This literature review aims to give an account of earlier studies in the field of interpreting in the asylum determination process, with a particular focus on the interviews and negotiations that take place when authorities process asylum cases.
The review is based on articles, reports and books that discuss interpreting in institutional contexts in general and interpreting in the asylum process in particular. The focus lies on studies of meetings between migration authorities and asylum-seekers and, more specifically, asylum determination meetings.
Theoretically, we approach interpreting as a type of communication between (at least) two individuals who need to get in touch with each other but have no access to a common language and therefore communicate via a third party – an interpreter. The interpreter-mediated situation is our primary study object. In order to explain this situation, we ask questions about participants and contexts, that is to say, questions about social, linguistic and other types of relations. From this perspective, the interpreters’ utterances in interpreter- mediated interaction are not examined only as renditions in relation to utterances voiced by others in a source language but also in relation to their organizational, coordinating function in interaction. We argue that it is highly relevant to examine how the presence of an interpreter affects the unfolding of interaction regarding both content and progression.
Chapter 2 is a short account of how the asylum process is organized in Sweden today. The chapter includes a description of central moments in the asylum process: the registration interview, the asylum interview, decision- making and appealing. Further, the public counsel’s role in the asylum process is explained, as well as the Migration Agency’s guidelines regarding the assignment of interpreters.
In chapter 3, we present a simplified picture of interpreting that is painted in many studies of asylum determination where the function of interpreting is raised as an issue, but only marginally, if at all, explored. Descriptions of interpreting, the role of interpreter and the prerequisites for evaluating interpreter-mediated statements’ reliability are explained in relation to various perceptions of language and communication.
In chapter 4, we scan the literature that focuses on how conflictual institutional and cultural frameworks contribute to the hybrid character of asylum interviews and the resulting demands placed on interpreters and other participants. Some of the dilemmas discussed in relation to the institutional frameworks and interpreting are the case-officer’s reliance on the interpreter’s knowledge of language and facts, the (insufficient) trust between interpreter and asylum-seeker, and the (inadequate) access to interpreters with the right combination of languages and relevant educational background. Concerning cultural frameworks, we consider difficulties that may arise as a result of the fact that many languages occur in different varieties. Other problems may be the effects of the participants’ different expectations in relation to what the asylum interview can be about or its form and structure. Some of the studies we have found show that asylum interviews can be affected by a monolinguistic ideology (the idea of a strong link between one language and one nation and that each national language takes one standard form), and we discuss the problematic implications of such an understanding of language.
In chapter 5 follows a detailed account of the dynamics of interpreter- mediated encounters and of the documentation of interaction as a part of this dynamic. Here, we report on studies that examine interaction in asylum interviews in detail, with a focus on how turn-taking is organized. For example, these studies show how turn-taking can have an impact on the participants’ apprehension of each other and of the communicative situation. Turn-taking in asylum interviews is shaped, to a large extent, by the fact that it is documented in writing simultaneously as the interview evolves. In detailed studies of authentic, recorded asylum interviews, it becomes clear that interpreters take and are given responsibility for what is included in the written report. Turn-taking is also affected by the use of video technology, something that is discussed in a handful of studies presented here.
In chapter 6, the main theme is the professionalization of the interpreting profession. In this chapter, we describe how attitudes on interpreters’ professionalism can be associated with perspectives on language and social interaction. Which language understanding(s) may lie behind the statement that “interpreters should only translate”? We also discuss the psychological implications involved in taking part in and reproducing narratives of persecution, violence and torture and the effect this might have on case- officers and interpreters.
In the last chapter of this review, chapter 7, we summarize existing knowledge and identify some of the exposed knowledge gaps. Finally, we suggest possible ways to strengthen the function of interpreting in the asylum process. Some of the results drawn in this chapter will be shortly accounted for in the remaining of this summary. The most important result that can be drawn is that improving and professionalizing the function of interpreting in the asylum determination process is necessary and urgent.
Many studies come to the simple but important conclusion that the interpreters engaged in the asylum process need access to adequate training. Advanced interpreter education is not available in all countries where it is required, but training material has been created and translated in many languages both by the EU (more specifically EASO) and other organizations (e.g. UNHCR). Many studies argue that those who handle asylum cases also need access to training on working with interpreters.
In the studies we have read, it is far from always clear how the individuals who acted as interpreters have been prepared for the assignment and if they at all have had any interpreter training. To strengthen the interpreting function in the asylum process, further research into the field seems all the more important. A professional interpreting role can hardly be based upon how lay interpreters perform assignments. Further, we believe that defining a specific interpreter role for interpreters in asylum interviews – as some researchers have suggested – would reduce rather than increase the professional status of interpreting. Moreover, it would also reduce the asylum-seekers’ legal certainty. The alternative we suggest is to strengthen the professional status of public service interpreting, to make the established ethics of interpreting more widely known and to give interpreters and other participants in asylum interviews access to training of communicative strategies in order to secure and enable thorough and impartial performance.
The participants’ expectations of what an interpreter does and can do in an interaction are strongly dependent on how they apprehend what it means to speak a language and to communicate in in-person interactions, as well as in interactions that take place via digital technology. A rather basic but crucial insight for the participants is that turn-taking in interpreter-mediated interactions, with certainty, differs from monolingual interactions, and this is a fact that has a substantial impact on coherence and spontaneity in interpreter- mediated interaction.
There is a need for a thorough knowledge on how interpreting and interpreters can shape an asylum interview’s content, progression and the resulting decision document, in order for a long-term policy on the function of interpreting in asylum determination to be made. So far, the existing research is limited. What is of particular interest is that there are relatively few detailed studies of authentic interpreter-mediated asylum interviews, in particular of those interviews where the interpreter participates via telephone or video technique.
Unambiguously, the studies accounted for here point to the fact that deficits in the functions of interpreting can jeopardize the rule of law in asylum determination. However, we have relatively little knowledge of how deficits in interpreting impact upon the efficiency of the asylum process in terms of waiting time, investigating resources, etc. Finally, we find almost no descriptions in the literature concerning the extent to which communication between asylum-seekers and the public counsel – as well as the one preceding the selection of refugees for resettlement – takes place via an interpreter and the forms that interpreting takes in these cases.
There is always a degree of unpredictability when it comes to future migration and the implications for different countries and regions. Is it possible to be prepared? An essential part of this, we argue, is to make the interpreting profession more firmly established, not least through educational programs. It is also important to sharpen the knowledge demands in languages and about languages and about interpreting and asylum-related issues for those employed as interpreters in the asylum determination process. Similarly, we call for an improvement of the case workers’ and other relevant parties’ knowledge on how interpreter-mediated interaction functions as a specific form of communication and on which demands can be placed – and cannot be placed – on qualified interpreters. We believe that a vital interpreting profession favors mutual respect between interpreters and other professionals and, thereby, sets the conditions for an effective and secure asylum determination process.