Interpreting for refugees: my perspectives


Hello everyone! I hope you and your families are all safe and well. It is summertime , I hope you are all enjoying it despite the circumstances. Today’s topic will be divided into two blog post, due to its depth and length. I will be writing about one of the oldest professions in the world: interpreting. In particular, about interpreting for refugees in Malta.

This first post is inspired by the UNHCR handbook on interpreting in an asylum context.

But what is interpreting. How does it differ to cultural mediating?

In general, interpreters transfer the meaning of spoken words from one language to another, hence dealing with oral communication. On the other hand, cultural mediating facilitates communication between two persons or two groups who come from different cultures.

One should also be aware that interpreting does not only refer to oral communication, but also the transfer to and from sign languages. This means that the main aim of an interpreter/cultural mediator is to help the interviewer understand what the asylum applicant is saying, whether orally or via sign languages.

The difference between cultural mediators and interpreters is that a cultural mediator does not only interpret, but also explains intentions, perceptions, habits and expectations of each cultural group or person to the other.

Where is interpreting used?

It is very commonly used especially in conferences, interviews, etc. However today I will be mentioning interpreting in the asylum context. This is an extremely important component because after an interview where the interpreter transfers whatever the applicant says to the interviewer, a life-changing decision will be taken. This decision is whether to accept the asylum-seeker as a refugee or to reject the applicant.

Interpreting in asylum settings poses a stressful challenge to interpreters. It presents work-related stress but also of a social or personal nature. Violations of human rights are very often discussed in most interviews. Applicants have often been threatened, traumatised or are victims of torture, physical, mental and even sexual violence. Interpreting for refugees can be traumatic and upsetting, but it remains a vital component of the asylum process.

interpreting for refugees
Interpreting for refugees.

To deal with these difficult situations and to be able to protect themselves from being affected psychologically, interpreters should be familiar with well-planned and appropriate techniques. They should be trained in ways to enable them to distance themselves from the traumatising events and stories they listen to.

This is why professionalisation is vital for interpreters in asylum settings. In order to deliver good interpretation, linguistic and technical skills are not enough. They must also be able to apply appropriate techniques to maintain a professional distance and manage stress. They must be very aware of professional ethics and the regulations of the profession. Interpreters may be required at different stages of the asylum application process: initial interview where the application is registered; the personal interview, where the applicant gets an opportunity to describe their reasons for seeking protection; and the appeal process, challenging a first negative decision.

What does interpreting mean so much to me?

Ever since I started my internship with aditus foundation, earlier this year, I had the chance to not only learn about interpreting with refugees, but also to practice it. Each time I help our lawyers to facilitate better communication between them and clients, I practice better ways on how to approach the client and make them feel comfortable answering questions in their own language. I have also trained myself to differentiate between my feelings towards the client’s story and my work to just focus on delivering the message.

For me it’s clear that it is the lawyer’s job to deal with the problem, whilst I am only there to facilitate their communication in order for the client to receive the best advice/help needed.

Thank you and see you soon for the second part of this blog post about interpreting for refugees in Malta!
Rimaz Bitrou 

#KeepingUpWithTheInterns is part of our project Marginalised Persons as Human Rights Volunteers. If you want to follow Matthew and Rimaz as they navigate their way through Malta’s human rights landscape, subscribe to our News & Updates or follow them on our social media pages!

This project has been funded through the Voluntary Organisations Project Scheme managed by the Malta Council for the Voluntary Sector on behalf of Parliamentary Secretary for Youth, Sports and Voluntary Organisations within the Ministry for Education and Employment. This project/publication reflects the views only of the author, and the MEDE and the MCVS cannot be held responsible for the content or any use which may be made of the information contained therein.