them . This leads me onto issue number 2:
  2. There has been persistent late/ none payments for a significant period of time since this agency was awarded a contract for a public service in the South West. Since being awarded this new contract recently in Devon, the issue of payments has not improved and has resulted in many interpreters starting legal proceedings to try to retrieve the money they are owed through working for them. This, of course, has meant that a large proportion of most of the interpreters in this area are refusing to work for this agency as there is no guarantee they will be remunerated for the work they have done. And, if they are finally paid, this entails reminder emails, phone calls and texts to chase payment.

So, maybe the answer is simple – I am a freelance interpreter, I can decide who I will and will not work for, right? Well, in some ways – yes. But I like to believe that the majority of interpreters I have worked with have chosen this line of work because we have an interest in the well-being of the people for whom we work. In an article by Street Leverage  it talks about cultivating a ‘Deaf heart’. It also states that “Part of having a Deaf heart is caring enough about the well-being of Deaf people and their communities to put them above ego, pride, and unwillingness to fight for what is right.” This doesn’t mean that I believe all interpreters should be working for this agency regardless of whether they receive payment for their work. On the contrary, I am proud of myself and other colleagues I know who have worked hard and paid their way to earn their title as a professional. However, it does mean this agency takes advantage of our good will and Deaf heart. And so, the original question above that seemed easy to answer is now grey and unclear as to the outcome. Essentially, if we don’t provide interpretation for these appointments, then who will? And so, do some interpreters find themselves accepting some work regardless of whether they know they will be paid. Not because they don’t care about money – I think this is a naive stance and for the profession to achieve as much as it has done to date, this has meant orchestrating appropriate recompense for our services as sign language interpreters. But, it will mean interpreters cannot turn a blind eye to the issues surrounding them both locally and nationally. Whilst interpreters can still take a stance to not work for this agency, it is therefore necessary and relevant for those interpreters to not act as bystanders to the dire situation unravelling in the Devon area, but to look at ways to make sure voices are heard and actions taken.

There also seems to be a default narrative that when an agency such as this one fails to provide interpreters there is a disservice to the deaf community. But what about the disservice to the hearing folk we also interpret for? Let’s not forget that it is not just about the deaf person, for example, unable to understand the diagnosis from their doctor, but surely it is also about the doctor unable to diagnose their patient? I believe they too have a duty to report such instances and not to be a bystander to these avoidable occurrences. They too have a responsibility to investigate why an interpreter was not present at an appointment or ask to see their ID badge which should show they are part of NRCPD.

It does not have to be like this when working with agencies. Many agencies I work with demonstrate their ability to do a good service to the service user (both deaf and hearing) and form a good, working relationship with its interpreters. Almost as if the agency and the interpreters have the same aim – providing high quality interpreting for both the deaf and hearing client! What is currently taking place in the South West IS avoidable, unnecessary and needs to be stopped and action taken by all parties involved – the deaf community, interpreters and hearing folk. As the ASLI representative for the Devon and Cornwall interpreters, but also as an interpreter directly affected by this, I will be part of this action and not a bystander.

Who’s with me?


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Theatre Interpreting – co-working

Theatre Interpreting

It was great to interpret and to be part of Unleashed Theatre Company play ‘Under One Roof’. at Princess Theatre, Torquay, Devon. This was a play based on factual and anecdotal information from the homeless community in Torquay. The aim of the performance was to spread awareness of the increasing number of homeless people in the streets of Devon and Cornwall and to raise money for the Leonard Stocks Centre in Torquay, Devon. Worrying and shocking facts were read out throughout the performance. For example, the fourth biggest increase in homelessness has been in Cornwall!

A similar performance was shown at the Princess Theatre last year, performed by Unleashed Theatre Company where I interpreted the performance solo. However this year, I was lucky enough to co-work with a fellow interpreter, Clare Seal. This was a great opportunity to see what it felt like to co-work on stage. BSL / English interpreters can regularly co-work together on various assignments. However, it is rare to co-work a theatre performance. After speaking with the director of the play, we all agreed it would be an asset to the production. It was great to have a co-worker in the audience to feel supported and able to provide feedback to one another once the play had finished.  Perhaps co-working theatre performances will be a thing of the future?! Watch this space!



Lone Working

C Hall Interpreting (1280x679)I have noticed recently there is an increase in the awareness and importance of making sure employed (PAYE) staff know how to keep themselves safe when lone working. For staff to learn and to be confident in the processes and procedures of lone working and to ultimately know what to do in an event of an emergency, e.g. a risk to their personal safety. But of course, lone working is a topic not just for those who are employed, but for the self-employed also. One could argue lone working is even more of an issue for self-employed people. It could be argued that of those of us who are self-employed and who regularly work on their own, having robust lone working processes in place is paramount to their safety.

It appears that sometimes there can be a culture of ‘I’ll be alright’ and ‘no need to make a fuss’ towards lone working and personal safety. I too am guilty of thinking like this, the classic mantra of ‘that could/would never happen to me’. However, considering the different places I visit and the distances I travel, it is important someone knows where I am. Whilst I am mindful that my field of work means confidentiality is essential, I do not believe this needs to be compromised in any way. I believe there are ways of informing someone where I am without revealing any information about the client. I know of other interpreters who share their electronic calendar with their partner. Their partner is only able to see the location, time and date (rather than the clients name, reason for booking, etc.). I know other interpreters who text the person they trust to let them know they have arrived at different locations and when they arrive home. ASLI Lone Working guidelines state that “….freelance interpreters should notify suitable team member/family member/buddy: Address of where they are going; Time of visit and expected time of return; Name and phone number of person to be visited”. In particular, the guidance highlights the need to always tell someone where you are going, the route you plan to take and what time you expect to return.

However, I know other colleagues (including myself, up until recently) that have no lone working procedures/protocols in place. To be registered as an interpreter I have to have an up to date DBS check, for reasons of safeguarding others. But what about safeguarding ourselves in the work that we do? The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance ‘Working Alone’ file:///C:/Users/chall/Downloads/indg73.pdf says that training is particularly important for lone workers. Particularly as “Lone workers are unable to ask more experienced colleagues for help, so extra training may be appropriate”. Lone working is not only about someone causing you harm, but also accidents. For example, slips and trips, car accidents in places with no signal, etc. (I understand the concept of having no signal in a bustling city like London seems impossible, but in the rural areas that the interpreters cover – it is very much possible to lose signal, e.g. Dartmoor). If we were the manager of a group of staff then we would have a duty to ensure their health and safety, so if we are our own managers/boss, then why don’t we regard things such as health and safety seriously for ourselves?!

The ASLI lone working guidance also highlights the importance being proactive in making your own pre-assignment enquiries – the importance of asking! I know this too well when I was a trainee sign language interpreter and assumed the other professional would wait for me outside the client’s house before entering. I was wrong to assume this and put myself in danger by entering the clients house without knowing if the other professional was inside already. Now, I know to categorically tell the agency to inform the other professional to wait outside for me and we can enter the property together, or I ask for the other professionals contact details to be able to text each other’s location.

Regardless of whether the risk is high or low, there is still a risk in lone working in the work that we do as interpreters. A simple phone call when you’ve arrived safely to your destination and when you have arrived home shouldn’t be too much of an ask. Let someone know where you are going and what time you are due to be back. These are all such simple steps to ensure personal safety and wellbeing. Look after yourselves!

I just can’t hear you….

8617995216_771cc8615e_q‘I just can’t hear you..’ said my Dad. Through gritted teeth I repeated what I had originally said to him. I then paused and felt the biggest hypocrite and quite mean! Why was I treating my father any differently from when I meet deaf people who cannot hear me? Looking back I can get quite frustrated with older people with hearing loss, who find it difficult to hear me. I go to raise my hands but realise they cannot sign, so that strategy is no use when trying to communicate with older adults with hearing loss.

However, other strategies that I use when communicating with a deaf person can help when talking with my Dad, and yet I don’t seem to use these. The strategies are things such as looking at him when talking to him. Too many times I’ll try to talk to my dad whilst I am walking away from him. No wonder he can’t hear me! Not only this, but when we are at the dinner table, for example for Christmas dinner, my Dad was left out of about 50% of the conversation because he could not keep up with everyone talking all at once. I did try to keep him in the conversation, but maybe I didn’t try as much as I would have if someone deaf was next to me. But why? Perhaps hearing loss is a lot closer to home than I previously realised and perhaps I need to practice more of what I preach. Sorry Dad!

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Co-working -shall we do 20 minutes?

teamwork-709666_960_720The other day I had arrived to interpret a meeting with another interpreter (my co-worker). One of the hearing attendees of the meeting asked me why there was a need for two interpreters (as opposed to just me). Without thought I quickly replied that it was linked to the fact that interpreters cannot work for long periods of time without fatigue having an effect on their interpreting ability and so the other interpreter can take over after about 20 minutes (implying after the interpreter had swapped with me I could then rest). The second interpreter then quickly added that it was not just about turn takings to reduce fatigue, but also to feed the ‘working’ interpreter any information they may have missed or not heard, to write down jargon, names or dates, etc. These are just some of the main reasons for why a second interpreter would need to be booked for some assignments. Looking back I am quite shocked by the rather simplistic answer I gave and I have been trying to look at the possible reasons for this.

The assignment mentioned above made me look at the way I work with other interpreters. Am I at risk of slipping into an old-fashioned way of working and perception of co-working? I.e. seeing my co-worker and me as two independent interpreters taking turns independently so that one interpreter can ‘work’ whilst the other can ‘rest’.

Co-working or ‘team interpreting’ as it is more commonly described is said to account for approximately 30% of interpreting assignments Hozam (2010). Team interpreting has been defined as “…the use of more than one interpreter to provide communication effectively to and from all participants.” Carnet, Giovanna (2008). It is also stated that team interpreting occurs in situations that are lengthy, complex in nature, involve unique needs of the persons being served, or have special physical or emotional dynamics Hozam (2010).

Why, when looking back at some of the assignments when I have worked with another interpreter has our focus been solely on swapping times (how long the interpreter producing the target language, e.g. spoken English or BSL ‘works’ before they stop and swap with the other interpreter). I have put the term ‘works’ in inverted commas because of the apparent, common, misconception from those not familiar with why interpreters sometimes require a co-worker. I have had numerous conversations when questions are asked such as “So what do you do when the other interpreter is working?” and “Are you bored?” You may be happy to know that when I have been asked such questions, I have taken the opportunity to explain the interpreters role and even felt almost defensive to the fact that I had not been daydreaming or even planning my evening whilst my co-worker was left to work on their own –I too had in fact been working. As Hozam (2010) explains, the accuracy of the interpreted message does not only rest on the interpreter who appears to be working (the one actively interpreting) but it is a shared responsibility. Therefore, the interpreter who appears to be sat still is still an ‘active’ interpreter by doing all of the tasks that have been described earlier in this blog, e.g. feeding information that has been misheard, writing down facts and figures and also providing reassurance to their colleague. This is a more ‘collaborative’ approach as described by Hozam (2010) and is a model I want to follow. This is in comparison to the rather old fashioned view of co-working that both interpreters are independent of each other, waiting to take turns. I believe most if not all of the interpreters I have had the pleasure of working with in the Devon and Cornwall region also work towards more of a collaborative model. However, I know this has not always been the case by the following story I was told by a local interpreter. This was when this same interpreter was delivering the target language and their co-worker promptly brought out their wool and knitting needles to what I can only presume was to catch-up on some much needed knitting! Not the collaborative approach the local interpreter was hoping for.

I am not ignoring the fact that to avoid overuse syndrome/repetitive strain injury (RSI) through excessive repetitive movement without rest is one of the reasons two interpreters may need to be booked for an assignment. Not only this but an interpreter without rest will see the quality of their interpreting diminish – this can diminish after 30 minutes because of fatigue Hozam (2010), but the reasons for booking more than one interpreter is not only because of this.

Conversations with colleagues before I start an assignment are paramount to contributing to a successful interpretation, but these conversations should not focus only on switching times (these are important none the less to avoid confusion and to ensure equal distribution of workloads ( Hozam (2010) states that discussing feeding styles in advance is essential to achieve this collaborative approach. I can relate to this as there have been some occasions where I have not known how the person likes to be fed. I know one colleague who likes to be fed by signing to them, but if someone was to feed a misheard name, word or number to me this would certainly throw me and could cause disruption in delivering the target language (having the opposite effect of what a feed is supposed to do!)

Therefore having these conversations with co-workers at the beginning of an assignment can reduce the risk of the comprehension of the target text being impeded, described as “A lack of harmony in the production of the teaming process” ( By being more confident in the various reasons for the need of a co-worker should mean I can work as a team more effectively. Not only this but in a time where providing just one interpreter for an assignment is coming under more scrutiny because of purse strings being allegedly tightened, then the need for interpreters to be more informative and spread awareness about the motives for co-working is essential.



Patience is a virtue….

Holiday Spain 2015Recently, holidaying in Spain I was feeling very lucky that I had arrived in such a beautiful location – boiling hot, wall-to-wall sunshine and the beach only a short drive from where I was staying – lovely!

Everything was going well, I had the sun, sea and it was hot – what more could I ask for? Until…..I had to try and ask for something in Spanish. Before booking the holiday I knew it was an authentic, Spanish, holiday. The Spanish themselves holiday there. No problem (I thought), after all, why go to Spain if I am going to be surrounded by British people. I also (arrogantly) thought that there will (of course!) be some people who will be able to speak English! Turns out, not as many as I had hoped for!

Ordering food was the main problem. In supermarkets I could get by with a “gracias!” and “Hola!” and “Adios!” then looking at the till to see how much I needed to pay in Euros. Seeing as we ate out quite a bit for lunch and dinner, this became a chore and quite frustrating. My frustration was not so much with the Spanish people (they are in Spain, why would I expect them to speak English!) It was more with myself and the fact that I couldn’t put a sentence together in Spanish.

However, as the holiday progressed there seemed to be a divide between those who had patience and took pity on us simpleton English people and those that were frustrated with us and ignored us from the beginning once they knew we couldn’t speak Spanish. Don’t get me wrong, I went into cafes and restaurants with a smiley face, armed with my few phrases of “Hola!” “Gracias” and “Menu” and even learnt how to say “Sorry, I do not speak Spanish” – with an apologetic face. But to some, they showed no mercy and we were either ignored or treated  as if we didn’t matter and were greeted with a frown and lack of patience.

Before I continue, I want to say this is not a blog bashing our Spanish friends! On the contrary, it made me look at myself and how I may treat people who cannot speak my language in my home country. I am also mindful that any nationality (including British) could behave in the different ways I have described above. It made me think about how my friends and family may treat those who find it difficult to speak English (both those who speak a foreign language and also those who are deaf).

Whilst in Spain I found it frustrating that I was not able to get across what I wanted to say. It made me think that I really wouldn’t want other people to feel this way because of my lack of patience towards them. Of course, that doesn’t mean I will go out and learn all the languages of the world. Instead, what it does mean is that I can make a conscious effort to be patient when I am faced with problems in communication.

Perhaps we can all be too quick to judge or make assumptions if one has done something for someone else but had no gratitude shown. For example, moving out of someone’s way and they didn’t appear to say “thank you”.  – Maybe you didn’t hear them (I noticed when I tried to speak Spanish I would speak quietly as I was embarrassed with how I pronounced my words), or maybe they were deaf and they signed their thanks to you instead of saying it?! Or, maybe they said thank you in a different language – spoken or signed that you either misheard or didn’t see?! Either way, after being on the receiving end of feeling stupid, frustrated and partially feeling mocked – I want to make sure that I don’t make others feel the same. One of the ways I can do this is by being more mindful and patient with the various people I will inevitably meet in the future, in my home country.

Interpreters – Self Care

CareRecently I have been thinking about the necessity of self-care in the interpreting profession. This was mostly brought about by a conversation with a colleague about how empathising with deaf clients is a regular occurrence for interpreters. Harvey (2003) states that interpreters are at high risk of becoming overwhelmed with too many emotions and that it is imperative that interpreters have support mechanisms in place. I have been recently thinking about what support mechanisms I have in place….friends/family/my mentor/partner – but is that enough?

It is the unfortunate fact that BSL/English interpreters routinely witness intentional or unintentional acts of oppression experienced by the deaf persons. According to Harvey (2003, p207) “It is largely inevitable…to experience some degree of empathetic pain”. What’s more, he explains that interpreters need to have a balance of being able to empathise but not empathising too much as to get caught up in its perils. I have been advised that especially in a medical appointment, I need to ensure I am mindful to separate myself from the deaf person and remember that it is not me experiencing the trauma. Harvey (2003) suggests that you can become so consumed by the deaf persons pain that you cannot differentiate their pain from your own. Experiencing empathetic pain may happen by me physically seeing a deaf person in trauma but also by what information I hear. Whatever I have heard from my interpreting assignment I cannot ‘un-hear’. The way interpreters are affected by the information they are privy to is dependent upon the individual. However, I think an important characteristic of an interpreter is to have compassion, but that we don’t become compassion fatigued (a gradual lessoning of compassion over time). If the interpreter suffers from compassion fatigue or feels overwhelmed by the empathy they are feeling towards the deaf person, then in my view, this is the time interpreters need to focus on self-care. One way of maintaining self-care is through one-to-one supervision. Whilst many interpreters are involved in group supervision, it is questionable about whether some things can be discussed in a large group. For example, I don’t necessarily want to retell what I have heard (or course adhering to confidentiality protocol) because then all of those involved in my supervision group will then have to carry this traumatic narrative around with them, solving nobodies best interests.

Therefore, could a similar model of supervision used by the counselling profession be adopted by interpreters? There are similarities for the reasons why supervision is undertaken by the counselling profession – enhancement of skills and for counsellors to work through their own personal issues. What’s more, supervision is viewed by counsellors as an ethical imperative to ensure clients are valued, they are helped the best way possible and the client receives a better quality of service (Carroll 2007). Therefore as interpreters are we doing our clients a disservice by not having supervision on a one-to-one basis?

I have mentioned mentoring as an important mechanism for interpreters to continue to grow and develop as professionals in previous blogs. However, I don’t believe I could use mentoring in the same way I am describing the use of supervision. The Oxford Dictionary makes a clear distinction between the two – a mentor is described as a ‘trusted advisor’ while supervision is an ‘overseer’ ,’keep an eye on’. Therefore, perhaps a mentor could be used to refine an interpreters skills and a supervisor could focus on the wellbeing of an interpreter? A friend I know who is a counsellor has supervision on a weekly basis. If the information interpreters hear is sometimes similar to that of counsellors (e.g. accounts of abuse; domestic violence; working in mental health; etc.) then why are we not as an interpreting profession encouraging more interpreters to seek supervision to help towards self-care?


Carroll, M (2007) ‘One More Time: What is Supervision?’ Psychotherapy in Australia Vol 13No.3 35-40.

Harvey, M.A. (2003) ‘Shielding Yourself From the Perils of Empathy: The Case of Sign Language Interpreters’ Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 8 (2): 207-213.