How a seemingly simple public service interpreting assignment can get dangerous. A cautionary tale by Sue Leschen
Here’s what can happen when an interpreting job suddenly goes off piste. I was booked to interpret for Social Services after concerns were raised about the father of a French-speaking family, who had allegedly been beating his children. Attendees at the child safeguarding meeting would include the family’s social worker, a district nurse, a police officer and teachers from the children’s school.
On paper, the assignment looked doable. As with other interpreting jobs involving meetings, the main issue would doubtless be everyone speaking at the same time, including ‘side conversations’ among attendees – nothing a competent interpreter couldn’t handle. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The day went from bad to worse, starting with the mother failing to attend the meeting and not answering her phone. The social worker asked me to accompany her to the family home. I called the agency that had booked me to inform them that the venue had changed and to ask them to authorise the home visit. I also took the precaution of asking for my booking time to be extended as half an hour had already elapsed.
The father was known to be violent, so a police officer accompanied us to the flat. Somewhat breathless by the time we got to the 13th floor of the tower block (the lift wasn’t working), we rang the bell. We could hear voices inside but nobody came to open the door, so the police officer radioed for backup. Several of his colleagues soon joined us – all kitted out in stab vests. There was no time to think ‘shouldn’t I be wearing one of those?’ The police had already smashed the glass panel in the door to gain entry.
Covered in splintered glass, the social worker and I followed them in, only to see the mother lunging at one of them. Throughout this drama, I was interpreting for the police at the top of my voice – “Get on the floor, now!” – trying to make myself heard over the screams of terrified children as their mother was manhandled to the floor. I thought, somewhat wistfully, of the orderly meeting that I was supposed to be in.
The police asked the social worker to take the children out of the flat while I stayed to interpret for the mother. For the second time, I had to contact the agency for permission to continue with the assignment, as their client had now left the venue. This time they did not give me an extension. Thinking on my feet (or rather my knees, as I was interpreting for the mother on the floor), I asked the officer if I could convert the assignment to a police job. They agreed and I started my third job of the day involving the same family (now earning double, as police rates were more generous).
The officers carried the screaming mother out of the flat as I interpreted her expletives. The police now needed to secure the flat as best they could, and asked her for the front door key, which she said was inside her! This led to an intimate body search, which I also had to interpret. The missing key was eventually located on the mantelpiece, and the mother was removed from the flat.
The police wrote a note to inform the father that his wife was at the local police station and the children were with foster carers. I translated it, relieved that this nightmarish job was nearly over. How wrong I was: without warning, the father returned home brandishing a knife. The police officer yelled “run!”, so I did – in high heels – down 13 flights of stairs. We reached the foyer and, after a few heart-stopping moments when we couldn’t get the door to open, we were safe.
The next day, by complete coincidence, I met a couple of the police officers in town. They asked me if I had recovered from my ordeal and looked somewhat ashamed when I criticised them for having put me in such a dangerous situation without a stab vest.
These days I always carry a pair of flat shoes with me, insist on a stab vest if it seems necessary, and am a lot less likely to be flexible about sudden changes of client and venue unless I have had the benefit of a full briefing (and time to decline if that’s what I decide to do) – especially in potentially dangerous situations such as this one.
Lawyer-linguist Sue Leschen MCIL CL is Director of Avocate, a specialist translation and interpreting company, and a member of CIOL Council.