Revisiting the interpreting landscape in Scotland


CEO Blog

As a deaf professional, I had worked for more than 25 years across deaf services in England, and had often looked with envy at developments in Scotland. With the BSL Act to recognise my language, and the Scottish Government stating their desire for the country to be the ‘best place for BSL users to live, work, visit and learn’ (Scottish Government BSL National Plan 2017 – 2023); my hopes were high as I relocated to Edinburgh and the promised land. 

Is it all rosy in the Scottish garden?

I applaud the many positives for deaf people in Scotland, including: BSL translation videos on some public transport routes; a national online interpreting service for making phone calls; internationally recognised centres for research and training in deafness, interpreting and teachers for deaf education. This is all on top of the excellent opportunities for accessible entertainment and cultural events.  

In the last three years specifically, we have seen interpreters included in the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 briefing broadcasts, the emerging impact of the BSL education planning instigated by Scottish universities and colleges, the inaugural Edinburgh Deaf Festival in August 2022, which placed the eyes of the deaf world on our capital. 

However, since I became the CEO of Deaf Action in 2017 I’ve questioned whether Scotland is doing all it can to achieve the desired accolade of being the “best place for BSL users to live, work, visit and learn” as I have come up against some unexpected barriers whilst living and working here. 

Despite there being many excellent interpreters working in Scotland, I found it difficult to book those whose experience and skillset matched my needs. My peers confirmed that I was not alone in facing this major issue. A common phase from those I chatted with was the “shortage of interpreters” in Scotland.   

On the surface this claim appears to be true. I try to book interpreters months in advance and not one is available. My deaf son has also struggled obtaining interpreter support in school. However, if we look deeper, I think this perceived shortage of interpreters is not just about how many interpreters we have here in Scotland, but also about their availability to us. The market has evolved in such a way that means the interpreting resources we have are not being developed and utilised effectively.

How did we get here?

Let me briefly compare my experience of procurement in England; interpreting agencies there have contracts with a variety of public service organisations; for example, primary health care, community health care, acute health care, legal sector and council services in addition to private sector regular work.  Interpreters employed by these agencies therefore cover a wide range of appointments gaining skills working in settings that have different demands in terms of interactional norms and specialist language. They become familiar with the systems and processes different services use which enhances their knowledge of the world in which they work, and they will meet a wide range of deaf people so will learn to adapt their language to meet a variety of needs. Agencies who specialise in interpreting who were awarded public service contracts could invest in and upskill their teams, ensuring a better service for public bodies. 

Current procurement mechanisms in Scotland are restrictive to an interpreter’s development without a coordinated approach at a national level. For example, NHS boards have gone down the route of employing their own interpreters.   

This situation has led to most interpreters in Scotland being freelance, relying on regular individual clients for a stable income. Deaf people inadvertently endorse this – they know how difficult it can be to find an available interpreter at short notice, so they book one “just in case” for regular slots. If an interpreter wants the security of employment, then their main option is to work within an NHS Trust. 

In both situations, the interpreters will become very well versed in interactions that take place in a client’s workplace or in medical settings and will develop a good familiarity with domain specific terms, which of course could be viewed as a positive. But we also have to remember the skills they will not retain or develop. They may not come across larger meetings or conferences to develop the skills needed to work with in these arenas, for example effective coworking skills to be part of a team of interpreters. They are deprived of opportunities to work with new and varied clients, which would give them the skills to adapt to different styles of BSL. They don’t get to learn new linguistic terms. There is no skills progression or career progression; less opportunity to challenge themselves and become reflective practitioners.  

An interpreter who has just graduated needs exposure to different settings, taking the learning from one setting to benefit communication in another. They need coworking opportunities to see other interpreters working and adopt strategies they see used successfully. They need to try different areas and see which domain best suits their skills and experience. Experienced interpreters may choose to specialise, and become highly skilled in their chosen area, but this could limit their opportunity for exposure in other domains. These factors may then leave them feeling they do not have the skills to take on alternative work should they be asked. 

Regular bookings and employment in a single domain also take interpreters out of the general pool of availability but puts them in work settings where they are unlikely to be required all the time. This habit leads to many interpreters spending a large proportion of the day on standby, losing opportunities to increase their skills and causing a decrease in the number of interpreters available to the community for other appointments.   

This point was also highlighted by BSL Interpreting in Scotland: A Landscape Review published by the Scottish Government in 2019. This review considered data from a number of relevant perspectives including the BSL community, Interpreters, & Interpreting agencies (including Deaf Action) 

The first recommendation from the Review was: 

“… it is crucial that the solution to current challenges is not seen as being simply to increase the number of BSL/English interpreters in Scotland. Although an increase in numbers would certainly be beneficial, a longer-term solution needs to be to ensure that existing BSL/English interpreters are deployed effectively is essential. This will remain a necessity even when interpreter numbers increase.” 

The benefits of agencies employing a team

An agency which has several contracts to fulfil has the financial confidence to employ an interpreting team. And that team has a greater variety of work – solving the issue of interpreters being under-developed, and under-used. 

Agencies that have a team of in-house staff have more flexible pricing margins and can be competitive with their pricing structures for clients, giving good value to public bodies and also giving interpreters a secure income and career pathway.  

These agencies can invest in staff with ongoing training and skills development, strengthening the profession. They are a safe environment for fledgling interpreters to be employed, stretch their skills and have the support of experienced peers. Working as part of a team of interpreters nurtures those new to the profession, allows career development and an opportunity for experienced interpreters to become mentors thereby passing on learnt knowledge.  Individual interpreters will bring their own ways of working and personal interests, and a team allows room for the sharing of these to benefit others. Being an interpreter is a unique role which brings its own dilemmas and having the support of other interpreters to debrief and prepare is vital to facilitate career longevity. 

Many agencies also have a remit to support the community, whether as a charitable organisation or as an added value to a contract with a public body. Having an overview of local needs from a team on the ground makes this ‘giving back’ to the community more meaningful.

Too many cooks?

The interpreting profession in Scotland is overpopulated with organisations and bodies, confusing the average consumer. Currently, there are:  

There is a risk important messages will be diluted by having numerous membership bodies representing interpreters. There is no clear communication pathway to reach all interpreters, or for them to be represented as a united voice at a national level.   

Having multiple registration bodies means it’s difficult for deaf clients and purchasing organisations to navigate the systems and know they are booking appropriate interpreters. What NRCPD call “registered”, SRLPDC call “qualified”. The level required to be achieved to be a member of a category is not consistent across the registration bodies so you can’t compare like for like; and with different training routes feeding into the registration bodies, it is no surprise people are confused.  This doesn’t help raise the status of the profession in the public’s eyes. Interpreters themselves also feel a pressure to register with multiple bodies, which invariably adds to their business expenses and administration. 

More troubling than the number of registers is the fact that none of them are compulsory. It is entirely possible for a working interpreter to have a full career without any official oversight. Interpreters who lack sufficient skills can and do remain active, posing a risk to deaf people and the reputation of the interpreting profession. The more ambiguity that exists in the registration process the higher the risk that clients are let down by the system that should be there to protect them.  

In my view, this is a concern which must be addressed. The situation currently undermines those interpreters in Scotland who do strive for excellence and work hard to maintain the highest professional standards.  

On this point, the Landscape Review commented: 

“there is predominant agreement that a single register of interpreters would be preferable, as this would give greater clarity for the BSL community.”  

I would endorse this recommendation, but only if we all come together to discuss how this could be achieved. The discussion over which register of interpreters becomes the chosen one could be sensitive. There is naturally a lot of pride attached to a Scottish owned register and understanding the unique services and communities in Scotland is essential for anyone fulfilling interpreting contracts north of the border.  

However, enforcing a Scottish-only register would have its drawbacks. It would reduce the number of skilled interpreters available to the deaf community in Scotland. An interpreter who is registered solely with NRCPD would not be able to work here yet the mobility of interpreters between training establishments and in working life has many benefits in bringing skills and experiences between nations, this would be at risk by having separate systems in Scotland. 

Procurement that supports local needs

I am not advocating UK wide contracting arrangements by saying we need to think outside of Scotland. Tendering processes run by public bodies in Scotland would need to positively support the provision of interpreters from Scottish-based organisations otherwise there is the risk of UK-wide frameworks, and agencies who are not necessarily familiar with the Scottish context, undercutting local provisions.  

Knowledge of local need requires recognition in any commissioning process, especially as we continue to see more remote interpreting services being offered nationwide. We need to ensure that Scottish based interpreting services are not being disadvantaged by geography, as the local touch is vital for working with marginalised communities.

Where Scotland leads the way

There is so much potential for Scotland to set a standard for deaf people and establish best practice across services – all without the need for significant change.  

The provision of open access remote interpreting, called Contact Scotland BSL, is one example where we lead the world, giving deaf people access to phone calls in BSL. 

This demonstrates the vision and drive we have here to improve lives, and an ability to overcome challenges. We can, and should, do the same with other services and access needs. 

Scotland is also a world leader when it comes to research and training in the field of deafness. Deaf Action was delighted to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Heriot-Watt University, ensuring that two key institutions working with deaf communities support each other in this arena. This safeguards against complacency on both sides, and supports the quality standards we need in our new professionals and in deaf research.  

Deaf Action is also proud to have ties with a number of other institutions to support their work in nurturing deaf students, striving to improve standards nationally, and positioning Scotland as a leader in the field of deaf studies.  

We have been delighted to offer placement opportunities to social work students as well as interpreters, and are always open to such partnerships with training providers.  

Securing the future

We hope to be a destination employer for our emerging interpreters, and are committed to developing a graduate interpreter scheme as part of our MoU with Heriot-Watt. Deaf Action’s interpreter team is supported by qualified supervision on site, making us the only agency in Scotland to provide this. 

We are also committed to exploring how technology can be used to improve efficiency within the interpreter booking chain, creating opportunities for interpreters to be matched to assignments which suit their skillset.  

As part of the Scottish Government Civtech Programme, we are currently gathering insights from all stakeholders so that we can develop an app to improve the booking process between deaf people and registered interpreters. The app, called SignPort, will allow deaf people to book an interpreter in real time, SignPort quickly matches deaf BSL users with the right interpreter, at the right time and place. A prototype is in development, and will be carrying out further consultations and testing by a user group from February 2023.  This is a hugely exciting project and we look forward to sharing more with you soon.  

Deaf consumers are an integral part of this process. More education for the community about the interpreting profession would allow them to feel informed and confident in how to book and work with interpreters. This would lead to the smarter booking of interpreters and better use of resources. Currently the pathway for deaf people to access information about interpreting services is ad hoc and guidance can be unclear when entering further education or employment. 

My closing promise  

As CEO of Deaf Action I will continue to look for ways to contribute to the implementation of the recommendations of the Landscape Review and work with others to influence and support changes needed. We need to recognise that the world has changed since the Review’s publication in 2019, and that many new factors are having an impact.   

As an employer and provider of interpreters, we want the profession to be the very best that it can be, allowing the deaf community the access it deserves, and supporting talented interpreters to flourish. There are however systemic and cultural challenges which need to be faced if we want to continue to break down barriers for our communities.  

My door – virtual and physical – is always open to anyone who wants to engage in a healthy dialogue that contributes to progress the positive change.

Please comment if you have any views or points regarding this article.

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