Interpreters need accreditation scheme

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 August, 2008, 12:00am

What sets Hong Kong apart as a multicultural society is that ethnic groups are confronted with not one official language that is foreign to them, but two. As a result English, the most widely spoken, often becomes the lingua franca between Chinese and members of ethnic minorities. That poses few problems in everyday life but can be more problematic in situations where there is no room for misinterpretation or misunderstanding, such as in the courts or hospitals. Then, there is a need for a fluent interpreter or translator, so that the person concerned can speak in their native language. However, finding one can often be difficult.

New race laws that effectively make discrimination on the basis of language an offence should ensure that effective translation services are provided where needed. Concern has been expressed, however, over whether hospitals and clinics will have the resources to provide interpreters in all cases. Now, as we report today, questions have been raised about an interpreter service provided for the Hospital Authority by a non-government organisation.

Despite its cultural mix, Hong Kong does not have an accreditation system for translators and interpreters. Anyone can claim to be a professional and companies providing these services are not hard to find. But translation and interpretation are demanding tasks, even for those with degrees in the subjects. They are also imprecise skills. Accreditation systems are, however, well developed overseas. As an international financial and services centre Hong Kong has good reason to adopt one.

The government already provides interpreters in our courts. Chinese-speaking officers in government and the judiciary translate between the two official languages. A recognised credential would do no harm to the quality of such essential services.

Fears remain in some quarters, including among business people, that outlawing language discrimination could result in an unsatisfied demand for interpreters and endless litigation. But commonsense should lead to more practical solutions. An official accreditation system would build confidence in the process.