Home > Community, Research, Video > Talking Points: The Interpreter

Talking Points: The Interpreter

Kalyan2CropThis is one of four linked blogposts, building on the Norman Maclean “Talking Points” series of discussions, which focus on specific contributions from the participants.

Kalyan Das Gupta was raised in Kolkata, speaking Bengali, Hindi, and English, and spent a large part of his professional career running Community Interpreting and Translating Services, first in Edinburgh, and later in Lewisham in London, where he now lives in retirement.

Below is a transcript of Kalyan’s opening points in the Talking Points session on Language Hierarchies, in which he looks back over his life and career and recalls a series of personal and professional experiences related to this topic.

As an English speaker, I personally seldom experienced direct “linguistic hierarchism”, if you will, in Britain or in any English-speaking country, except as a function of blatant racism or a racist “colour-blindness” of the well- or ill-intentioned kind.

During my first visit to Britain, in the summer of 1980, our organised coach from London to Edinburgh halted at 2 a.m. at a motorway café in Doncaster, Yorkshire. As I squinted to try and read the menu stuck on the door, a group of white teenagers lounging inside saw me and decided to come out. One of them placed his face in mine and unleashed a torrent of what sounded like working class mock Indian words or sounds, or Indian-accented slang English. They all laughed. I headed for the toilet. Unfortunately, that was outside too, in the dark, in the back. They surrounded me, inside, whistling. I quickly exited onto the better-lit pathway and dived into the café, losing them.

As a new junior lecturer in Coventry, I and my white English boss stood confused and bemused as the dinner lady asked her “And what’s he having?”. We both just burst out laughing at this uncannily immediate real-life illustration of the example we had been discussing in our anti-racism trainer briefing session just before breaking for lunch, where we used the example “Does he take sugar?”.

More serious examples sometimes came second- or third-hand, and I hope my memory serves me well. A senior lecturer in our training team, a very dark-skinned Ugandan Asian gentleman, and former national hockey star from Uganda who spoke eleven languages, including highly polished English with a Rugby School accent, routinely received uncomprehending blank stares from his local white bank-tellers when he greeted them at the counter. Once, a concerned English white health professional requested him to see if, with his eleven languages, he could perhaps crack a seeming mystery. A distressed Asian mental health patient, sectioned in a ward for four years, had been known to break into animated apparent gibberish quite frequently at mealtimes. It turned out she had been desperately asking for the occasional Indian meal with chapatis in Gujarati, but no-one had bothered to check till now.

As the co-ordinator of the interpreting and translating service, I was once invited to Saughton Prison in Edinburgh to see if I could help a Chinese inmate there. When he was jailed for murder ten years earlier, his English was virtually non-existent and he was offered no interpreter at all to put his own side of the story to anyone. Now, ten years later, this handsome, clean-cut, polite young man spoke very clear English, having taught himself the language in prison, as well as law. He cheerfully, but with great propriety and almost professional self-restraint, entreated me to trigger a review, insisting he had been framed.

My Chinese predecessor in the job had campaigned for years against the practice of English-only registration forms being left dangling unexplained and unsignposted at health service receptions in clinics and hospitals. His mostly rural-derived women clients from Hong Kong were often illiterate even in Chinese. They frequently waited in those reception lounges, unserved for a while before leaving. There was no proactive guidance, service or translated signposting or explanatory literature, and many of them with urgent care needs simply felt like cyphers.

In France, around the same time, a woman who had come into a hospital for a pregnancy check-up was wrongly given an abortion before anyone realised what was happening. Staff there had not bothered noting the clear difference between her full Vietnamese name and the full name of another Vietnamese woman patient actually waiting for that procedure.

Community Interpreting and Translating Services started to be grudgingly set up as a public service in Britain, initially just in the voluntary sector, and purely as an adjunct to health or local community council or local authority or legal services, or immigration and refugee services, only following in the wake of a series of Race Relations Acts which themselves were legislated following a decade or two of major uprisings and struggles across cities in Britain, such as in Handsworth (Birmingham), Brixton (London), Toxteth (Liverpool), Cardiff and so on. A key stimulus in this was the Iqbal Begum case.

Iqbal Begum had been jailed for life in 1981 for murdering her abusive husband. In 1985, a chance visitor discovered that Mrs Begum had not had any clue as to what was being said to her and what the language mediator was either asking her or saying to her, so she had stayed silent in her confusion. This silence had been interpreted as an admission of guilt. The mediator, who was a Gujarati-speaking accountant press-ganged into service by the court, did not communicate to her clearly for her purposes. Mrs Begum’s particular dialect was a Pakistani variant of Punjabi. Mrs Begum was released, but, having spent four years in jail already, unable to bear the humiliation she later killed herself.

Under the joint cosh of the notorious Tory and Labour Private Finance Initiative drive, PFI, to privatise public services, the Interpreting and Translating services, which had for a while become grudgingly incorporated into the general local or health-initiated funded local authority services, started to become out-sourced to private, non-local, money-making outfits around the turn of the century, eventually succumbing to the re-worked version of the racist rant “Speak English!”, now sounding to our ears like “Learn English!” but with no difference in funding or support involved.

Many will find this testimony moving and powerful, yet elsewhere in the series Kalyan made a point of cautioning against over-reliance on personal experiences and anecdotes. In this clip from the session on Language Endangerment, he disavows linguistic expertise in favour of an explicitly political analysis.

Links to the three other blogposts in this short series are given below:

The Linguists (Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, Udaya Narayana Singh, Joseph Farquharson)
The Poet (Audrey West)
The Teacher (Jane NicLeòid)

Categories: Community, Research, Video
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: