Pleading for Sanctuary Through a Language Barrier Was Tricky Enough – Doing That Online Is Even Harder, Some Asylum Seekers Say

Several years ago, Hameed Wasily was sent to interpret for an Iranian asylum seeker at the International Protection Office (IPO) in Dublin.

Wasily struggled to understand the man’s accent, he says, and said so.

Wasily was born in Afghanistan and speaks, among other languages, Dari. “Persian language is similar but there is obviously dialect difference,” he says.

There are regional variations of the Iranian-Persian, or Farsi, spoken within Iran and the Afghan-Persian or Farsi-Dariwhat to call it is disputed – that is spoken further east, over the border in Afghanistan.

It’s not uncommon for Afghan interpreters in Ireland to be assigned Iranian cases, says Wasily. But it isn’t always a good fit.

In that case, Wasily says the man he was interpreting for pleaded with him to press on. “Because he was waiting for his interview for very long time.”

The IPO interviewer said it was up to the two of them, Wasily says. Too nervous about muddling crucial details of the asylum seeker’s story, Wasily walked away.

But not everyone does, says Wasily. He worries about unqualified interpreters, who may be in the job purely for the money, and who may not appreciate that a tiny mistake during an interview can ruin someone’s life, he says.

“It’s the most important part of an asylum seeker’s life where they’re given an opportunity to tell their story in their own words,” says Wasily.

Problems with the quality and accuracy of interpretation services for asylum seekers, – and the lack of any rules around certification and training – have been flagged for years both by those reliant on them, and in government report after government report.

But some are worried that a recent change is making things worse, with a move to online hearings being challenged by one applicant who is even more concerned that their story may not be retold accurately.

A certification test should be brought in for “anyone seeking to provide interpretation in the international protection process from mid-2023”, says the September 2020 “Catherine Day Report” of a government advisory group on providing better support to asylum seekers.

But there’s no sign of any change on the horizon. The Department of Further and Higher Education “has no plans at present to introduce regulation of the profession”, says a spokesperson.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said it couldn’t answer any questions due to an ongoing court case.

The Weight of Words

Wasily has never lived in Iran, he says. Back when he was an active interpreter, he struggled to understand the terms Iranian asylum seekers often used to describe Iran’s large and sophisticated Ministry of Intelligence or its subsidiaries.

Iranians, for example, use the word “herasat” or hirasat to describe an office under the country’s Ministry of Intelligence, which monitors university students’ political activities and punishes those considered problematic.

Taken literally though, the word means “protection”. Mixing up the two meanings could completely change someone’s story.

Jawhar Amini says that to interpret someone’s story, one should have a clear grasp of their culture.

Some words carry a sentimental weight in Persian or Kurdish, says Amini, an Iranian Kurd who freelanced for six years with Word Perfect Translations, the company that for years was the Department of Justice’s chosen contractor.

“It’s not just about the words, you have to interpret feelings,” says Amini. “Sometimes a guy is expressing some words that are coming from the heart. You have to be able to put some weight on it, to tell their story.”

Like how Wasily was encouraged to interpret for Iranian asylum seekers, Amini was sent to interpret for Afghans a few times, too, he says.

Mary Phelan, the chairperson of Irish Translators’ and Interpreters’ Association (ITAI), says that merely speaking a second or third language doesn’t make a person a competent interpreter.

The profession requires a whole set of different skills, she says. “The interpreter hears what’s being said, they have to remember it, they have to process it. There’s a lot going on in the interpreter’s brain.”

They have to go back and forth between languages, she says. “So they need to have a really good memory, they really need training, and there is no training course in Ireland.”

Getting Hired

Volunteering for an NGO in Tralee, Amini would often hear asylum seekers complain about lousy interpretation, he says.

He signed up to work for Word Perfect Translations in 2011 expecting, he says, a rigorous process.

“Because I had this immigrant background and knowledge, and I knew that asylum seekers were actually complaining about this, I was expecting the process to be very hard,” Amini says.

After a basic grammar test and a quick phone interview, he got the go-ahead to interpret asylum interviews, court cases, Garda interviews. “I was not happy that I wasn’t challenged,” he says.

Hassina Kiboua signed up with Word Perfect and other companies around 2012 to learn about recruitment practices for her research, she says.

It was easy to sign up, and when she couldn’t show up for a gig, she was encouraged to recommend a friend, says Kiboua, a PhD student of peace studies at Trinity College Dublin, who is researching the role of interpretation in the international protection process.

“They would ask, ‘Do you know a friend who could do it? Do you know someone who speaks the same language who would do it?’” she says.

Amini says he wasn’t offered any training during his time at Word Perfect. Kibuoa says the same.

Wasily, the Afghan interpreter, did train, joining a course at a Tyrone-based institution.

He also finished a one-day training session with Spirasi, a Dublin-based non-profit offering rehabilitation support to torture survivors.

He has a certificate for attending a half-day workshop offered by the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

His qualifications weren’t mentioned at interviews for any of the interpreting companies that he has worked for, he said.

Other Checks

Unlike court proceedings – where the standards for interpreters have also been questioned – asylum hearings aren’t recorded, says Phelan, the chairperson of ITAI.

That’s a big problem, she says. “It’s impossible to check afterwards if the interpreter did a good job or not.”

An EU directive says asylum applicants should have the opportunity to clarify misinterpretations or mistranslations “appearing in the report or in the transcript, at the end of the personal interview or within a specified time limit” before a final decision.

But Ireland has adopted an earlier version of this directive, which does not mention transcripts or cover the issue of interpretation in great detail.

Section 35 of the International Protection Act 2015 says that interpreters should be able to communicate with the applicant and the interviewer appropriately but doesn’t address misinterpretation incidents.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice declined to comment on any queries about interpretation services, including whether it would consider recording asylum interviews for quality assurance.

“The questions you have raised relate to matters which are currently before the Court. It would not be appropriate for the Department to make any further comment while these matters are sub judice,” the spokesperson said.

Bringing in Certification

The recent report from a government’s advisory group criticises the lack of training and inadequate qualification requirements for interpreters.

In public requests for tender to date, such as for the Gardaí, the September 2020 report said,** ** the minimum standard required for interpreting from another language into English is FETAC level 5 and at least 70 hours of interpreting experience.

“FETAC level 5 is the equivalent of the Leaving Certificate and is clearly inadequate to demonstrate a sufficient knowledge of legal terminology and ethical principles in both languages,” the report says.

That follows a 2015 report, known as the McMahon Report, which recommended that systems of training and accreditation of interpreters in Ireland should be brought in bit by bit, and eventually accreditation should be a requirement for getting work interpreting.

Phelan, the chairperson of ITAI, has written several letters to the Department of Justice and its Criminal Justice Strategic Committee calling for the regulation of the sector. Most recently, in March 2021.

Olga Shajaku, solicitor and co-owner of Word Perfect, did not respond to two emails asking if her company offered any training to its interpreters, among other things. Their website says the company works with “professional and certified interpreters’’.

Forbidden City Limited, which trades as Translation.ie, was the latest winner of the state’s interpretation contract in 2016, but legal challenges brought by Word Perfect to the government’s tendering procedure have meant procurement is suspended.

“We are not currently, nor have we been providing interpretation services to the Department of Justice for IPAT and IPO hearings,” said Crystal Li, owner of Translation.ie in an email.

She didn’t say whether Translation.ie trains its interpreters or not, although the company website has an online training course for court interpretation.

“As you’re aware we’re experiencing a lot of legal challenges, unfortunately, we are not in the position [to] comment any further,” Li said.

Why the Wait?

It’s unclear whether the legal cases around procurement have posed an obstacle to reform.

While the McMahon Report layed out measures to bring in accredited interpreters, a June 2017 report on progress towards that said that those measures were included in, or built on, a new contract – which was being challenged.

“It is not possible to give a timeframe as to when the legal issues surrounding this procurement will be resolved”, it said. While that case has been resolved, there’s now another in play.

IPAT has recently introduced a code of conduct that interpreters have to sign, the agency has said, which covers issues such as confidentiality and conflicts of interest.

Kiboua, the TCD researcher, says that she helped to design it.

She had heard of an instance, during her research, where an interpreter had reported an asylum seeker to their country’s embassy in Dublin, endangering their safety further, she says.

And sometimes religious interpreters lose their cool speaking for queer applicants or people who have converted to another religion, she says.

“We have five grounds of nationality, ethnicity, political opinion, religion and then membership of a social group, and they could all create a problem if an interpreter is not trained and professional,” says Kiboua.

It’s unclear if the new code will prompt meaningful change or whether unqualified interpreters would stop getting gigs as a result, she says.

Meanwhile, Spirasi has stopped offering interpretation training. “Just because of funding issues for ourselves, namely, we haven’t been able to provide that,” says Rory Halpin, executive director of Spirasi.

The Wrong Direction?

On top of these existing concerns about interpretation comes a newer one – the possible impact on quality of interpretation when the cases are heard online.

A Zimbabwean asylum seeker is currently challenging in the High Court the quality of online interpretation for asylum seekers before the International Protection Appeals Tribunal.

For her initial interview, she got a South African interpreter who spoke a different dialect. Her asylum claim was refused.

Her in-person appeal hearing was changed to online, and she refuses to attend it, unsure of the interpretation quality.

Phelan, the chairperson of ITAI, had made a submission to the High Court that was discussed during a hearing of the case presided over by Ms Justice Tara Burns on Monday 19 July.

Phelan’s report points to a few studies on remote interpretation, like one from 2003 that lists its downsides.

Remote hearings are more tiring, more stressful and require “effortful problem-solving strategies” that take a toll on interpreters, it says.

“For the same group of interpreters working live in a conference room is psychologically less stressful (according to interpreters’ self reports), less tiring as evaluated via performance indicators and conducive to better performance overall,” it says.

Phelan had asked the Chief State Solicitor’s Office (CSSO) and IPAT how the contractor establishes if the interpreters it sends to IPAT satisfy an advanced level of English-language proficiency, as outlined in the contract between Word Perfect and IPAT.

On 14 July, the CSSO had told Wendy Lyon, whose firm Abbey Law represents the Zimbabwean woman, that IPAT was still awaiting a response from Word Perfect, the court heard.

“As of today, that information has not been forthcoming,” senior counsel Rosario Boyle told the court, last Monday.

Phelan was also surprised to learn that Word Perfect’s contract with IPAT says that interpreters should abide by ITAI’s code of conduct and professional ethics in all assignments for the Department [of Justice], the court heard.

“It would appear, judge, that is only an aspiration because if you have to abide by a code but you can’t actually be subjected to disciplinary measures if you breach it, then in my submission, it’s not as effective,” said Boyle, the senior counsel.

In a separate submission to the court, IPAT made various arguments in defence of online interpretation.

There wasn’t enough evidence against remote interpretation to compel them to rule it out, and most of the existing material was “anecdotal or opinion-based”, it said.

Richard Susskind, an expert that IPAT had consulted with, had said similar. He had told an IPAT representative in an email that, “I doubt there’s sufficient empirical evidence and definitive conclusions on questions such as the use of interpreters or credibility,” the court heard.

Susskind, a British researcher and an advisor to the UK’s lord chief justice, has advocated for an online justice system.

Boyle, the senior counsel, said at the hearing, last Monday: “It begs the question as to what research the minister did before designating the tribunal if the tribunal is saying that there is no empirical evidence as to what effect a remote hearing will have on credibility issues.”

Wendy Lyon, the solicitor for the case, said the hearing revealed how when the Minister for Justice greenlit remote hearings for IPAT, the tribunal’s contract with Word Perfect did not allow it. She says she’s unsure if the minister was aware.

IPAT had said that it has a fail-safe mechanism to ensure the quality of interpretation, one that involves “having a controlled conversation with the appellant at the outset about something conversational and unrelated to the subject matter of the appeal”, the court heard.

If an issue arises during the informal chat, they would catch it and look for another interpreter for the applicant, IPAT had said in its submission to the court.

Phelan, the chairperson of ITAI, was not convinced that interpreting “a chat about everyday matters” was an appropriate fail-safe mechanism, the court heard.

The New Normal

Lyon, the solicitor, says her client is right in refusing the online session as the quality of in-person interpretation itself is questionable, let alone the remote version.

Interpreters aren’t in the same room and may miss important non-verbal cues, she says. “Their connection may drop out at important times.”

Also, the web platform doesn’t allow for simultaneous interpretation, she says. “So the interpreter will not be able to explain to the applicant what is being said between the lawyer and the Tribunal Member.”

Lyon says she was disappointed to learn, during the proceedings of the case, that remote interpretation was here to stay, becoming the new normal.

IPAT is contradicting itself, she says, by insisting on the efficacy of online interpretation.

“In May 2020 the IPAT itself made a submission to the [Catherine] Day report saying that it only envisaged remote hearings for cases where credibility wasn’t an issue,” says Lyon.

“They’re now saying that they’ve decided that isn’t a problem, based on how the remote hearings have gone. But the designation was made before they could possibly have reached that decision,” she says.

On Tuesday 27 July, the case was adjourned until mid-September, to allow IPAT to file an expert report on online interpretation to the court, and to allow the parties to consider whether they wish to cross-examine each other’s expert witnesses.

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Shamim Malekmian: Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at [email protected]

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