What is the role of interpreters in the questioning of minors? Conclusions from the first research project on interpreter-mediated questioning of minors – Heidi Salaets and Katalin Balogh

In 2019, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It may be appropriate to dwell upon the question of how these rights have been respected or neglected in the past 30 years.

Of course, this rather ambitious endeavour cannot be undertaken in a short blog post, but it can serve as a starting point to draw attention to the research we – as interpreters, interpreter trainers and researchers – have conducted concerning interpreter-mediated questioning of minors.

More specifically, we will only focus here on Articles 12 and 13: Article 12 states that for a child who is capable of forming his or her own views, the “right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child…” shall be assured. Moreover, “for this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.”

Article 13 subsequently states that the “child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.”

As we showed in our article Interpreter-mediated questioning of minors (ImQM): the voice of children and their rapport with interpreters, (published in issue 71 of Revista de Llengua i Dret, Journal of Language and Law)1 the topic of ImQM is under-researched.

If we were to describe this topic using a metaphor referring to the above-mentioned Convention on the Rights of the Child, it would appear as if, with the convention, a modern house was built with nice furniture and flowers for decoration… but the windows cannot be opened in order to have a view on the world. In other words, how can the right of expression, the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information” or the opportunity “to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings” be fully respected if that communication is difficult or even impossible because of linguistic differences between participants in a conversation. This may be questioning or an interview during an asylum procedure or a simple conversation, but with a child as one of the participants in the encounter. Of course, it is not difficult to imagine such situations among newly arrived people or even temporary visitors, not to mention amongst refugees, just to name a few examples. People on the move usually don’t immediately speak the language(s) of the country or countries which they pass through or have arrived in. If minors do not linguistically understand their rights, they cannot comprehend or grasp them either and thus cannot fully participate or have their right to be heard fully applied.

So, research on this topic was and is still seriously needed. It was several European Directives – amongst which are the 2010/64/EU Directive and the 2012/29/EU Directive (on the right to translation and interpreting in criminal proceedings, and regarding the minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime, respectively) – that offered incentives to undertake research concerning vulnerable victims, witnesses and the accused, and more specifically minors. Therefore, we tried to offer new insights in the first Co-Minor-IN/QUEST project, by mapping the ImQM situation through on-line questionnaires that were distributed to all parties involved when a child (that doesn’t speak the local language) is heard: legal actors, psychologists, social workers and, of course, interpreters in this specific situation. One of the outcomes was that questioning techniques are sometimes not respected by the interpreter (who is not aware of its specific aims). Another important and often-seen outcome is that the concept of trust especially is challenged, among other things because the rapport building that usually happens with the interviewer, is now passing through a third party: the interpreter. Although this is often considered an obstacle, it can easily be removed by organizing a briefing with the interview participants and by working as a team. Trust must also be present among the different professionals that are involved in ImQM, including the interpreter because:

“the results of our previous research [Co-Minor-IN/QUEST I] indicated a lack of mutual knowledge about the tasks and responsibilities of all professionals involved in ImQM. The interpreter’s role is the least understood among the interview participants, despite the fact that the figure of the interpreter is a crucial link to making communication possible. This unfamiliarity seemed to engender a lack of trust among the interview participants […] there exists an urgent need to build this trust […] this urgent need for better teamwork (briefing, and debriefing, trust) and more (specialised) training were key issues which formed the basis for the idea of an interprofessional joint training model.” (Salaets & Balogh, 2019: 32).

Our goal in the follow-up project (Co-Minor-IN/QUEST II) was to design the modules for this interprofessional joint training, based on research following different methodologies: focus group discussions with the above-mentioned professionals involved in the ImQM, semi-structured interviews with children in a quasi-experimental setting and a fully-fledged pilot session (with participants and observers) of the newly-designed interprofessional training. The narratives or key concepts that came out were trust, teamwork, interprofessional training, child rights, child-friendly justice and vulnerability.

The innovative aspect of this research is the child participation: for the first time – even if performed in a quasi-experimental setting – we asked the children how they themselves experienced the interpreter-mediated interview. If we must highlight one conclusion, it seems to be the fact that children relate more to the interpreter than to the interviewer. This poses questions about the traditional, obsolete but mostly desired role of the interpreter by the other professionals: the “interpreter-as-a-machine”. This traditional role requires the interpreter to be distant, impartial and invisible; in other words a kind of non-participant. Previous research by interpreting scholars, as well as experience, shows that this is not the case. Future research should confirm this through observation and more empirical data, should consider increasing child participation in the “real world” (outside the experiment) and should encourage the concepts of raising awareness concerning solid and comprehensive communication through the interpreter, through shared knowledge and far-reaching joint training.

We must stress that in all of this, the professionalism of the interpreter is of paramount importance: in our quasi-experiment, only professional interpreters were present, which allows us to state that

“the minors felt as if they had understood everything, that they were listened to, and that they could ask for clarification, if necessary. In other words, they felt they had a voice.” (Salaets & Balogh, 2019: 38).

As a conclusion, we wish to emphasize that our research results are not a plea for a stronger role for the interpreter, first of all because the research methodologies (focus-group, interviews, pilot training) do not allow generalizations and secondly because that would imply a risk for the interpreter (who obviously cannot take the place of the police officer, the social worker, the judge and so on). It is, on the other hand, a conclusion that wishes to draw attention to the fact that the stakeholders involved in ImQM should be clearly aware of the different circumstances during an interpreter-mediated questioning and

“in particular, that children show an intuitive tendency to trust the interpreter, the person they can understand […]. By embracing children’s perceptions, interpreters can be instrumental in promoting mutual trust among all participating agents. Open communication about the roles of both interviewer and interpreter can be developed in briefings at which the interpreter is presented as a professional member of the team; interviewers can use appropriate body language and discourse markers to accentuate their listening attitude. As CMIQ-II suggests, awareness of all stakeholder’s roles in ImQM can best be achieved through joint training, whereby interviewers and/or other stakeholders learn to use interpreters to convey a sense of trust to minors while maintaining their role as leader(s) of the interview.” (Salaets & Balogh, 2019: 39).

Heidi Salaets
Assistant professor and Head of the Interpreting Studies Research Group at the KU Leuven Faculty of Arts (Antwerp, Brussels and Leuven campuses)

Katalin Balogh
Lecturer in German and Coordinator of the Legal Interpreting and Translation training programme at the University of Leuven Faculty of Arts (Antwerp campus).

For more information about this research, we invite you to read the paper “Interpreter-mediated questioning of minors (ImQM): the voice of children and their rapport with interpreters”, published in issue 71 of Revista de Llengua i Dret, Journal of Language and Law. 1Salaets, Heidi, & Balogh, Katalin. (2019). Interpreter-mediated questioning of minors (ImQM): the voice of children and their rapport with interpreters. Revista de Llengua i Dret, Journal of Language and Law, 71, 27–44. https://doi.org/10.2436/rld.i71.2019.3257

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