17 Feb 2014

UK Debate on Public Sector Translation

In the UK there is an ongoing debate about an issue that could affect the translation industry. The country’s government is trying to get local councils to reduce the amount of money they spend on translating materials for non-English speakers.

The issue is a divisive one.

One side of the argument suggests that translating information costs money and reduces peoples’ incentive to learn English.

On the flipside, the argument goes that there are times when the translation of documents and other materials is absolutely vital, such as in the fields of education, law and healthcare.

These are crucial services where it is vital that people who do not have English as their first language can understand and access important information.

The economy might be slowly improving, but clearly, councils and other public bodies are under pressure to reduce spend. However, is targeting translation budgets a good idea?

Anyone working as an interpreter or translator will be aware of just how effective such services are. Interpreters help doctors speak to patients. Translated legal materials ensure defendants understand what is happening in their case.

But should migrants themselves be doing more to learn the English language?

Eric Pickles, the UK’s Communities Secretary, said in a written ministerial statement to MPs: “Some local authorities translate a range of documents and other materials into languages spoken by their residents, and provide interpretation services.

“While there may be rare occasions in which this is entirely necessary – for instance in emergency situations – I am concerned that such services are in many cases being provided unnecessarily because of a misinterpretation of equality or human rights legislation.

“Such translation services have an unintentional, adverse impact on integration by reducing the incentive for some migrant communities to learn English and are wasteful where many members of these communities already speak or understand English.”

Juarate Matulioniene, of the Lithuanian community in Boston, Lincolnshire, where there is a significant Eastern European population, told BBC News: “Translation is very important in an emergency, when we go to hospitals and when children go to school and they don’t know a word.”

Moreover, councils say they are bound by a legal duty to ensure certain documents are accessible in different languages.

Deputy leader of Lincolnshire County Council Patricia Bradwell said: “We have seen an increase in the number of children coming into care and that has led to court proceedings.

“All documents that go into court have to be translated and we also have to provide an interpreter for families whose first language is not English.”

Of course, councils must make their own decisions. But there are good arguments for saying that translation budgets should not be cut. Translated documents help to facilitate community cohesion, they make people feel more involved in their communities and ensure they can access crucial information.

There are also good reasons for saying migrant communities should receive more resources to help them gain a better grasp of English. While there is no clear answer, we must not forget that sometimes translation is absolutely vital.


Sign up to our newsletter

Get our blog articles straight to your inbox.