Dr Sabine Fenton*


The Research Project and Method
Analysis of the Questionnaires


[1] The debate surrounding the rights and obligations of community interpreters juxtaposes two positions: interpreting and advocacy. Interpreting in this context means a close rendering of what was heard with cultural adjustments strictly limited to linguistic elements, while advocacy includes interventions by the interpreter on behalf of the clients and for their perceived benefit.

[2] As much as this division is probably an academic construct, it is nevertheless repeated in real life by the distinction between the two main contexts in which community interpreting takes place: legal or social settings. The first, demanding a stricter role prescription and being criticised for it, the second, opening up and increasing the interpreters function and responsibilities.

[3] In the face of increasing pressure from some academic quarters to enhance also the role of the legal interpreter with the functions that interpreters often fulfil in social settings, this paper investigates the implications this might have for interpreters working in Convention Refugee hearings. It is argued that in these cases often the weakest members of the profession interpret for the weakest members of society and that an enlargement of the interpreter’s role could increase their clients’ ‘well-founded’ fear even further or could raise unrealistic expectations in the refugee applicant and exert an unbearable pressure on the interpreter.

[4] The author of this paper is the national president of a professional association of translators and interpreters and her interest in this investigation stems from the concerns of this body about the well-being  of this group of associates of the New Zealand Society of Translators and Interpreters. Her findings are based on a corpus of questionnaires filled in by interpreters working for the New Zealand Refugee Status Appeals Authority.


[5] The plight of Convention refugees, also called asylum seekers or spontaneous refugees, touches every developed country today, including New Zealand, a small country at the end of the world. In a world aflood with refugees, the question of who of those fleeing the world’s civil conflicts is granted political asylum, becomes paramount. It is the task of the immigration officer to identify who is a true convention refugee on the basis of the claimants’ accounts of their life story. The interpretation of this account by the interpreter may bear heavily on a positive or negative outcome for the refugee.

[6] The challenge of having to cope with spontaneous refugees is a relatively new phenomenon in New Zealand when compared with other Western countries. “Despite early adherence to the Refugee Convention, the arrival of and subsequent development of procedures to process spontaneous refugees, has, in New Zealand really only been a feature of the last decade” (Ives 1998: 3). Until the 1970s, New Zealand’s relative isolation from the rest of the Western world ruled it out as an easy destination for asylum seekers. New Zealand could be reached only by two routes and by the late 1980s, a mere trickle of asylum seekers had reached the country. However, with the rapid growth of international transport and communication links between continents, the arrival of spontaneous refugees in New Zealand dramatically increased in the next two decades. While only 27 refugees lodged applications for refugee status in 1987, by 1998/1999 this number had risen to 2,020 applications, then dropping down to 1,408 in the next year (NZ Refugee law).

[7] The New Zealand Government became party to the Refugee Convention relatively early. It signed the 1951 Geneva Convention in 1960 and to the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1973 (UNHCR 2000: 304).  It is therefore under the international obligation to determine the status of refugee claimants according to the Geneva Convention.  The current two- tier procedure – initial determination by the Refugee Status Branch of the New Zealand Immigration Service with appeal by right as a de novo inquiry to the Refugee Status Appeals Authority – was established in 1991.

[8] In an address to the International Law Association, Rodger Haines, an Auckland Barrister and member of the Refugee Status Appeals Authority, declared that “by international standards, the New Zealand refugee status determination system is humane and fair” (Haines 1998: 17).

[9] To uphold both – humaneness and fairness – and the general spirit of generosity of the Convention and Protocol, the introduction of an interpreter as intermediary between the claimant and the status determining authority has become an accepted necessity in New Zealand as in other countries. The success of applications depends largely on the success of the verbal communication process in which the claimants have to convince the authority that the definition of the Convention applies to them. The onus of proof lies with the claimant.  A Convention Refugee is a person who

[10] If claimants do not speak the language of the host country, they depend on the skills of an interpreter. The question of what these skills should include, however, and the role the interpreters should play, is far from clear. The question has in fact created a notable divide with some academic scholars on one side and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the judiciary on the other side of the debate. The former, favouring a liberal interpretation of the interpreter’s role and functions and making a case for interpreters’ latitude, while the latter insist on a more restricted role prescription.
[11] The context of asylum seeker interviews is a legal one. Decisions about a claimant’s life and sometimes death are made on the basis of international laws and national statutes and legal systems. Already in the first interview conducted by an immigration asylum officer, claimants are reminded that they must tell the truth and advised that “if a person supplies any information knowing that it is false that they are guilty of an offence punishable by a fine or imprisonment”2. Once their case goes to the appeal stage, a formal courtroom setting takes over and interpreters and claimants are sworn in. Thus it is fair to say that interpreters working in this environment are working under the same conditions and obligations as legal and court interpreters.

[12] In its relatively short history, court interpreting has established itself as an independent branch of the interpreting profession and has contributed considerably to the professionalisation and status of the profession today. In the last decade court interpreters have set themselves apart from community interpreters and have gained the respect of the legal profession as each side has learned over the years to recognise and respect the constraints of the other’s profession. Seminal works on the theory and practice of court interpreting have been published, and academic training programmes entirely devoted to court interpreting have been established. And while the statutes and rules of the courts impose the interpreting standards and practices, interpreters have learned to work within them as well as adhere to their own profession’s principles and rules.

[13] For a long time the legal perception of the court interpreter was that of a mechanical device rendering literally, word for word what was said by the foreign language speaker. The approach was grounded in the belief that this would eliminate hearsay in the courtroom. As interpreting scholars and the interpreting community have over the years deepened their understanding of inter-lingual communication and the interpreting process (Berk-Seligson 1990; Gonzales, Vasquez & Mikkelson 1991; Morris 1993; Edwards 1995; Colin and Morris 1996; Wadensjö 1998), the legal profession has not remained unaware of their findings. With the exposure that “the ‘verbatim requirement’ for court interpreters is a myth and should have been debunked long ago (Mikkelson: 8) many lawyers and judges these days are prepared to give interpreters a greater latitude then ever before  “for functional equivalence and meaning-based translation” (Mikkelson: 1). They too, have over the years, gained a deeper understanding of the interpreting process. And while this might not be the general state of affairs within the legal profession worldwide, it seems to be the case in New Zealand. Here two factors have come together to create a positive environment for legal and court interpreters.

[14] All this has contributed to a general acceptance that a verbatim interpretation even in a strict courtroom setting is an uninformed requirement and only justified on rare occasions.

[15] I feel we have come a long way in New Zealand. However, this state of affairs, the ground we have gained, we now see threatened by a voice from one of the great immigrant receiving countries of the Western World, Canada. Barsky, in an article published in The Translator (Barsky 1996: 45-63) pleads for extending the role of the interpreter in Convention Refugee hearings. Interpreters should be “legally recognized as active intermediaries between the claimant and the adjucating body” (Barsky 1996: 46). He proposes strategies for interpreters that would best assist claimants by improving their chances of receiving a fair hearing. These strategies range from “intervening with questions and clarifications that are pertinent to the case” (Barsky 1996: 46) to “compensating for the claimant’s errors of judgement” (Barsky 1996: 52), to adding unsolicited supplementary information on the historical, political and social situation of the claimant’s country, to finally “improving the narrative”  (Barsky 1996: 56) altogether, meaning retelling the claimant’s life’s account according to the interpreter’s own judgement because he might simply be better at  telling a good story.

[16] These are extreme demands of an interpreter by any measure and are grounded in Barsky’s grim view of incompetent immigration officers and unfair hearings. He sees the entire process as stacked against the claimant. He further supports his argument by quoting the United Nations Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status where it states:

[17] Here Barsky seems to see the interpreter as one of the “qualified personnel” examining the refugee’s case. On closer reading of the Handbook I, however, have serious doubts that the interpreter is included as part of this “qualified personnel”. “A competent interpreter” (Handbook 1992: 46) is mentioned as one of the guarantees provided to the applicant, but the assessment of the applicant’s claim rests entirely with the examiner, “the competent official, e.g. immigration officer” (Handbook 1992: 46), with  “the competent authorities of Contracting States” (Handbook 1992: 1).
[18] In this paper I want to show that, although Barsky’s views are well-meaning and show great compassion for the plight of the asylum seekers, they, however, open the door to dangerous and unsafe practices for the interpreter, instil an exaggerated faith by the claimant in the powers of the interpreter, and if accepted by the interpreting community, would set the profession back by light years. I base my arguments for this purpose not on any particular theory but rather on the voice and profile of the interpreters working for the New Zealand Refugee Status Appeals Authority, their work experiences and their situation within their own communities.

The Research Project and Method

[19] The research I am reporting on here was undertaken at the beginning of 2001. It is investigating three main areas:

[20] It is hypothesised that interpreters do not see themselves being part of the decision making personnel in asylum seeker cases; that they have a solid understanding of interpreting ethics; and that an extension of their role would be understood by them as a violation of their professional ethics. It is also hypothesised that a more active role which would go beyond interpreting would also have a negative impact on their personal and professional lives. In summary, the following research represents an attempt to contribute to the literature on the role of the interpreter in legal settings in general and convention hearings in particular.

[21] The survey methodology used for data collection was in the form of a questionnaire focussing on the following main areas: the interpreter, the contractor, the client, and the job. A total of 110 survey packets were mailed out to the interpreters on the list of the Refugee Status Appeals Authority in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city and Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. Each packet mailed to respondents contained two cover letters; one from the researcher, stating the purpose of the research project, one from the Authority encouraging the interpreter to take part in the project, together with a questionnaire and a self-addressed franked return envelop. Total anonymity of the respondents was assured by the fact that the Authority mailed the packets out and the responses were directly mailed to the researcher. The total response rate was  32%. The findings reported here are based on the analysis of the returned questionnaires.

Analysis of the Questionnaires

[22] The first area of focus pertained to the identification of individual characteristics of the interpreters. Nearly all of them had come to New Zealand as migrants, a very small percentage (2%) as refugees and nearly all had been in New Zealand for more than 5 years (91%).  All of them had studied English formally in a classroom setting, the majority of respondents for 10 years and longer. In terms of educational background, as measured by the highest degree obtained, 60% of the respondents had received their bachelor degree or equivalent and 29% had postgraduate qualifications. With respect to respondents’ specific education and training in interpreting before they started to work for the Refugee Status Appeals Authority, only a little over half  (57%) had attended a training course. The courses were non-language specific part-time courses attended in New Zealand and varying in length from one week to one year.  All respondents indicated that they played an active role in their communities that ranged from under 500 to over 2000 members. Activities ranged from interpreting and translating to teaching, to leading roles in their cultural organisations, and to voluntary community work, particularly being a contact person for newcomers, helping them to settle in their new surroundings, and to being a minister of religion.

[23] In summary we can say that most respondents were well educated, had excellent linguistic skills but were generally lacking in interpreting education and training at the time they began working as interpreters. The roles they played in their communities made them easily identifiable.

[24] The second area of focus was that of the interpreters’ employer or contractor. An overwhelming majority felt valued by their employer (71 %). This was expressed in terms of courteous manners by the staff, recognition of the importance of their job, praise and thanks expressed for good work, respect shown to them, and an appreciation of paid interpreter training courses and professional development seminars.

[25] As much as this supportive attitude by the employer of the respondents is to be welcomed it carries a potential danger for the interpreting process. Feeling so positively about the employer and the importance of the role they are playing, interpreters may over-identify with the professional during the interpreting and thus loose their impartiality. Interestingly, however, results of the two following areas of investigation show that in fact the opposite was true. Having been treated with respect as professionals in their own right instilled in the interpreters pride of their own profession which in turn made them adhere closely to their professional ethics of which impartiality is, of course, a leading principle.
[26] The results of the third content area, that of the client, begin to show the pressures that interpreters experience.  63 % of respondents said that asylum seekers ask them for help during the interview, how they should answer this or that question. 57% said they were contacted after the interview at home. While all interpreters stated that they politely but firmly denied such requests, they also said that they nevertheless felt under pressure. When it comes to being contacted at home by a claimant, this pressure intensifies to such an extent that interpreters often ask the manager of the interpreting service who arranges the appointments, “Please don’t tell them my name”.

[27] The last area of the questionnaire concerned the job itself. Open-ended questions provided opportunities for unstructured, fuller answers. The enjoyment of working for the Appeals Authority came for the interpreters from using their skills (“energising and fulfilling”), working with a professional team on the one hand and helping people on the other, and the context of the assignments (“edge of seat stuff”).
[28] A great number of respondents, however, also expressed negative feelings concerning the job. Firstly there was unhappiness about the interviewers’ “hostile or wrong way of questioning ”, the perceived ignorance of lawyers about a certain case, their “coldness”. “I have come across officers who have asked unclear and irrelevant questions, (some bordered on unfair) that have led to confusion on part of the applicants, they panic, then they can’t answer the questions properly and correctly. I’ve seen some just freeze mentally and I feel sorry for them”. Other comments referred to the inability of the interviewers to judge the claimant’s educational background and adjust the tone and register of their questions accordingly. “The professionals should be aware that some of the appellants are not at all educated and that sometimes it is hard for a particular appellant to understand and to be able to answer a question, however simple it is for the professional. Getting uptight to the appellants does not really help”. And interpreters feel pity and sympathy for the appellants, who are, after all, their fellow countrymen and women and have escaped life-threatening situations and find themselves in a foreign land and foreign culture. “Some professionals and their staff should be more friendly towards the applicants. Remember they are going through a lot of stresses and horrors back at their own country. This country and the court are foreign to them”. This is close to the scenario Barsky describes and raises the expectation that these interpreters will want to intervene on behalf of the refugees. And indeed, some of the interpreters expressed the wish to be able to do just that but felt restrained by their code of ethics.

[29] Nevertheless, there is also resentment towards the asylum seekers when the interpreters feel they have been party to a false claim. “Their stories are so far- fetched, a lie or fabrication and I had helped the applicant to be successful”. And finally there is apprehension and wariness about their own welfare and safety. Interpreters report of having been threatened during an interview. Well-known and easily identifiable within their communities, interpreters are being called by phone about the result of their interview. Appellants come to their house. “They bring papers for me to read about their case. They talk, they discuss, they ask my opinion.” Apprehension turns to fear when blame is laid on them by unsuccessful appellants who did not see their expectations realised.  “If I don’t achieve what they want, they treat me with abuse, ring at night, threaten me with my life ”.

[30] The last question of the survey asked the interpreters to describe how they saw their role. Surprisingly, the respondents unanimously understood their role to be strictly that of interpreting and were adamant about keeping it this way. They perceived themselves as linguistic “experts” adhering to their professional Code of Ethics. “I see my main role as the upholder of accurate interpreting, not biased towards either the Appeals Authority or the claimant”. They wanted to be “as invisible and unobtrusive as possible”. They proudly referred to their professional ethics and their role, “I take pride in my integrity and honesty”, and “I see myself as a professional aid to communication between two parties and a cultural bridge between two parties from two different cultures".


[31] There were several reasons for engaging in this study that, for the first time in New Zealand, investigated a group of interpreters, namely those working for the Refugee Status Appeals Authority. One goal was to determine the profile of the interpreters in terms of their educational background and standing in their communities.  Of further interest was their understanding of their professional role and the extent to which they would be prepared to compromise this role.  In general, each of these goals was achieved. We must now relate the final analysis to Barsky’s recommendations as set out at the beginning of this paper. His proposition was to extend the role of interpreters in Convention refugee hearings to “active intermediaries” (Barsky 1996: 46) who follow strategies of intervention and advocacy, compensation and performance skills on behalf of their client.
[32] From the statements supplied by the interpreters in the questionnaires the following picture has emerged:

[33] This is a clear rejection by the practitioners themselves of a role that goes beyond interpreting. It is perhaps grounded in the strong emphasis on ethics as part of their training, emphasised in part-time, non-language specific interpreting courses, and it also rewards them with a sense of identity and security within their professional activity.

[34] The support and help that Barsky seeks for Convention refugees must come from other sources, it cannot come from the interpreters. Involving them in anything other then interpreting would be as detrimental to the individual interpreter as to the profession on the whole.

Barsky, Robert F. (1996). “The Interpreter as Intercultural Agent in Convention Refugee Hearings”. In: Translator. Vol 2, Nr. 1, pp 45-63. Manchester: St. Jerome.

Berk-Seligson, Susan (1990). The Bilingual Courtroom: Court Interpreters in the Judicial Process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Colin, Joan and Ruth Morris. (1996). Interpreters in the Legal Process. Winchester, UK: Waterside Press.

Edwards, Alicia (1995). The Practice of Court Interpreting. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

González, Roseann Dueñas, Victoria F. Vásquez, and  Holly Mikkelson (1991). Fundamentals of Court Interpretation. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Haines, Rodger (1998). “International Law and Refugees in New Zealand”. Retrieved 15 February 2001 from the World Wide Web:

Horvath-Lindberg, Judit and Diana Miserez  (1991). Working with Refugees and Asylum Seekers – A Handbook. Geneva: League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Ives, Annabel (1998). Unpublished paper in lieu of exam . Refugee and Immigration Law 810.428, Faculty of Law, Auckland University.

Mikkelson, Holly (n.d.). “Verbatim Interpretation: an Oxymoron”. Retrieved  15 February 2001 from the World Wide Web:

New Zealand Refugee Law: Statistics. Retrieved 15 February 2001 from the World Wide Web:

Office of the United High Commissioner for Refugees (2000). The State of the World’s Refugees – Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (1992). Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status.  Geneva: UNHCR.

Refugee Status Appeals Authority, Practice Note 2/99. Retrieved 1 February 2001 from the World Wide Web:

Wadensjö, Cecilia (1998). Interpreting as Interaction. London/New York: Longman.

1. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Article 1A, (2).

2. Information sheet by the NZ Refugee Status Branch read out to the claimant by the interpreter at the beginning of the first interview, p.3.

* Director of Translation Studies, Centre for Translation Studies, University of Auckland