Translation Issues: Immigrant Voices in the UK

Translation Issues: Immigrant Voices in the UK

At present, around 14% of the UK's population was born overseas - that's more than 9 million people. Around one-third of these migrants live in the London area. The two most common countries of origin are India and Poland.

The Office of National Statistics predicts that such migration will account for three-quarters of UK Population growth over the next 25 years. This is steady and predictable population growth, but events overseas can cause a sudden influx of people from outside the country - the war in Ukraine is a recent example.

Clearly, many people arriving from overseas will not speak English natively and require assistance, particularly when accessing necessary services such as housing, healthcare, and legal advice.


A recent study showed that more than one-third of healthcare professionals found that language barriers posed challenges when assessing a patient's needs. The study found that workers lost as much as half a day a week overcoming such challenges.  


Education is a clear priority for anyone with a family seeking to establish themselves in a new country. In an education setting, language is key to taking in what is being taught and forming bonds outside of the immediate family.

Legal Rights

When arriving in a new country, migrants will need to be able to access the support they need to settle, including things like benefits, housing, and immigration advice. 

In many cases, the assistance of an interpreter will be required. People arriving from outside the UK, particularly refugees, may lack the formal education required to read and digest printed materials, particularly on complex topics such as law.

There are a number of technological solutions aimed at solving the problem of translation, most notably Google Translate. Several apps and tools use (or claim to use) "machine learning" or AI to provide translations; however, these are rarely 100% accurate, are seldom idiomatic and almost always fail in areas where technical language is needed. Not to mention potential issues around confidentiality and data protection.

This is particularly serious in legal translations where the interpreting of particular words or phrases can fundamentally change the outcome. 

Automatic or AI translation may help one get the gist of what is being said, but they are fundamentally inadequate for the task of legal translations. Indeed, according to two Chinese researchers, legal translation is "one of the most demanding and vital areas of contemporary translation practice" (Hu Pi-Chan and Cheng Le, 2016). 

What are the key takeaways?

First of all, there is an ever-growing population of non-native speakers in the UK who will need language provision to access fundamental rights and services.

Second, automated translation cannot always be relied upon - expert translators are required for anything complex.

Finally, legal translation, more than any other kind, is fraught with difficulty as it impinges upon the rights of non-native speakers.

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