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No interpretation system for foreign-speaking callers

Last update - Thursday, May 29, 2008, 00:00 By Metro Éireann

IRELAND’S ‘999’ service has a potential emergency of its own. Enquiries by Metro Éireann have revealed that non-English speaking residents and visitors to Ireland have no access to an interpreter should they dial 999 or 112. Garda, fire and ambulance emergency services in greater Dublin and beyond have no interpretation system in place, while Eircom – whose operators receive the initial emergency call – said it does not engage the services of interpreters. Immigrants officially make up 10 per cent of the population in the Republic of Ireland, with some putting the figure at closer to 15 per cent. A Garda spokesperson confirmed to Metro Éireann that is currently has no interpretation service for non-English speaking callers requiring urgent police assistance, but added that the force has recently advertised for telephone interpretation services.

“We have put out a tender for telephone interpreting and we expect it to be up and running in mid-September, and part of the specification will include 24-hour interpreting services,” commented the spokesperson. However, the force is lagging behind its northern counterpart, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), which already arranges access to interpreters for 999 callers and recently developed a multi-language ‘please hold’ message for those awaiting an interpreter. According to the PSNI, the initiative has been designed to alleviate any uncertainty in the caller during the silent period when the operator is arranging for an interpreter to come onto the line. According to Dublin Fire Brigade, its regional control centre – which takes emergency calls for Dublin and surrounding areas – does not have any interpretation service. A spokesperson said that foreign callers with poor English or a strong accent are able to spell out their address, but added that the issue “has come up at meetings” and is being looked into. Other fire brigades across the country are under the management of local authorities and it is unclear if any have interpreters on standby. A Health Service Executive (HSE) spokesperson was only able to confirm the presence in its ambulances of books with basic medical questions in “numerous” languages. Eircom, meanwhile, relies on an “informal” arrangement whereby bilingual Eircom staff can be called upon in the event of communication difficulties. A spokesperson added that there was no obligation on the company to offer a multi-lingual service. Eircom is the interim custodian of the 999 service in an agreement with the Department of Communications. The service is currently out to tender. Mary Phelan, a lecturer in interpreting at Dublin City University and secretary of the Irish Translators and Interpreters Association, said she is pleased that the Garda are introducing a 24-hour interpreting service for emergency calls, but added that the situation “could be very confusing” if the force provides an interpreting service and other bodies do not. She said that in emergency situations, such as house fires, “speed is of the essence… Even short delays could make a difference in an emergency.”A US-based expert on telephone interpreting, Nataly Kelly, told Metro Éireann that access to interpreters in an emergency is particularly important as people can often lose the ability to speak a non-native language in panic situations. At a recent seminar in Dublin on telephone interpreting, she played an audio recording in which a telephone interpreter in the US successfully helped deliver a baby, demonstrating the importance of telephone interpreting in situations where urgent action is needed. Kelly said that beyond the obvious life-saving benefits of interpretation access, it is also important for legal reasons. She outlined the famous case in the US, known as the ‘$71m word’. It involved a hospital that asked one of its bilingual staff to interpret for a patient, instead of hiring a professional interpreter. During the consultation, the staff member misinterpreted one word, leading to a misdiagnosis.

“As a result, the patient was given the wrong course of treatment and ended up quadriplegic,” said Kelly. The hospital was sued and reached a $71m settlement with the affected patient. She added that, at times, native populations can be dismissive about the need for interpretation/ translation services, but pointed out that there are numerous instances in which such services actually help the native population – for example, if a nonnative speaker witnessed a crime, and needed a translator in order to give evidence. Kelly also warned about the dangers of hiring ‘interpreters’ who haven’t received appropriate training, a common practice among many translation/interpretation companies in Ireland. “It’s an erroneous assumption to think that just because you can speak a language that you can be an interpreter,” said Kelly. “It’s the difference between someone who uses a skill for personal use and someone who uses a skill professionally. “The advice for people who want to become interpreters is, before anything, they need to first make sure that they have the necessary level of language proficiency in both languages, because a lot of people assume ‘Oh, that person speaks Polish, I can just ask them to interpret, because I know they speak English and they speak Polish.’ But they don’t think that, maybe they only attended a certain level of school, or maybe their level of English isn’t that good.”


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