Review: The Critical Link 5: Quality in Interpreting: a Shared Responsibility

This review originally appeared in Multilingua: Journal of Cross-Cultural and Interlanguage Communication 32:1 (2013), 138-41.

Sandra Hale, Uldis Ozolins & Ludmila Stern. (eds.), The Critical Link 5: Quality in interpreting – a shared responsibility (European Society for Translation Studies Subseries 87). Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2009, ISBN 978-990-272-2431-6 (hardback), i–vii + 255 pp.

Since 1992, the Critical Link network of academics, practitioners and educators has been gathering international experiences of community interpreting and calling for the professionalisation, certification and funding of community interpreter training. From its origins in Canada, where the first Critical Link conference was held in 1995, the organisation has sought an increasingly global presence over the last decade, reflected in the holding of conferences in Sweden, Australia and the UK and the group’s change of name to Critical Link International. This volume, Quality in interpreting – a shared responsibility, presents selected papers originally delivered at the fifth conference in 2007 in the Parramatta district of Sydney. As two of the editors, Uldis Ozolins and Sandra Hale, recognise in their introduction, Australia is a world leader in the accreditation of community interpreting, yet even there ‘pre-service training is a choice rather than a requirement’ and ‘there is little incentive for formal education’ (p. 3). The readers of this review are unlikely to need persuading that better training ensures better quality in interpreting. Community interpreters work in some of the most urgent, and often some of the most worrying, situations in which individuals may find themselves; the potential impact of low-quality interpreting in interviews, hearings and conversations where health, life or liberty may be at stake is, Ozolins and Hale argue, the betrayal of ‘a fundamental human right’ leading to ‘total social and political disempowerment’ (p. 2). As a result, Critical Link believes, ‘it [is] time that all participants involved in interpreted events, [take] some of the responsibility for quality’ (p. 2).

The fields represented in this anthology cover some of the most fundamental ways in which the individual interacts with the state, such as court interpreting (for criminal hearings in particular), healthcare, and the asylum review system. Its concept of the public extends beyond the state and into other collective entities that exert their power at different levels of social organisation: two innovative perspectives on community interpreting covered by the volume are Stephanie Jo Kent’s study of conference interpreting for the European Parliament and Michael S. Cooke’s thought-provoking study of the tensions between interpreter ethics, the law of the Australian state and the customary law of Australian Indigenous communities that supply interpreters in Aboriginal languages. The comparisons established in the book are at their deepest and most transnational where several contributions relate to the same area of work, making it particularly useful for researchers and practitioners in criminal court interpreting and health. The volume contains a survey of Australian case law on court interpreting written by a senior judge, Cooke’s piece on Aboriginal customary law, Eva N. S. Ng’s study of the translation of criminal terminology between English and Chinese in Hong Kong, a pilot study by Jemina Napier, David Spencer and Joe Sabolcec investigating whether sign language interpreting could enable deaf people to serve on juries, and a fascinating study of Basque/Spanish court interpreting by Erika González and Lurdes Auzmendi, which would also be of interest to historians and sociologists of political violence or contemporary Spain.

Healthcare is represented by almost as many chapters: Pamela W. Garrett’s examination of whether Australian hospitals’ policy on interpreter provision is applied in practice, Raffaela Merlini and Roberta Favaron’s study of interpreter training at an Italian- and English-speaking transplant centre, and a report by Ilse Blignault, Maria Stephanou and Cassandra Barrett on health care interpreters’ role perception in New South Wales. The remaining sectors are more disparate: Kent on the European Parliament; Franz Pöchhacker and Waltraud Kolb on asylum; Jieun Lee on testing and accreditation; a comparative study by J. M. Ortega Herráez, M. I. Abril Martí and Anne Martin on Spanish community interpreting in several fields; and two methodological pieces, Helen Tebble on the use of discourse studies in interpreter training and Patricia Kaufert, Joseph M. Kaufert and Lisa LaBine on research ethics committees’ (limited) understanding of the interpreter in health research. Where court interpreting is concerned, both the conference and the book have benefited from the enthusiastic participation of Len Roberts-Smith, a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Western Australia and Judge Advocate General of the Australian Defence Force. Roberts-Smith examines the jurisprudential understanding of the court interpreter, who is theorised as ‘a cipher or medium of communication’ – indeed, the judge in the most important piece of Australian case law on court interpreting held in 1960 that the interpreting process ‘was analogous to talking through a machine which interpreted from one language to another’ (p. 14). This legal ideal informs several examples of communication failure and ‘forensic error’ in the courtroom, including the chaos of an unsuccessful 2006 appeal where the appellant had consulted as many as three Spanish/English interpreters – an accredited interpreter in the original hearing, the defendant’s wife as a second ad hoc interpreter in the dock, and a third interpreter in Florida whom the defendant hired to review the court transcript before appealing on the grounds that the first court interpreter had been inadequate!

Roberts-Smith’s discussion of the legal position in cases where the quality of interpreting might be argued to have jeopardised the fairness of a trial points to an urgent need for the evaluation of competency to be standardised across all Australian states. It also points to one way in which institutional policy on interpreting has not yet caught up with the theoretical advances of translation and interpreting studies, where the idea of the interpreter as machinery has been broken down into an emerging commitment to studying the social situatedness of the language intermediary (M. Baker ed. 2010). Professionalised community interpreters must still contend, as Ozolins and Hale point out, with simplistic public concepts of the interpreting process which mean that ‘those who use interpreting services very rarely understand the complexities of the process or the role of the interpreter’ (p. 3). What is worse, as Garrett and González/Auzmendi both suggest, those who manage and pay for interpreting services do not understand these complexities either. The lawyers in Spanish courts, for instance, do not appreciate the speed at which court interpreters need to work; the courts do not provide them with booths; judges and prosecutors may suspect interpreters of sympathies with Basque nationalism while Basque-speaking defendants may simultaneously view them as representatives of a justice system they consider illegitimate; interpreters have not been protected from controversies about quality concocted by the media, which have seen at least one interpreter signed off work for depression. These problems, grounded in deficient public understanding of interpreters’ work, indeed extend beyond community interpreting into other areas where interpreters co-construct the actions of the state. Many of the issues raised by González/Auzmendi or Cooke would resonate with the interpreters interviewed by this author and her colleagues in research into conflict interpreting during coalition military operations in 1990s Bosnia-Herzegovina and in the Allied liberation and occupation of Western Europe in the mid-1940s (C. Baker 2010; Footitt & Kelly eds., forthcoming).

The public, as yet, does not know what interpreters and their trainers know: how difficult and contingent a task it is to be an interpreter and communicate meaning with the accuracy and reliability that medical and legal professionals require. Often, even were one able to put aside every aspect of one’s own identity, it is linguistically impossible – as made clear in Ng’s study of attempts to translate the definition of ‘burglary’ from British Commonwealth usage to Chinese – to be a translation machine. Critical Link’s presence on the web and social media could become a springboard to bring the message to the public ‑ not just to the individuals who embody the link themselves. Hale, Ozolins and Stern’s volume shows that achieving this awareness is a necessary step to fulfil the volume’s ultimate goal, accredited and assured community interpreting quality.


Baker, Catherine. 2010. The care and feeding of linguists: The working environment of interpreters, translators and linguists during peacekeeping in Bosnia-Herzegovina. War and Society 29(2). 154–175.

Baker, Mona (ed.). 2010. Critical readings in translation studies. London & New York: Routledge.

Footitt, Hilary & Michael Kelly (eds.). forthcoming. Languages at war: Policies and practices of language contacts in conflict. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


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