The government is underestimating the value of good interpreters and translators


Professional interpreters and translators play an important role in courts and police investigations. However, justice minister Ferd Grapperhaus’s decision to downgrade the professional requirements to ‘secondary school levels’, is not a good idea, says certified translator and interpreter Roemer Leushuis.

International crime and the flow of refugees have led to a greater need for professional interpreters and translators. The Dutch government claims it is unable to meet that need. Is there really a lack of professionals, and if so, how is the government going to solve the problem?

A court decision or the granting of a residence permit is not best served by letting mistake-riddled Google Translate or Deepl take care of the translation. The human eye is still indispensable, if only to weed out the errors. Interpretation is not yet in any danger of being replaced by technology which so far has failed to master spoken language recognition.

This means professional government organisations and courts have to consult the register of certified interpreters and translators. ‘Certified’ guarantees quality and reliability because the translator or interpreter chosen for the job has the appropriate diplomas and no criminal record. But something is afoot which may change things considerably.

On June 16 MPs rejected a final attempt to stop two draft proposals made by justice minister Ferd Grapperhaus. One concerned the introduction of commercial intermediaries for all government interpretation and translation work. The other focused on reducing the language skill level for certified interpreters and translators. At the same time, the current fixed hourly rate of €44 euros would become the minimum hourly rate.


According to the minister, the current system is not able to cope with peaks in demand, for instance in the event of a mass influx of asylum seekers.

But interpreters are hard to find in other circumstances too. The justice ministry expects that commercial companies will be better equipped than the government to supply interpreters and translators of ‘rare’ languages.

Interpreters and translators are appalled at the plans. After years of hard study, they are doing a job which comes loaded with responsibility and poor pay to boot.

Police investigations and court cases depend on good translations or justice will not be served. It takes professionalism, legal knowledge and experience.

Politicians tend to look to their voters to gauge if there is any support for their point of view. It may be that the general public think that an interpreter or translator is hired to support criminals with a foreign background and asylum seekers, two groups which are not exactly popular in this country.


But interpreters and translators are not only there to help guarantee the basic rights of certain groups. The government itself needs them to carry out its tasks. They are working in the background, but play an essential role in the large-scale police investigations which feature so prominently in the press.

They also play a role in counter terrorism activities because bugged phone conversations and legal assistance requests to foreign authorities have to be translated.

When a suspect is detained abroad at the request of the Dutch authorities, a translation of the extradition request will have to be provided with no time to lose. Once the suspect arrives, the services of the interpreter are needed for the police interrogation. During the trial the suspect is questioned again, this time by the court and in the presence of a different interpreter

Rates have not been raised for decades, uncorrected for inflation. A two hour service, including preparation and travel time, currently pays around €100 before taxes. In the new situation, interpreters and translators will be paid by the minute and that might substantially lower their income. Commercial intermediaries will also try to maximise their profit margin.


There are a number of factors which influence the limited availability of well-trained interpreters and translators. There are few opportunities for training and cutbacks have decimated language studies. The immigration services, moreover, are increasingly faced with waves of refugees fleeing the political circumstances in their country. And as government pay is poor, many will prefer to work for other clients.

Now the justice department has decided to deal with the relative scarcity by lowering the professional standards. That is not a wise decision. The B2 language level which would be required is about that of a secondary school pupil, and not nearly enough to do the job properly.

Contrary to many other professionals, such as care workers and teachers, interpreters and translators are not primarily fighting for better pay but for the survival of their craft.

There is a simple solution. The present system, not perfect but mostly adequate, must be maintained and improved, including fairer rates. To do this the universities and the government must reinstate good language courses.

This article was first published in the NRC

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