The BBC has a report on public expenditure on translation costs. I am inclined to think that if you pay for public services, you ought to be entitled to adequate information on what those services are, and if this means receiving a service of translation or interpretation, then so be it.
The BBC report ends on this rather ominous note:
No-one knows how many millions we spend on translation. We do not know exactly what the legal requirement is. But perhaps most worrying of all, we do not know whether it does more harm than good.
Well, it seems to me that there is a rather quick way of finding out whether it does ‘more harm than good’, and that is to estimate the cost of providing public services without the translation and interpretation services currently provided. A hospital consultation where the patient does not speak a word of the doctor’s language could take 4 or 5 times longer than a standard consultation. You still have to pay the doctor’s wages. Either you use a translator, who will most likely cost a lot less than a doctor, or you hire more doctors to attend to the other patients. In the event that you simply hired more doctors, you would incur costs on top of that as a result of inappropriate treatments resulting from the inevitable communication failures between the doctor and the patient.
The same would apply for benefit offices. If someone goes into a benefit office and does not speak a word of English, the person behind the counter has to find out what it is they are looking for. Again, such an interaction could take 4 or 5 times longer (and that’s being optimistic), creating waiting lines, so what do you do to maintain service standards? Hire another 4 or 5 Jobseeking Enablement Consultants?
Those would be typical costs involved of administering the services themselves, to say nothing of the cost to the person who speaks no English in terms of time lost that could be put to better use, like recovering from illness, or looking for a job, or learning English.
I would agree, though, with the lawyer in the piece who says that provision of translation and interpreting services can erect a barrier between immigrant groups and English speakers, and that this can contribute to social exclusion. But is the best way of addressing this to compel people by law to learn the official language of the state? I am inclined to think that it isn’t, even though I think people are far more likely to flourish if they do learn the main language of the country where they are living.
I don’t think that the aforementioned barrier can be ascribed solely to the provision of public services. These days you can install a satellite dish in your house and watch Polish or Arabic TV all day, after a hard days work with your compatriots, as though you were still living in Poland or Egypt. You can set your mobile phone language to your own language. And then there’s the internet. These seem to be far more powerful forces than getting your income support application form filled out for you by a translator. That is, these days you can speak good English and still remain separate from the rest of the country, even if ‘the rest of the country’ is not what it used to be.