Negotiating asylum: the challenges of interpreting for Kurdish asylum-seekers in the UK

Sabir Hasan Birot

By Sabir Hasan Birot:

This article was first published in ‘The Linguist’ 

A Kurdish interpreter faces many challenges; if they are working with asylum-seekers, they are confronted with many more. One of the first issues is likely to be that Kurdish is a multidialectal language. Kurmanji, Sorani, Bahdini and Zazaki are the four major dialects. What makes Kurdish even more difficult than many other multidialectal languages is that Kurdistan was long ago divided between four countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Thus, the dialects spoken in Turkey have been influenced by Turkish, those spoken in Iran by Persian, and those spoken in Iraq and Syria by Arabic, including a large number of borrowed words.

I come from Iraqi Kurdistan and speak Sorani, so I found it very difficult when I was asked to interpret the Kurmanji dialect spoken by Kurds from Turkey. In such a situation, the quality of the interpreting not only depends on the interpreter’s knowledge of the second language (English, in my case), but also on their knowledge of the first language.

I read a news report in ‘The Copenhagen Post’ recently, entitled ‘Poor Interpreters put Asylum Seekers at Risk’. It told the story of an Afghan who had an Iranian interpreter for his first interview with the Immigration Office. The asylum-seeker and the interpreter spoke very different dialects of Persian. For his next interview, the Refugee Appeals Board used an interpreter who was trained in both Persian dialects and revealed mistakes made by the Iranian interpreter, who had used several words that had a very different meaning in the Afghan dialect.

When the man’s asylum case failed, his lawyer, Helge Nørrlung, said poor interpreting ‘could have been the reason why he appeared untrustworthy’. This incident involves dialects of Persian, but is an indication of the types of difficulties faced by all interpreters working with multidialectal languages.

For me, the solution was simply not to take jobs in the Kurmanji dialect. This meant I had fewer jobs, but as I could not guarantee that I could do the jobs effectively – and therefore that the work would meet clients’ expectations – I thought it better to register only in the dialects I am fluent in, at least until I improve my competence and confidence in Kurmanji.

Varied settings

Working with asylum-seekers involves various settings. A business interpreter’s domain is likely to be the world of business and a conference interpreter’s domain is likely to be politics and international relations. When working with asylum-seekers, interpreters can find themselves interpreting for the UK Border Agency, the Home Office, the police, solicitors, courts, the NHS and the Job Centre.

Each setting can be further subdivided. Working for the NHS, for instance, can involve different departments in a hospital, including accident and emergency, physiotherapy and maternity. Working in all or some of these settings and sub-settings requires an interpreter to have adequate knowledge of various specialised terms.

As a useful strategy, when I am given my first assignment in a government institution or hospital department, I search for relevant information online – for example by checking the NHS website for details about the department. This has been really useful in giving me an overview of the nature of the service offered to clients or patients attending that institution or department. Thanks to the internet, it is now easy to access information about the services provided by almost all institutions and government bodies.

Culture

Interpreters frequently deal with situations in which cultural differences can be an impediment. When such differences are tackled effectively by the interpreter, they shouldn’t affect the two parties involved – be they interviewer and interviewee, doctor and patient, or solicitor and client. The situation will become a problem for clients only when the interpreter fails to notice the cultural discrepancies, or is unable to deal with them effectively.

Kurdish culture is distant from English culture in many aspects, including social and religious values; views of life, marriage and morality; and an understanding of what is considered respectful and polite. Whenever I feel that something is not going well because of cultural differences, I try to intervene by explaining the cultural factors that might be responsible for a misunderstanding.

Another issue is the sense of strong social relations among members of the Kurdish community. Most Kurdish asylum-seekers expect every help from a Kurdish interpreter. They believe that interpreters have a lot of experience in the areas they work in and should therefore be able to answer questions regarding everything from legal matters to asylum cases.

Such questions are none of the interpreter’s business, nor are they part of their professional duties. Interpreters in such situations find themselves between two devils: the professional Code of Conduct (which states that they should not to engage in conversation especially in cases of a legal nature); and the social rules that require them to be cooperative to members of their ethnic background.

A successful interpreter will find a third way that enables them to deal with such a situation. Being an interpreter means dealing with people. We can be nice to clients, respect their questions (however silly they may seem), and be courageous enough to say ‘I don’t know’ in reply. Guiding clients to those who can better help them is another safe strategy – for example, by advising them to ask their solicitors these questions because they are experts in legal matters, or by suggesting they consult their social workers, because the question concerns them.

Educational background

Asylum-seekers come from various educational backgrounds. While some are well educated and may be writers, politicians or social activists, many have not had the chance to study to higher levels of education. This can affect their communicative skills. Some clearly state in their asylum cases that they are uneducated or illiterate. The challenge is intense, especially when working in a formal setting, such as with solicitors, whose language is marked by an abundant use of formal, standardised expressions and legal terminology.

Working in such a setting with an uneducated client not only involves rending speech from one language into another but also from a high register into a simplified version. This involves two duties: interpreting between two languages and between two levels of the same language. However, once an interpreter has some experience, it can become routine to adjust from a high register to the level that the client appears to understand. It is worth checking with clients whether they do understand, because there is no point in interpreting for someone who has little idea of what is being said.

Emotional aspects

Most people who resort to seeking asylum in another country have fled some kind of persecution, mistreatment or injustice, which can be for political, social or other reasons. Most have a story of suffering and sorrow. As an interpreter, it is hard to detach yourself from such emotional situations.

A good coping strategy is to look at the job as an experience from which you can learn a lesson, and not as an experience you have to live with. Ultimately, we should be pleased that, while there are people on the planet who cause suffering to others, as interpreters we have a humanitarian career, helping to establish communication and understanding between people from different countries and backgrounds.

Sabir Hasan Birot is a freelance interpreter and PhD student at the Centre for Translation Studies, University of Leeds.