Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre

Project Items

Exploring interpreters' perspectives on working in legal, health and social work settings


This was a 6 month qualitative study, funded through the British Academy Small Grant programme, which aimed to unpick ways in which interpreters view their role.

A maximum of 12 interpreters who work in a range of legal, health and social work settings were interviewed to broaden our conceptual understanding of their role and also generate policy relevant knowledge.

The core aim of the research was to re-situate interpreters within interpreted events and also to identify ways in which their work might be better supported.

With this in mind the study posed three main questions. Firstly, in what ways do interpreters believe their presence changes the interactions they mediate?

Secondly, how do interpreters understand their role in client-professional encounters? And finally, what additional training and support do interpreters think would be useful to them in their work?

Project Updates

Sept 2007

As part of the continuing dissemination process, Emma Clavering presented some of these findings at the Translating Voices, Translating Regions International Conference at Durham University, 14th-15th September 2007.

July 2007

Fieldwork with interpreters has been completed and analysed, bringing this project to an end.

In all nine single, one-off interviews were completed. Participants came from a range of backgrounds (including South Asian, East Asian, Eastern European, and British sign language) and experiences (for example, between 1 to 20 years experience working in interpreting) working with new immigrants and people with English as a second language in health, legal and social care settings.

Below are some of the main themes that emerged:

- The research found that interpreters’ roles are multiple and complex, shaped and informed by a variety of often competing influences that challenge notions of power and professional status.

- Their main role, as language de-coder and re-coder, was laden with potential pitfalls and challenges. Interpreters spoke about how they often had to make very subtle distinctions in their interpretations of words and events, requiring skills and experience that often went unacknowledged by clients, professionals and, at times, the agencies that employed them.

- Themes emerged around insecurity and vulnerability, particularly in terms of the status interpreters held, which varied across the different sectors and settings in which they worked, as well as with different individuals with whom they worked.

- However, the interpreters spoke about the importance of their work, and the power they held when making decisions around how a word or phrase might be communicated.

- One of the most consistent metaphors used by the interpreters to describe their role was being a bridge between client and professional. Though not a new descriptor, the empirical detail offered here suggests intricate and dynamic ways in which interpreters can take on the role of linguistic, social and cultural mediator across and between multiple boundaries that go beyond the immediate interpreted event; bridging understandings across wider cultural contexts (community and institution).

- One interview, with a sign language interpreter who worked with immigrants with hearing impairments, highlighted distinct issues and problems in this area, which are worth further exploration; in particular the need for equal and fair treatment of disabled clients who are very often extremely disadvantaged.

Janice and Emma would like to thank the interpreting agencies for their support on this project, and to the individual interpreters who agreed to take part.

May 2007

This is the mid point stage of the project. Interviews are well underway and already raising issues such as the ways interpreters manage a range of challenging situations including negotiating power disparities between clients and professionals, interpreting across cultures as well as languages, and claims over professional status and security.

Emma Clavering is preparing a first paper, ‘Caught between worlds? The role of interpreters in legal, health and social work settings’, to present at the Translating Voices, Translating Regions International Conference, Durham University, September 2007.