The state of the art of police interpreting in a border area of the European Union: the case of Lecce and Brindisi (Italy)

Maria Rosaria Buri
University of Salento ( Lecce, Italy)

This study presents the state of the art of community interpreting in police settings in the area of Salento (Apulia, southern Italy) and, especially, in immigration offices in the cities of Lecce and Brindisi (Italy). This area in the south-easternmost region of Italy –Apulia- is factually one of the borders of the European Union, with both Schengen and non-Schengen countries. The peculiar geopolitical situation has demanded a considerable effort in catering to the needs of the ever-increasing migration flows. The study analyzes how linguistic needs of migrants are met by police authorities often resorting only to language and culture mediators. Public Service Interpreting and Translating, is now a subject included in the syllabus of the undergraduate and graduate courses at the Faculty of Languages of the University of Salento.

The geopolitical situation

Recently declared a border area of the European Union, the south-easternmost tip of Italy is subject to the effects of its geopolitical condition. The Salento area -the southern portion of the Apulia region- is located between the Adriatic and the Ionian seas. It protrudes unto the Mediterranean, hence its label of the “Gateway to the East”. This geographic location has made the area prone to become/be the natural haven for migration flows originating from C+EECs (Central and Eastern European countries, such as Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria), Africa (mostly nationals from Morocco, Algeria, Nigeria, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire), Turkey and Kurdistan, the Far East (Sri Lanka, Pakistan, China) and, above all, from the neighboring Balkan countries (mainly nationals from Albania, Serbia-Herzegovina).

People seeking new life and job opportunities, asylum seekers, refugees, and women and children victims of human trafficking have, in the past fifteen years, literally flooded the shores of this area, the major cities being Brindisi and Lecce. Local authorities in all fields -ranging from immigration offices and police headquarters, to health and educational institutions- have been faced with new challenges and have been obliged to adjust to the new ordeal. A rather liberal national refugee admission and reception program found itself having to cater to the linguistic needs of migrants.

Public service interpreting

“In many countries, liaison interpreters have to carve out their own practice in an often uncomprehending environment, and establish professionals standards where interpreting has not ever been thought of as a professional activity”.(Gentile et al.1996). Misunderstandings on bilingualisms, the ability of speaking a foreign language and performing the role of interpreter. Many northern European countries, especially Scandinavian countries, and, above all, Australia and Canada have adjusted to the needs of public services, throughout the years. And, what in many countries is now an acknowledged profession, community interpreter, inItaly, State bureaucracy is still ascribing a fuzzy role. In fact, actions taken in that direction are still cumbersome and lagging behind the real requirements. Actually, Italy has not yet provided regulations for this profession and the role is performed by language and culture mediators (Mediatori linguisticoculturali), by NGO volunteers, Catholic Church volunteers, members of migrant families, foreign resident children already fluent in Italian.

University institutions in Italy are, at present, involved in meeting the needs for professionalization, and training courses in liaison and public service interpreting are stemming off from more traditional T&I mainstream education following the example of northern European countries, Australia or Canada. “The most mature system of language services, and the one perhaps most directly comparable with Australia’s, is in Sweden….liberal immigration, settlement and citizenship policies established a comprehensive approach to language services”.(Ozolins, 1998). Nevertheless, not always can this blueprint be applied to the Italian situation, apparently not yet aware of the need to develop a more relevant language policy.

Interpreting in police settings

This study focuses on police interpreting and analyzes the situation in police headquarters and immigration divisions in the two above mentioned cities -Lecce and Brindisi. The author wishes to acknowledge the cooperation of several police officers interviewed who have made it possible to obtain an updated picture of the issue regarding migrant flows and the relevant linguistic needs.

Police officers in migration divisions in both cities asserted that their staff receive some training in foreign languages, but added that it is still not sufficient to communicate with the foreign citizens who apply for services at their offices. Actually, short language courses are provided by private local schools on the basis of an agreement with the Interior Ministry.. One of the officers interviewed in Brindisi declared that she attended Albanian, Russian and Arabic courses which, substantially, aimed at providing the staple terminology for a very basic dialogue. She added that she felt that interpreters, rather than solely language teachers, might have better targeted their lexical needs. In Lecce, instead, some police officers in charge had a background which involved working in Arab countries and in the former Soviet Union. When confronted with huge number of nationals from several foreign countries speaking up to eight different languages, all Italian police headquarters and migration offices have been required, in these past years of huge migrant landings, to apply for MLCs (language and culture mediators, henceforth abbreviated as MLCs) at the CIES (Centro Informazione e Educazione allo Sviluppo) –an NGO which, by agreement with the Ministry of Interior, works in the field of migration affairs, intercultural dialogue and cultural mediation. This agency trains legal resident aliens to become MLCs willing to support any national police or health institution that will have sent an application. These culture and language mediators are paid by CIES, and not by the police authorities nor the ministry, and are accountable to the NGO only. Their contracts have a duration of three to six months and can, subsequently, be renewed.

Interestingly enough, the interviews carried out at both immigration offices have proven that police officers seem to be accept the role played by MLCs, especially insofar as the first application for a stay permit is concerned. These applications consist in an interaction between the MLCs, standing behind a counter next to the police staff, and the foreign citizen opposite.. Forms are printed in Italian and will most likely be filled out by the MLC who will ask the questions and help the applicant with the answers. Quite often applicants will be accompanied by other foreign citizens already living in town who might help translating and suggest the answers. The conversation between the applicant and the accompanying person is often picked up by the MLC, who tends to take up the role of an advocate, at times or, in some cases, taking parts. Other services required by the migrant, such as renewals of stay permits or work permits are available in a version in both Italian and English. Once again, the needs of LOTE speakers will be catered for by MLCs.

State bureaucracy certainly does not facilitate the expeditious translation of any other printed material to be used by immigration offices. In fact, in most venues, notices posted on entrances to the offices are still written in a telegram-style Italian.

Actually, MLCs are hardly ever called interpreters, nor do they identify with these professionals. Mediation cannot, in fact, be equated with interpretation as the former involves empathy and advocacy, often disregarding the very important aspects of neutrality, appropriate register, confidentiality, ethics and face. The task of culture mediators “…is described as broader than that of an interpreter…having a pro-active, informative, educational and in some cases advocacy role…” . (Ozolins, 1998), which, however does not ensure the above mentioned and non negligible aspects of neutrality and confidentiality, definitely guaranteed by a professional interpreter.

The same police officers interviewed, however, did underline that a definitely more “professional and accountable” role is required for police investigations and transcripts of tapes of telephone conversations. These tasks are seldom assigned to MLCs since the civil servants do realize that there is an impelling need for neutrality and confidentiality. Some members of the police staff interviewed have expressed the need for an agreement to be made with the local academic institutions in order to be oriented and supported in this area of public services.

Other examples of cross-cultural dialogue

Still another interesting aspect which highlights the scope of intercultural communication, is the request police headquarters receive from hospitals and health units, that often call the former institutions to seek interpreters.

There is, therefore, an urgent need to provide a better service to all public institutions. But, at the moment, the problem does not seem to be easy to solve, considering that the role of MLCs is the only one mentioned in the Italian immigration act.

Perhaps more far-sighted are the actions taken by private or semi-private bodies such as the Italian postal service- Poste Italiane– and some banks that are publishing advertising material in at least two languages other than Italian. Brochures are at easy reach in post offices and attractive posters stand in banks offering bank accounts, ways of sending money abroad and other services.

Furthermore, the Catholic Church, together with the Caritas and the International Red Cross, liaise with volunteers who have been offering their services in Italian and, often, in other languages spoken in the community. Perhaps this is the only real field in which the sense of belonging to an intercultural community is strongly felt.

Short-term projects in the field of professionalization of community interpreting and translating

This study is part of a research project aiming at the professionalization of community interpreters and translators which is about to be launched by the author, namely a specialization course to ‘rebrand’ interpreters and offer specialized training in PSIT. The course, offered by the University of Salento, in the academic year 2014-2015, has a limited number of vacancies and will be partially delivered ‘remotely’.

Most likely there need be a joint effort to be made by both the academia and the regional or provincial administrations, who seem to be acknowledging the need to support public offices with a multi-language service to meet the requirements of a fast-changing social fabric, even in urban centers –such as Lecce and Brindisi- which, from historically emigration areas, have been transformed into the virtual boundaries of the European Union and the southern flank of the continent, welcoming peoples coming from the four corners of the world.

(update of a presentation delivered at the University of Alcala de Henares, Spain during the 2nd Fitispos Conference, April 2005)