Guest post: Public Service interpreting

Hello, dear readers! Enjoying the World Cup? Is your country still in? If not, are you supporting any other country you like?

Well, between one game and another, one translation project and another, one interpreting assignment and another, or whatever it is you are doing, how about learning a bit more about Public Service interpreting? Our guest today is Silvia Dall’Onder. It’s a real pleasure having her featured on our blog, because she was one of my teachers at my Masters in England.

Welcome, Silvia!


An inside view of Public Service Interpreting

I want to tell you a bit about my experience of working as a Public Service Interpreter in London. This is a job I did for 14 years before returning to Brazil in 2012. Often, when I talk about my work to other people they are surprised to think that this type of interpreting exists. The word interpreter, at least for lay people, always takes them to the glamour of conference booths or diplomatic meetings. That is far from the reality of Public Service Interpreting, or PSI as it is known, as you will see below.

The PSI profession arose from a need to bring professional standards to an activity that had existed for a long time: that of facilitating communication between two or more people who don’t speak a common language. That is what all interpreters do, but in the case of PSIs the setting or context is different.

A time came for public services when the old arrangement of accepting a friend or relative of the patient as interpreter for a doctor’s appointment, for example, was too informal and fraught with difficulties. Language competency was never tested, confidentiality was compromised and often people turned up for appointments or court hearings without speaking a word of English (and without that much needed friend). The Human Rights Convention established that, in the case of the criminal judicial system, every defendant has the right to hear the charges and the case in court in a language they can understand. London is the most linguistically diverse city in the world, with over 250 languages spoken. This gives you an idea of the dimension of the PSI role.

So, who were my clients? On the one hand, doctors, social workers, court officials, judges, nurses (the list goes on) who were English speakers; and on the other, any person who didn’t speak English or had a limited command of English and needed access to public services. In my case, people who lived in London and came from across the Portuguese speaking world (Angola, Portugal, Brazil, Mozambique). So, in the course of my work, I went to police stations, prisons, schools, courts & tribunals and hospitals all over London and beyond.

How did I get the work?

So far so good, but how does it work? Who called me for work? Who payed for it? The work was allocated to qualified interpreters who were on the list of interpreters of different local council departments. I lived in North East London and the local council used to have a language department that dealt with requests for interpreters coming from service providers in the area, e.g. local hospital, social service department, schools, etc. The arrangements were usually made well in advance and there could be many appointments in different locations on the same day. The work was not limited to my local area. I registered with other services and many times travelled to other boroughs in London. Travel time in London was a big factor to consider so I tried to limit my work to nearby areas. There used to be last minute appointments as well, so I was always on call in case there was an emergency. The payment came out of the council’s budget for language services and we were paid for the number of hours we did, including travel time.

National Register of Public Service Interpreting (NRPSI)

Another port of call to find an interpreter was the National Register of Public Service Interpreters ( ). This is an independent organisation that manages a list of qualified interpreters for many different languages. Police Stations, for instance, used that list to call an interpreter when they needed one. So, if they arrested somebody who spoke Polish, they woud go to the list and find the nearest Polish interpreter to their station.The same applied if they needed to interview somebody who witnessed a crime. As one cannot predict what time a crime will happen, we could be called at any time of the day or night. The assignments at police stations were usually very long. There could be a lot of waiting as the officers dealt with whatever was on hand, waited for duty solicitors (and interpreters) to arrive and then conduct a recorded interview with the arrested person.

Court and Tribunals also used the NRPSI to call an interpreter. This was normally done in advance of the hearing and, at times, but not always, we would be told the name of the client and the type of offence. Not many details about the hearing were disclosed in orderto preserve confidentiality. The lack of details always made me very anxious as there was no way to do any research about the topic. A similar procedure applied when solicitor’s offices sought my services. They normally booked prison visits to see their clients, taking me as a visitor! I’ve spent time in most prisons in London.

Qualification and Training

The specific qualification required to join the NRPSI and to work as a PSI interpreter is called Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI). This qualification is awarded by the Chartered Institute of Linguists ( A candidate attends a preparatory training course for a year which involves practicing the interpreting skills required for the test: consecutive interpreting, sight translation, whispering interpretation and translation. All skills are tested in both languages: English and another language, usually the mother tongue. During the course, other useful skills are taught apart from the interpreting techniques listed above, such as glossary building, terminology and professional skills required to be a public service interpreter with emphasis on confidentiality and impartiality. I really recommend taking the DPSI training and exam to those who wish to embark on this career.

The daily reality

Working as an interpreter gave me an insight into so many lives and situations that I find it difficult to describe it here. It was also very interesting to be in contact with so many different professionals and get a glimpse of their work. I regret a lot not keeping a diary of all the interesting and complex cases I witnessed from the “invisible” position of the intepreter. Many times I came home with a sense of frustration for not being able to do more for a fellow human being. It was a harrowing experience to see a foreign patient in a mental health ward who could not speak a word of English. Often the foreign clients did not understand why I could not offer advice or chat with them in detail about their predicament. It was essential to remain impartial. I also saw how lonely people can get living in a foreign country, especially when they can’t speak the native language. There were many reasons why clients didn’t speak enough English. In the vast majority of cases, it wasn’t a matter of choice, but a matter of personal circumstances.

There were numerous challenges. One of them was to familiarise myself with the terminology of so many different disciplines such as Law and  Medicine. I got familiar with many technical terms in English and Portuguese. Every day I came across  words I didn’t know. Sometimes the most trivial things challenged me. I used to dread having to use the Imperial system of measurement. “The knife was about 9 inches long” and a discussion would begin about the actual size of the knife, and the size of the blade, and my client only knew it in centimeters. All measurement conversions had to be done quickly, especially at a court hearing.

It’s been two years since I last worked as an interpeter in London. Writing for this blog has resurected a store of memories about a professional adventure that I never regretted setting out on. I hope what I’ve shared with you has deepened your curiosity about the profession and might lead you to an exciting new career.

I loved learning a bit more about your experience as a PSI in England, Silvia! Thank you so much for accepting my invitation and taking the time to write such a great post! 🙂

Anyone interested in PSI? Would you like to ask Silvia a question? Or simply comment?

About the author
ImageSilvia Dall’Onder graduated on Business Administration by UFRGS and did her MSc in Medical, Scientific and Technical Translation at Imperial College. She started her interpreting & translation career in London, where she worked as an interpreter & translator until 2012, also taking part in DPSI interpreter training as a tutor. Currently works as a self-employed translator & interpreter in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

2 thoughts on “Guest post: Public Service interpreting

  1. Pingback: Weekly favorites (July 4-10) | Lingua Greca Translations

  2. Pingback: Uma visão consolidada de como é a Interpretação para o Serviço Público | Carol's Adventures in Translation

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