The Linguist

The Linguist 59,4 - Aug/Sept 2020

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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18 The Linguist Vol/59 No/4 2020 PANDEMIC INSIGHTS What has been the impact of Covid restrictions on the key work of public service interpreters? By Miranda Moore I n April, shortly after the UK government announced that the country would go into 'lockdown', registered public service interpreters (PSIs) were given key worker status following a short campaign. 1 In a high-skilled industry that has had to fight for professional recognition, it was welcome confirmation of the vital service PSIs provide. For interpreters with school age children, it unlocked access to childcare, but it also increased the pressure on interpreters to attend face-to- face assignments as key worker 'heros', regardless of the risks posed by the virus. How, though, has this translated to the situation on the ground? In June, I spoke to interpreters working in all areas of the public sector, from primary care and social services to police and immigration, and the overwhelming majority reported a fall in their workload of 80-90%, despite the critical service they offer. Understandably, most of the work they were doing was being done remotely. This has thrown PSIs – many with little experience of remote interpreting – into new ways of working via phone, WhatsApp, Microsoft (MS) Teams, Zoom and other online platforms. The set-up is often far from ideal and the prevailing attitude is one of 'making do', where the alternative is to offer no interpreting at all. The situation in America highlights the risks of both unsuitable interpreting scenarios and a failure to provide interpreting. Horrific scenes were depicted in the media of heavily masked doctors and nurses trying to get through to interpreters on the phone in order to explain to patients that they were about to be intubated, with the sound of noisy oxygen tanks and ventilators in the background. 2 There have been reports of doctors using Google Translate to communicate with non-English-speaking patients, and even of patients dying when an earlier diagnosis of Covid-19 might have saved them – and would have been possible had an interpreter been used. 3 Considering the heavy decline in work for PSIs in the UK, questions need to be raised about whether the outlook is similar here too. None of the interpreters I spoke to who usually work with the NHS had been asked to attend in-patient appointments, either remotely or in person, since 'lockdown' was introduced, and the only staff interpreter had been furloughed. Many would, in any case, refuse assignments that involve going to hospital wards due to understandable concerns about the risk to health. "I usually do some medical assignments in hospitals and surgeries, and I decided not to accept them at all because of the risk it carries," Polish-English interpreter Miroslaw Szewczyk told me. As most PSIs are freelance, they might wonder where their protective clothing is coming from when personal protective equipment (PPE) has often been lacking or inadequate even for hospital staff. The nation's health Instead, most of the work in hospitals seems to have been with out-patients, mainly in oncology, antenatal and mental health. Every interpreter I spoke to who is doing face-to-face work uses their own gloves, face mask and anti-bacterial gel, and takes other precautions, such as washing their clothes when they get home. They have witnessed changes in out-patient and reception areas, including waiting room chairs placed two metres apart and perspex windows erected at reception desks. Mara Lane ACIL, who works mainly with the NHS and local government, attended a few hospital appointments at the beginning of the crisis, though her workload overall has fallen by more than 70%. She felt reassured by the protocols introduced by the hospital: "To enter, you had to have an appointment letter or show an ID card and explain what you were there for. As you got on to the ward, you had your temperature measured and were asked if you had any symptoms. By the third appointment, they gave me a mask to wear on the premises." This was an improvement in terms of not just safety but also communication, as it can be hard to talk through non-medical masks, which tend to be heavier, she explains. Where interpreting is provided remotely, phone interpreting seems to be preferred in primary care. This may be due to the lack of appropriate devices (such as iPads) and access to a strong wifi connection in many hospitals. "The signal in hospitals is bad sometimes – you get a frozen image. It's not perfect," reports Lane. In health, phone calls are often two-way, with the patient and medical practitioner together at the hospital and the interpreter at home, although sometimes the patient is A critical service

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