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BSL Interpreting in Police Settings

Guidance taken and adapted from

In the course of your interpreting career you may find yourself being asked to interpret in a legal setting. Whilst this will be very similar to other British sign language (BSL) interpreting roles in many respects, certain requirements need to be met in order to satisfy the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) codes. The role isn’t suitable for trainee interpreters and you will need to be professionally qualified before you undertake such a role.

Interpreting in a police setting will require a high level of accuracy and the ability to adhere to procedure. Confidentiality is also vital as you will be privy to sensitive information relating to people in custody who may be accused of committing crimes, as well as witnesses and victims.

It’s important you know the reasons for the interview when the booking is made. This may be the alleged offence or the reasons why an interview is taking place. Make sure you also have the contact details for the officer who as booked you as well as the details of the time, date and location of the interview.

It’s important to follow correct procedure from the outset. Make sure you arrive on time at the station where you should ask for the officer who booked you. You should be introduced to the investigating officer, custody sergeant and anyone who will also be sitting in on the interview such as solicitor, appropriate adult or social worker.

Remember, the professionals and officers you will come into contact with might not have ever had to use a BSL interpreter so you need to be able to explain to them what your role is and how you will work in the interview.

The interviewing officer should give you some background before the interview takes place, including why the person has been arrested or what the nature of the interview is about. This is important to provide a context for the interpretation and help the interpretation process so you are fully informed. It is also an opportunity for the officer to provide you with any other relevant information which may aid the process as well as the names of all those who will be present.

You will then be introduced to the BSL user who is to be interviewed, and be given time to get used to each other’s style of signing. It is vital you inform the BSL user what the scope of your role is – that you are employed by the police which means you will tell them about anything signed in the interview relating to the enquiry or the alleged offence. You must also tell the custody officer if there are any difficulties in communication.

There are a number of points you should be aware of prior to any interpretation taking place.

  1. Police interviews sometimes only take the form of audio recordings and note taking – there is not always video. What this means in practical terms is there is no actual record of what the BSL user is signing, just the notes that are taken down during the interview and an audio recording of your interpretation.
  2. You might also be expected to interpret any conversation between the interviewee and their solicitor, appropriate adult etc. as well. Where possible, a second interpreter should be booked for this role as it could represent a conflict of interest. However, where this isn’t possible, then the custody officer needs to mention this explicitly during the interview and explain you are providing interpretation between both the suspect and the police and the suspect and his or her legal counsel.
  3. Practical arrangements need to be taken into consideration and you should be able to sit facing the interviewee with the officers/solicitor off to one side. The interviewing officer should ensure you have regular breaks and water to cope with physical and mental effort of interpretation.
  4. The interviewing officer may read back the interpreted statement to the interviewee, which you will interpret for them. This allows the suspect to agree or disagree with your translation.
  5. Once the interview is complete, the interviewing officer will require you to sign a statement confirming you have acted professionally and responsibly. You will also need to provide details of the organisation you work for and confirm you have acted impartially as any interpretation of the interview could form part of the evidence at a later date.

At the start of the interview the interviewing officer may read a caution – a suspect’s right to silence – which you will need to interpret but this can be difficult due to the nature of a caution which is read out in its entirety in one set legal statement. It is not a natural way of speaking or signing so requires careful thought to ensure an accurate interpretation is rendered. The officer will also ensure this statement is understood and you will interpret accordingly. As well as interpreting this statement, you will need to convey the meaning accurately. The officer will make sure the statement is understood which you will also interpret for the interviewee.

The interview will then take place. You should not be left alone with the interviewee at any point, to maintain impartiality.

Things to remember during interview:

  • Clarification – As with any interpretation setting, ask for clarification wherever necessary.
  • Non-verbal communication – An interviewee may nod or shake their head which you will have to be interpreted for the benefit of the audio recording.
  • Accurate interpretation – Spoken English and BSL are very different and as such you will face ongoing issues during the interview. For example, small details might be very important in the context of a police interview and you will have to ensure these are interpreted accurately. Intervene wherever necessary to make sure your interpretation is clear for both parties.
  • Charges – In the event the interviewee is charged with an offence, the officer will read out the charges. As with the initial statement, this is often written in complex legal language and you will need to interpret it accurately for the interviewee. The officer should pause regularly to allow you to interpret each sentence. If they don’t, ask for breaks to give you time to interpret.

Your interpretation could become police evidence in the event of a case being brought and you could be asked to give evidence as a prosecution witness. As a result, you cannot be a court interpreter in the same case to avoid a conflict of interest.

There may be further procedures which need to take place in relation to the interviewee such as fingerprinting, DNA testing or photographs. You will need to interpret the explanations for those procedures for the interviewee and be present as the occur, explaining the process.

If a suspect is bailed you will need to interpret this procedure for them.

Finally, make sure relevant paperwork is signed or a police claims form for BSL interpretation has been filled out and signed for services booked through Language Empire.