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Community interpreting against the framework of the refugee crisis in Greece

The arrival of refugees has created new challenges and demands in the field of community interpreting. Government organizations and NGOs are almost constantly in search of cultural mediators who understand Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Pashto, Urdu, and other refugee languages. However, the status and employment conditions of these mediators do not seem to be aligned with professional standards. What are the difficulties they face when trying to act as professionals?

Cultural mediators

Cultural mediators in action – Lesvos: from the website of the Greek Union of Interpreters-Translators of rare languages, with permission

By Maria Xanthopoulou


En Grèce, les programmes d’interprétation portent principalement sur les langues européennes. C’est la raison pour laquelle l’arrivée massive de réfugiés du Moyen-Orient et de l’Asie ces derniers temps a forcé les autorités et les ONG à recourir à des médiateurs culturels sélectionnés simplement en fonction de leur origine ou de leur intérêt à servir d’interprètes.

Ces personnes n’ont aucune formation langagière et ne connaissent ni les principes de l’interprétation, ni les normes de la profession, ni les bonnes techniques de travail. On leur donne parfois des cours rudimentaires, insuffisants pour assurer la qualité du travail et ne menant à aucune reconnaissance professionnelle. Ils ne sont pas admissibles à des postes permanents et doivent parfois, en sus de leur travail d’interprètes, jouer les rôles de secrétaire ou de chauffeur.

Il va sans dire que les interprètes communautaires jouent un rôle crucial dans l’accueil des réfugiés. Leurs tâches comportent un niveau élevé de difficulté (d’un point de vue pratique mais aussi psychologique) que seuls un professionnalisme éprouvé et une grande compétence permettent d’atteindre. Il est donc impératif de bien former les médiateurs culturels et d’améliorer leurs conditions de travail. La création du syndicat grec des interprètes et traducteurs de langues rares est un pas dans cette direction.

En fait, les médiateurs culturels devraient pouvoir suivre une formation complète dans une maison d’enseignement reconnue, à l’intérieur d’un programme menant au titre d’interprète communautaire agréé. En plus d’y acquérir les compétences techniques et linguistiques nécessaires, ils y apprendraient la façon dont fonctionnent les instances étatiques de la santé, de la justice, de l’impôt et de l’immigration, entre autres. Mais par-dessus tout, ils y bénéficieraient d’une solide préparation psychologique.

Les langagiers et les associations qui les représentent ont le devoir moral de soutenir cette cause. Les réfugiés méritent des services de qualité professionnelle, les médiateurs culturels ont droit à de bonnes conditions de travail, et les normes d’interprétation professionnelle doivent être protégées.

Formal interpreting training in Greece is offered by two state universities (Ionian University and Aristotle University) and a couple of private colleges or institutions. Formal training is a basic step leading to interpreter certification and admission to a professional association, such as the Panhellenic Association of Professional Translators Graduates of the Ionian University (PEEMPIP), the Panhellenic Association of Translators (PEM), and the Hellenic Association of Conference Interpreters (SYDISE).

However, existing training programs focus mainly on European languages, namely English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, etc., in combination with Greek, and they do not cover the so-called “rare” languages of refugees. The arrival of people from the Middle East and Asia has therefore created a huge gap in the Greek market, which is only roughly filled in a disordered and unprofessional way. As a result, authorities and NGOs tend to employ cultural mediators simply based on their origin or their interest in working as interpreters, and not according to their education/academic background or previous relevant experience.

Training of cultural mediators of “rare” languages

Often, the people employed are not trained at all. They do not know how interpreting is done or what the main principles, code of ethics, techniques, etc., are. Basic training is offered only by certain NGOs, and it lasts only a couple of weeks before they start on the job. Except for that, seminars of short duration are also provided from time to time through voluntary private initiatives.

Although this helps give some idea about interpreting, the whole effort remains incomplete, as it can only focus on the very basics and cannot offer an in-depth analysis to give candidates all the necessary elements required to perform the task. And, as might be expected, such fragmented training cannot lead to a proper certification, accreditation, or professional stability.

Working conditions of cultural mediators of “rare” languages

According to the results of a survey conducted by Dr. Zoi Resta and Dr. Anastasios Ioannidis, cultural mediators do not have permanent positions. Instead, they are employed with fixed-term contracts, usually for 6 or 12 months. Besides the pure interpreting assignments, their role may involve other tasks as well, such as translation, secretarial or driving duties. Their salary amounts to 650-700 Euro per month and overtime work is often not paid.

The way forward

Given the massive migrant flows arriving in Greece, proper communications are needed to effectively cover all human needs and allow people to exercise their rights (asylum, relocation, etc.). It is obvious that the community interpreters hold a position of critical importance, and their duties involve a significant level of difficulty (from both a practical and psychological perspective). Setting minimum expectations which lead to primitive working conditions are not enough to relieve the tragedy. Instead, a high degree of effectiveness and professionalism is required to establish communication channels that produce optimal results.

What should be done?

Steps should be taken to provide training opportunities and improve the employment conditions of cultural mediators. The newly founded Greek Union of Interpreters –Translators of Rare Languages has been established to serve this purpose.

What is needed is an integrated training program to cover the wide range of refugee languages. Existing cultural mediators should be given the chance to complete a comprehensive course of studies offered by an official institution leading to their accreditation as community interpreters. Only in this way can they acquire a thorough knowledge of the interpreter's profession, learn interpreting techniques, put them into practice, get accustomed to professional standards and the code of ethics and, finally, act as professionals. Besides technical and linguistic support, an integrated course should also offer training in how the various state mechanisms and systems work, namely the justice and health systems, legislative mechanisms, the asylum procedure, tax authorities, police etc. Last but not least, serving refugees means being confronted with a human tragedy. Community interpreters, as well as any other professionals involved, therefore need to be psychologically prepared to offer their services in difficult situations, and relevant coaching in psychology needs to be part of a complete training program.

Professionals and associations of the translation-interpreting industry have the moral duty to support this cause. The people suffering this tragedy deserve professional treatment, the cultural mediators doing their best to help deserve proper working conditions, and professional interpreting standards need to be protected and not compromised.

Maria Xanthopoulou is an Official Translator and Conference Interpreter (EN-DE-FR-TR-EL).

She has studied legal, financial, medical and technical translation. She also holds a MA in Conference Interpreting from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. She currently owns the Translation Embassy agency and works as a freelance translator and conference interpreter. She can be reached at

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