A woman in front of an Ofpra agent in Niger in 2018. Credit: Mehdi Chebil.
A woman in front of an Ofpra agent in Niger in 2018. Credit: Mehdi Chebil.

In France, asylum seekers who do not speak French - or who don’t speak it well enough - must use interpreters to tell their story at Ofpra (French Office for Protection for Refugees and Stateless people) or the CNDA (France's National Court of Asylum). Interpreting requires rigor and neutrality. However, in practice, and despite the importance of the issue, translation errors do occur.

"To translate is to betray," goes the famous saying. Any transposition into another language is subject to a margin of error. In the case of asylum seekers, translation problems can have a decisive impact on migrants' fate.

That’s why Ofpra (French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons) has drawn up a charter for the interpreters with whom it works - and whom it recruits through private translation agencies. In France, asylum seekers may be accompanied by an interpreter free of charge during their interview with Ofpra or, in the event of an appeal, at the hearing of the CNDA (National court of asylum law).

Under this charter, Ofpra therefore requires its interpreters to be highly professional. They must translate "faithfully," "without addition or omission," "without comment, value judgment or evaluation" and must ensure that "neutral behavior and words" are maintained.

"We are subject to confidentiality and neutrality," said Rahima*, who translated Dari for Ofpra agents for several years. "For example, I was not allowed to introduce myself to asylum seekers or tell them which part of Afghanistan I came from.”

Use of the wrong Arabic, lack of vocabulary...

But the professional interpreter acknowledges that mistakes are possible, especially due to fatigue. Rahima says that she attended hearings lasting more than three hours. "Sometimes I didn't translate the whole point and summarized it." The job requires a lot of attention. The interpreter must translate the applicant's comments, but also those of the Ofpra protection officer. While the different parties are listening to each other, the interpreter is moving back and forth between the two languages.

"Most interpreters do their job very well," said several lawyers specializing in asylum law. However, they have had problems: language, vocabulary, impartiality... Lawyers speak, for example, of a Syrian asylum seeker assisted by an interpreter who speaks Maghreb Arabic, or of an interpreter whose poor level of French does not allow a story to be transcribed accurately.

"During a hearing at the CNDA, an interpreter [of Fulani] raised her eyes to the heavens while my client was giving their account," said Aicha Dourouni-Le Strat, who felt obliged to intervene. The presiding judge had to call the translator to order, asking her to simply transcribe the asylum seeker’s story without making any gestures.

On another occasion, when listening to an audio recording of her client in front of Ofpra, the lawyer noticed that during the interview the interpreter had asked if he could use "Google translate" to check the meaning of a word. "That casts serious doubt on the reliability of the translation," said Dourouni-Le Strat, who used that as an argument during an appeal at the CNDA.

When contacted by InfoMigrants, Ofpra did not deny that translation problems exist but noted that asylum seekers remain protected in all circumstances. "The law of July 29 2015 allows Ofpra to [systematically] record asylum interviews. These recordings provide an additional guarantee for the asylum seeker. Indeed, the asylum seeker who deems that his or her comments have not been properly translated may request that the audio recording be played," the organization said via its press office.

Shortage of translators in rare languages

"Careless mistakes can happen, but it’s important to avoid serious distortions," said another lawyer -- especially since it is sometimes difficult to find the rare pearl. Ofpra and CNDA have interpreters in about 100 languages, but for some dialects very few are available. A week ago, according to another lawyer interviewed by InfoMigrants, the court was unable to find a translator for an Iraqi asylum seeker speaking Kurdish Kurmanji.

This shortage in rare languages can lead translation agencies to recruit interpreters in a hurry, without checking their political ties. The French press reported on cases where Ofpra and the CNDA employed Azeri translators close to the Azerbaijani embassy in dealings with asylum seekers who had fled the Azerbaijani regime, a practice prohibited by Ofpra regulations. The 2018 affair provoked the anger of an association of lawyers charged with defending the asylum seekers.

A lawyer interviewed by InfoMigrants recalled a preparatory session during which one of her clients from the Hazara community of Afghanistan felt very uncomfortable with an interpreter from another ethnic group because he translated "Shia" as a "Shia sect" - a judgment - whenever the asylum seeker spoke about his religion.

"We have a moral obligation," said Rahima, the Afghan translator. "Neutrality is a priority," she repeated. "But to be really sure of the translations, there should be two interpreters to translate," she suggested after her experience at Ofpra.

Can an interpreter be challenged?

The interpreter may well decide to withdraw of their own volition in the event of a conflict of interest; if he or she knows the asylum seeker, for example. But it is also possible for the asylum seeker to reject a translator. However, the process is complex.

- During Ofpra interviews:

At Ofpra, after a conversation lasting a few minutes, the protection officer asks the applicant if he can understand the translator. "Ofpra assesses on a case-by-case basis the reasons given by the asylum seeker for requesting a change of interpreter. In any case, these reasons cannot be based on simple prejudices. If a problem is identified, either Ofpra is in a position to rectify the situation immediately or the interview is postponed and the reasons for this postponement are recorded in the interview transcript," Ofpra said when contacted by InfoMigrants.

The asylum seeker can also express his or her opinion on the interpreter and the quality of his or her translation at the end of the interview. However, "it would be unrealistic to think that migrants would dare to give a negative opinion, given their weak position," noted a lawyer interviewed by InfoMigrants. Most of the time, it is in front of the CNDA, after Ofpra has rejected their file, that translation issues are corrected.

- In front of the CNDA:

To challenge the translator at the CNDA, "the mistrust must be legitimate,"with a solid justification that the lawyer presents in writing to the judge, such as "when the interpreter is the same as the one at the Ofpra hearing [which sometimes happens]," explained a lawyer interviewed by InfoMigrants. Cases in which lawyers challenge translators are very rare.

Finally, even before going to Ofpra or the CNDA, when completing the asylum application form, the asylum seeker can give details on the language spoken and choose the sex of the interpreter, particularly in cases where the asylum application concerns sexual violence. That choice may also be made during the proceedings, as long as Ofpra is given a reasonable period of time to accommodate the request.

*This first name has been changed 


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