‘Can I go to work today?’

Anna Aslanyan

The Metropolitan Police – one of the few UK organisations not to have outsourced its language services – has secured ‘key worker’ status for its interpreters. We continue to be employed as freelancers, with no guaranteed workload but also no obligation to take on jobs. We are still paid at the same rate as before. Interpreters registered with thebigword, however, which provides language services to the Ministry of Justice and several NHS trusts, recently got a letter from the agency. After assurances that their ‘Business Continuity plan’ is ‘working well’, they get to business: ‘Whilst the majority of the burden financially is been taken by the company this does include reducing our linguist rates across the board by 15 per cent from Monday 23 March.’ Worried registrants wrote to HM Courts and Tribunals Service, which replied that the reductions do not apply to MoJ bookings; what happens with NHS assignments is anyone's guess.

Any reduction to thebigword’s notoriously low rates – between £18 and £24 per hour for court hearings – would leave some of its interpreters on less than the minimum wage, if not out of pocket, after costs. In any case, people who rely on agency work can never be sure of their income until they actually get paid, especially now that a number of companies have extended their payment terms. Some interpreters have chosen not to take on face-to-face job offers for the foreseeable future.

One of the routine questions asked of detainees at police stations is: ‘Are you fit and well?’ It has acquired new force in recent weeks. A homeless man I interpreted for a few days ago said he was, though he looked exhausted. He had recently been placed in a hotel in central London as part of an initiative reminiscent of O. Henry’s ‘Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen’, a story about the perils of ‘the yearly hunger which, as the philanthropists seem to think, afflicts the poor at such extended intervals’.

People in police interview rooms usually sit close to one another. So far I’ve seen no masks offered at police stations (I’d find it difficult to work wearing one) though hand sanitiser has been available. The Met is now using remote interpreting more widely, having extended the list of circumstances in which it’s allowed.

Cycling to morning assignments, seeing binmen at work, I think of an old simile: translation is like rubbish collection; people only notice it when something goes wrong. ‘Quality,’ a veteran interpreter once told me, ‘is when no one complains.’

‘When will I be released?’ a construction worker I was interpreting for last week asked the police officer. ‘Can I go to work today?’ It’s another old question that has acquired a new ring. How will things be when key work is, once again, just work? Will NHS staff, once the applause has faded away, once more have to pay to park at the hospitals where they work? Will the homeless be thrown back on the streets? Will cars start blocking bike lanes again? Will we stop washing our hands and flock back to Wetherspoons?