Fearful for their lives, these people escape to the UK for a place of safety. Their shame and fear about their sexual and gender identity has developed from years of abuse and secrecy that can make telling their story very difficult. Bringing a third party such as an interpreter into the conversation can make it even more challenging for them, especially if they’ve had a bad experience in the past.
When often the only evidence for an LGBTI asylum seeker’s claim is their personal testimonial based on experiences and feelings, it’s crucial that these people have their voices heard and their story told appropriately, accurately and without prejudice and bias.
All too often we hear reports of sessions where interpreters have brought their religious or cultural prejudice into a conversation with LGBTI asylum seekers, using derogatory language towards a person or treating them unkindly. This is devastating when these people have left their home country because of persecution, only to come across it again in a place where they thought they would be safe.
There have been occasions when interpreters have misinterpreted an LGBTI asylum seekers statement, even with the best intentions. LGBTI asylum seekers have to go into quite personal details about their lives and experiences as part of their claim, which can make interpreters uncomfortable. Sometimes they downplay words or do not express the language properly. An example we often hear is when the word relationship is interpreted as friendship, completely changing the context of the story. In addition, the terms that the asylum seekers use to describe themselves can be offensive or insulting, as these are the only words they know. In Oram International’s Guide for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression Terminology, they explain that a Syrian man may refer to himself as shaz, an Arabic word literally meaning ‘abnormal’ as this is what he understands of homosexuality in Syria. If the interpreter tries to change phrases to be more polite, it may create inaccuracies in the asylum seekers story.
Another situation that interpreters struggle with is using appropriately gendered language when referring to transgender people. Interpreters should follow the same terminology the person uses to describe themselves. If in doubt you can always ask which pronoun they use, especially when interpreting over the phone as there are no visual clues as to how the individual might identify. Be mindful of using the correct terms and don’t assume a pronoun.
When interpreting for LGBTI asylum seekers, the key thing is to ensure they feel comfortable. Interpreters can do this by giving reassurance that they are not there to judge but are there to help the asylum seeker communicate their story. Let them know that everything said in the call or session is confidential. Interpreters are often from the same country that the asylum seeker has fled, this can cause anxiety and an instinct to hold back. Interpreters can continue to encourage them throughout the conversation that it is safe for them to share and that they will not be judged on what they have to say.
Remember to watch your tone of voice. Remain neutral throughout the conversation and if there’s something that makes you feel uncomfortable or surprises you, do not relay this in a tone that could be construed as judgemental.
Interpreters are frequently in positions where the quality of their interpretation can make a huge difference to the wellbeing and safety of the people they’re helping to communicate.
It is vital that interpreters keep the integrity of the profession at all times and remain unbiased in their words and respectful in their interactions. They are the conduit for people to tell their story, and the communication they facilitate can determine the life chances of the person they’re interpreting for.