A report on a flawed system by Paola Gentile, a Ph.D. student in Interpreting Studies at the University of Trieste

Court interpreting in Italy still has a long way to go to reach the most basic European and international standards regarding professionalization. Like many Southern European countries, Italy has always been a country of emigration rather than immigration, which is why it was unprepared to cope with the record numbers of immigrants who have been arriving in the country in the last few decades. The lack of an official register, together with shamefully low remuneration also provoke an exodus of qualified interpreters from the Italian courtrooms and illustrate a certain degree of ignorance about the fundamental role the interpreter plays not only during the interaction, but also outside the courtroom. Despite repeated calls from academic institutions, legal experts, professional associations and even the European Union on the need to regulate the profession, Italian legislators keep turning a deaf ear to this serious and long-standing issue by using the austerity imposed by the global financial crisis as an excuse for inaction.

Courts failing to provide interpreters

Although the right to an interpreter is envisaged by the Italian law, no official guidelines or procedures are provided concerning the recruitment, qualifications and competences that court interpreters should have, a gross negligence which results in trial delays and criminals being released. According to statistics issued by Aiti, (The Italian Association of Translators and Interpreters), in 2009 alone 25,000 out of 68,000 detainees in Italian prisons were foreigners (37% of the overall amount of trials in the country).

Last August in Venice a trial against a drug dealer was delayed because the court failed to provide an interpreter of Urdu, whereas near Milan a Chinese man accused of double murder and arson has spent more than a year in prison, waiting for an interpreter. Should he be declared innocent, he would probably ask compensation for moral damages for having to wait so long. These damages would be considerably higher than the costs of hiring an interpreter in a timely fashion. However, these incidents do not occur only when rare languages are needed. In May 2014 the trial against some Finmeccanica executives, where the former British minister Geoff Hoon appeared as witness, was postponed because the interpreter recruited through the register of the tribunal showed clear signs of incompetence in interpreting from English into Italian.

Several studies carried out by the Universities of Trieste and Bologna have pointed out structural problems concerning three main areas:

3 main structural problems

  1. Lack of recruitment criteria. There is no official register but lists drawn up at the discretion of single courts.
  2. Lack of official qualifications. It is preferable but not mandatory to have a degree in translation and interpreting to serve as a court interpreter in Italy.
  3. Poor remuneration. Court interpreters in Italy are paid a pittance: the first “vacazione” (two hours of work) paid €14.68 (roughly 15 USD) and all subsequent “vacazioni” are paid €8.15 (9-10 USD) (Ministerial Decree, May 30, 2002)

Despite this grim scenario, a possible step forward in the recognition of the professionalization of court interpreting can be the reception of the European Directive 2010/64/EU on the Right to Translation and Interpretation in Criminal Proceedings, which entitles defendants in criminal proceedings to interpretation and translation services in a language they understand. If fully implemented, it will save not only considerable costs due to miscarriages of justice, but it will also be a step forward in the protection of a fundamental human right.

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AuthorCritical Link International