Can we survive the dangers of the public sector language gap?

Public services provide for the welfare and wellbeing of the UK’s residents. Police and court services, medical care and the NHS, housing provision and local government administration are all vital resources, but some UK residents are being excluded from this support because of the language they speak.

While there is a national requirement for public sector workers in the UK to possess English (or Welsh) language fluency, there is no explicit stipend to cater to foreign language speakers. Provision is made for sign language interpreters, and to facilitate communication with the blind, but rarely caters to those with foreign language requirements.

The public sector needs more interpreters, translators and transcriptionists

Considering the broad range of languages spoken across the UK, further provision for both public sector interpreters, translators and transcriptionists are needed to enable non-english speakers to access public sector services. The Serious Case Review following the death of Daniel Pelka, aged 5, made this very important point:

“Without proactive or consistent action by any professional to engage with him via an interpreter, then his lack of language and low confidence would likely have made it almost impossible for him to reveal the abuse he was suffering at home.”

In an attempt to solve the issue, interpretation services are being increasingly outsourced to private sector agencies. Back in 2014, the BBC revealed taxpayers spend £140 million on translators and interpreters for public sector services every year.

But that expenditure hasn’t done much to solve the lack of professional translators, interpreters and transcriptionists in the public sector. Private contractor Capita, which has been responsible for providing legal interpreting services for the Ministry of Justice since 2012, has struggled to meet demand. The result has seen 2,600 court cases adjourned over the past five years.

The NHS has suffered from a lack of professional translators and interpreters too. Pearl Linguistics, which has provided face-to-face and phone interpretation and medical document transcription services to the NHS in England recently went into liquidation, as cost-cutting drives competent interpreters away from the public sector.

Case study: the NHS

The NHS is particularly reliant on the services of translators and interpreters. Medical interpretations and translations can differ slightly from other public sector and professional interpretations and translations in that they do not necessarily deal with translating each single word, but extract the most valuable information pertaining to a patient’s care. Often this means accounting for hospital jargon and using the exact medical terminology relating to a patient’s specific symptoms or history.

Medical transcriptionists in particular are a highly specialised subset of translators, interpreters and transcriptionists, dealing in the transcription of medical reports and patient histories from any number of audio recordings or files. Because these are documents typically recorded or written by medical professionals for medical professionals, they are particularly lean and technical. This requires a great deal of inference and background knowledge to ensure erroneous medical transcriptions don’t cause patients harm.

Global Voices is a London-based translation agency supplying interpretation, translation and transcription services for the public sector. In a blog post on the topic of medical transcription and the public sector, they also point out that fact that transcription and/or translation can also involve working with handwritten notes. This, they emphasise, is no mean feat considering the notoriously poor handwriting of doctors.

Can tech solve the public sector translation crisis?

Technological solutions are increasingly being used to help relieve some of the pressures on translators, interpreters and transcriptionists in the public sector; especially in the NHS. Translation apps are among the most popular options being trialled by hospitals.

Convenience has been the main selling point of translation apps from the start. It’s far more time and cost effective to speak or type a phrase into a phone or device that is able to immediately generate an interpretation or translation than to arrange and wait for the arrival of a face-to-face or phone translator. is a US site that reviews apps for the medical industry. Live translating services, they write, “can be expensive, challenging to use, and often delay care,” and recommend app called MediBabble as an alternative. The digital interpretation and translation tools, which boasts medical phrases in Mandarin, Haitian Creole, Russian and Spanish, are fact-checked by both medical and translation experts.

While the app launched to positive reviews, some suggesting it “sets a new standard”, it is as flawed as other translation technologies that fail to reassure patients they are being properly understood. Canopy is a similar software, designed by a specialist digital healthcare company and pre-programmed with a number of medical-specific phrases, but remains limited to basic unidirectional communications.

Translation tech just can’t make the same inferences or detect the same nuances as a human interpreter is able to discern. When patients themselves often know little about the exact illness or injury that ails them, this inference is a necessary tool for understanding. Meanwhile, there isn’t yet adequate technology able to decipher and translate the famously illegible handwriting of medical professionals.

Though machine translation is expected to reach dizzying heights in terms of accuracy, it’s simply not a risk we should be willing to take. The public sector is going to remain reliant on human translators, interpreters and transcriptionists for a while yet.

2 Responses

  1. I have done some translation and interpreting in public sector. The payment is lower than working in the cafe, which I believe, is not fair. It requires so much training for a linguist to become a qualified Interpreter and translator, unfortunately, their work is not valued in the same way as doctors, solicitors, accountants, and other professionals.
    I hope the situation changes for us translators.

  2. You want to keep the information you gather very targeted.

    The release of the communications requested in this
    FOIA will nudge open a door to the inner sanctum of the High
    Priests of green-think in the EPA, as well as provide much-needed insight into the EPA’s operational allies amongst environmental NGOs and associated non-profit advocacy groups.

    With the president announcing his support
    for construction of the southern leg of the KXL, even offering to “cut through the red tape” to speed up
    the process, this would seem an opportune time to put him on the
    spot with our “reasonable compromise” as embodied by the Terry bill.

Leave a Reply