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Opinion

Interpreting for asylum seekers is about more than translation

One year after leaving Iraq, Radil Barzan arrived on the shores of Kent on Boxing Day 2019, equipped with little more than a basic grasp of English. Now 18, he is fulfilling the essential role of interpreter, giving a voice to the steady stream of migrants making similar journeys to his own

I first learned English by studying in Iraq. We have English in our education. Not just the basics, a lot of words. In school they taught us a lot of names for things.

We watched a lot of TV episodes and films, too. I remember the first one I watched was Around the World in 80 Days with Jackie Chan.

In Iraq, electricity is a difficult thing to get. But whenever I had some, I would watch films.

A lot of people are very shy when they don’t know a lot of English so they don’t use it. They are afraid to get it wrong. I was not afraid and I was not shy so that helped me a lot. On my journey to England, people knew I didn’t know much English, they just tried to make me understand. My English got better just by trying.

I arrived in England in a small boat on December 26, 2019. I left Iraq at the end of 2018 so it took a year. They sent me to Millbank [a centre in Kent] around three or four in the morning. I was alone and I was crying.

Language is important. When you don’t have it, you need to have somebody

But I was good at English. And I loved studying. I was in love with languages. I speak five: English, Arabic, Sorani Kurdish, Kurmanji Kurdish and a bit of Italian.

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Staff members at Millbank found out because I was helping people. I was there for three months. There was a lady from the Refugee Council. She asked, “Do you want to study to become an interpreter?” The course was 12 weeks and I finished on June 25 this year. I started working with Clear Voices in Dover immediately.

I interpret mostly for asylum seekers and I get a lot of calls every day – up to 20. I just want to relax between them because it’s too much when you have your own problems and listen to other people’s problems. I’m trying to separate them.

Language is important. When you don’t have it, you need to have somebody – a lot of people don’t know how to talk. I am gifted with that and I am trying to help as much as I can.

I hope that I wake up not too tired because you have to be in the mood for interpreting. If you are not in the mood you will not find the right words. It’s a bit frustrating when you’re tired and you keep doing it.

You need to focus. And sometimes you need to change the words because if I translate exactly what you’re saying, the service provider will not even understand.

It’s not always finding the right words, it’s delivering the message because interpreting is not just about translating, it’s about the message

For example, if somebody is giving you a letter to translate, you don’t translate exactly all the words, you just deliver the message.

I read the newspapers and listen to and engage with people. This is helping me a lot with my English and interpreting. My girlfriend helps me a lot, as do my English friends in college.

At this moment I want to finish my studying, because interpreting is something I am gifted with, but mechanics is something I love. I want to be a mechanic in future and if possible I want to start volunteering when I get the chance when I have everything – by everything I mean when I work as a mechanic and I have my own place, and then I want to do volunteering with organisations to help people who need it, because it’s very difficult for people who don’t understand or speak the language.

When you can help people, you feel like you’re somebody and you feel people need you.

As told to Becky Barnes

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