People who rock the industry – legal interpreter and translator Geoffrey Buckingham

People who rock the industry – legal interpreter and translator Geoffrey Buckingham

Together with Anne Diamantidis of The Stinging Nettle, we were delighted to announce a new series: “People who rock the translation industry!” two weeks ago. In the series we will be interviewing people who have made a positive contribution, no matter how small or large, to the translation industry – at the international, national or local level.

This time it’s my turn to interview a translation industry rocker. Geoffrey Buckingham, legal interpreter and translator, a very inspirational and supportive person and one of the leaders of the battle against outsourcing of court interpreting in the UK. I met him a few times in person and believe me, he certainly does rock the industry!

So, Geoffrey, who are you? What are the professional hats you’re wearing?

 Geoffrey Buckingham

I am a practising interpreter in French, my NRPSI number is 10612, so you can see I got in close to the beginning, and I am a strong advocate of statutory regulation of Justice interpreting. Such protection is essential so that interpreting in the Justice sector can see standards and quality of delivery rise.

I have been Chairman of the Association of Police and Court Interpreters since 12 December 2006, and was re-elected on 22 October this year for a further two years

What were the turning points of your career? How did you end up here and now?

I came to interpreting in 1993 from the world of financial services, where I was a senior manager. My family was happy about the change since it meant I would be able to use the degree which had cost such a great deal.

I joined the APCI at the suggestion of a friend, and was impressed by the knowledge, experience and friendliness I found there. In 2006 the members appeared to wish for a bit of a change, and I was persuaded to stand as Chairman, with a team of talented colleagues as committed as I was to the growth and development of the Association.

At the same time I found myself being engaged as an interpreter in certain specialist areas involving serious crime, which is where I have worked ever since. But not exclusively. I remember travelling home from Woolwich after the end of a major drugs importation trial, and I received a call from a magistrates court who needed me the next day to assist in the case of a lady appearing for a TV licence matter. I have never been too proud to accept those small cases.

You’re the Chairman of the Association of Police and Court Interpreters. What does your organisation do and why should freelancers join it? How do you support freelance translators and interpreters?

The APCI is by a big margin the oldest membership body in Justice interpreting, having been founded in 1974, and has always looked to set and raise standards. It has seen itself as the natural place for Justice “terps” to be once they had reached a level of experience and knowledge of this specialist craft. We take our members very seriously, and always interview candidates for membership.

The Association is very keen to do all it can to support its members in the development of their practices. For example we produce a paper Directory of Members which is sent to thousands of users all over the country. We have an online search facility and also a national call centre, APCI Response. We are seeing a significant rise in the number of calls from solicitors, following further marketing to them.

We look also to set standards of professionalism in the running of the Association. Management processes are properly documented now, we have proper records, and our meetings, whether social, Guest Lectures or even AGMs are full of good humour and even joy. The last AGM in October this year started at 5.30 and we had to encourage departure after 10.00pm!

Support comes in many forms. We often have to act to assist members in payment disputes for example, and give practical help and advice to members who find themselves in difficult situations. We realised we also needed to update our website, so early during my Chairmanship we designed and implemented a new website, including an online database which could be accessed – on a limited data access basis – by the call centre company. Having all the records in one place has been a major help in managing and administering the Association. For example, literally by the click of a button, all data for the membership Directory can be downloaded, already formatted for publication. This saves days of formatting and proofreading.

On a larger scale, it was the Association who negotiated with the MoJ in 2007 and achieved immediate revisions to the Terms and Conditions which had sought to remove paid travel time and reduce other payments. We were able to achieve a paid lunch hour (previously unpaid), and paid travel time. It was not all we wished for, but a rather better deal than they sought to impose. And of course all colleagues benefited from this, not just APCI members.

We also look to support members and the profession by developing links with work providers, and have worked closely with, amongst others, Cambridgeshire Constabulary. The quarterly liaison meetings and CPD developed out of an awful situation a few years ago, where the Constabulary treated interpreters with disdain, trying to impose working conditions that were frankly unacceptable. We – that is Alan Thompson and I, on behalf of the APCI – were handed an opportunity to step in and, with others, resolve the situation happily. Both sides now happily meet together regularly and achieve things together in an atmosphere of respect. People often talk ignorantly of the Cambridge Model as if it were to do with rates of pay, but it is much greater than that. It is an emblem of the natural symbiosis between the police and language professionals who also work to achieve Justice.

The Association is now also an active founding member of EULITA and also a member of FIT.

In April 2013 the Association will be holding its first International Conference. This will also be the occasion of our welcoming EULITA to England as hosts of their General Assembly. So the eyes of Europe and even further afield will be on us. The Conference title is “Challenges to Justice interpreting”, and we already have several speakers lined up, including a leading human rights lawyer, a Shadow Minister of Justice and the deputy Chairman of the Magistrates’ Association. The website will be going live very shortly, and early booking is seriously advised, since space is limited. All booking will be done via our website, and the Conference pages will shortly go live. So check out the site soon and get your booking in!


You’re in the frontline of the battle against outsourcing of court interpreting in the UK. Why?

I believe that Justice interpreting is so central to the administration of Justice as a whole, that it should only be undertaken by professionals who are qualified, Registered – that is, a member of the National Register, experienced and properly vetted. We are temporary Officers of the Court, and merit respect. Regrettably, certain individuals have expressed the view that we are the “enemy”, and seek to exploit us. We are generally nice, inoffensive and quiet individuals, so may have been seen as an easy target for the imposition of a rather stupid political dogma.

Well, we aren’t so quiet nice and inoffensive now…

There are a number of threads to my answer here, but a major one is that what is called “outsourcing” is in fact a deeply political doctrine, where the state seeks to remove responsibility for service on to others, pay them less and expect the actual service delivery agents to live on rates of pay which deliver them into servitude. It does deliver a handsome profit margin to the employers however, and it seems to me that the offering of well-paid jobs to former senior politicians and public servants who may have assisted in the delivery of such contracts is little short of corruption.

 Geoffrey Buckingham

Geoffrey during a demonstration against outsourcing in London

We should not be involved in politics at this level. It is alien to us, we are not comfortable here. But we are learning rapidly, and we find that we are not alone. Other professions under similar attack – I think of the medical professions and the legal ones, in particular the police – are also learning that they have to combat this enslavement to vested interest.

If you look at what we have achieved, it is beyond any expectation, ambition or belief. Hundreds of press articles and blogs all over the world have discussed the FWA – always negatively! There have been a number of TV pieces, including Channel 4 News, BBC London and national news, Al Jazeera and Islam TV. Then we had two Parliamentary Committee enquiries, a damning National Audit Office report, and a debate in the House of Commons in October 2011.
Central to this success has been the engagement of Involvis, a PR firm who took the lead in managing focus groups, setting surveys, developing reports, writing and sending out press releases to hundreds of media and other contacts, and even acting as intermediary in communications with the Ministry of Justice, leading to a proposed meeting with the new Minister.

What is the role of Facebook and Twitter in this campaign?

It was, by coincidence, an APCI member who set up a Facebook group called Freelance Interpreters and Translators-UK, and hundreds of colleagues have flocked to it. I have been a member since January or February, and have found it a good place to discuss, share views, post news, and develop thoughts on tactics. Many APCI members are present there, but also many non-members too, so it has been useful to see how people I previously did not know are thinking. I have been moved and impressed by the commitment of so many to Justice, their loyalty to colleagues and fundamental ethical principles. Many have only been able to keep going through the advice and support they have benefited from in the group.

Twitter has proven itself a good deal more than a means of telling people what we are doing, and contacts have been made with many persons of influence. I cannot go into detail, but inside information has been obtained and used to great effect because of twitter. There are many of us on there now, and we have global contacts, who respond to much of the news we have, forwarding it to their own contacts by “retweeting”.  It took me a while to get accustomed to it, and I was initially rather sceptical. But my scepticism was ill-founded. I now have followers amongst solicitors, learned counsel, the police and even the judiciary. I have been told that all my tweets are monitored discretely by certain parties, which amuses me enormously. Some of my tweets are rather scurrilous, but there are others who are worse – I think immediately of the baboon. Yes, you know whom I mean!

What can a single freelance translator or interpreter do to uphold professional standards?

Join a membership body. On your own you can achieve very little. But please, talk to your MP! There are many briefing papers available, especially on the FB group – so join that too! And twitter! Then contribute to both; make your voice heard. Even if what you have to say has already been said, or you think that what you want to say is unwanted or irrelevant, who cares? Speak up, you may find others actually agree with you!

What piece of advice would you give to starting-up translators and interpreters?

Geoffrey has been awarded our You Rock the Translation Industry Badge!

Join a membership body! Interpreting and translation can be solitary, even isolated jobs, so contact is essential to avoid unwanted consequences of such isolation, such as depression and loneliness. Online groups can help, but membership bodies offer closer support, with meetings, training, specialist knowledge bases and so on.

And also: what do you think the future of the translation industry looks like?

I cannot speak for the profession as a whole really, but Justice interpreting and translation is evolving. Does the future include machine translation? Not for a while, I think, especially in niche markets such as ours where so much hinges on even just a single word. Technology will undoubtedly have a role, but I suspect it will be much more limited than many of its enthusiasts believe. Many of us laugh at the myriad oddities of machine translation, and I think it will remain that way for some years.

In all seriousness, do you think a judge will trust a computer to interpret?

Thank you Geoffrey! You’ve been awarded our You Rock the Translation Industry Badge! Wear it with pride. Do you have any comments or follow up questions to Geoffrey? Use the space below!


  1. Amanda , on Nov 14, 2012 at 15:12 Reply

    Great new series Marta! It’s definitely inspiring to read about other translators/interpreters who have succeeded in the industry, especially as a start-up freelancer. Geoff makes a very good point of joining a membership body for support.

    • Marta , on Nov 25, 2012 at 14:19 Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Amanda! We all need a little bit of encouragement, and looking at others and how they made it is certainly helpful.

  2. Jan Snauwaert , on Nov 18, 2012 at 08:44 Reply

    Good that some people in our industry rock, give our industry some visibilty and some of the name and fame it deserves. Therefore, I like the article, although I am not personally engaged in interpreting.
    One reason why this blog gets so little response, I think, is that most of us don’t rock as LSPs. Most of us just feel fine being in a quiet corner, out of the “glamour”; and doing the useful and (sometimes) interesting work we do. However, I personally feel it would be a plus if more people in our industry indeed did rock, besides delivering high quality translations on an almost daily basis.

    • Marta , on Nov 25, 2012 at 14:18 Reply

      I think so too, Jan. That’s why we started this series. And to rock the industry doesn’t necessarily mean to be a celebrity. People like Geoffrey work extremely hard for the benefit of all of us, and they bring change about. Neverending enthusiasm and energy!

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