Interpretation: Enabling Access to Justice

Published on . Posted in Asylum seeker, Blog, Fundraising, Information Sessions, Interpretation, Legal aid, USM

Posted by Ellen Pucke

A caseworker working with one of our service users

To me, being a social worker means prioritising the well-being and rights of those that are most vulnerable, in everything you do. In my role as Office Manager at Justice Centre, I have the opportunity to do that every day when making decisions about our operations, logistics, security, and policies. I balance the needs of our service users with those of the staff to ensure we are able to serve our community to the best of our availability. One of the most important ways we are able to prioritise the needs of our service users is by providing them access to interpreters for all appointments and information sessions at Justice Centre.

Interpretation is essential because our service users are survivors of war, persecution, and torture that have found themselves in a country and culture foreign to them; a country which does offer a mechanism for seeking protection – but in a language that may, in effect, make it inaccessible.

Many of our service users have some degree of proficiency with English or Cantonese, either because they learned it in their country of origin, or have dedicated extensive time to studying and practicing these languages once they arrived in Hong Kong. A moderate level of English or Cantonese certainly helps someone navigate Hong Kong’s systems, but when it comes to communicating about something traumatic and so critical to your future – could you express yourself completely and accurately in anything but your native tongue? Would you be able to comprehend legal jargon or describe distressing experiences in a second language?

More than 30 interpreters offer their talent and time to interpret for our clients on an ad hoc basis, in over 22 languages. Because of them we are able to provide our service users with support – allowing them to better understand their rights in Hong Kong, the process of applying for protection, and what the status of their case is; empowering our service users to work collaboratively with our caseworkers to prepare their testimony and legal documentation in an accurate way; and enabling them to work through traumatic experiences and acute mental health concerns with the guidance of a psychosocial counsellor.

Interpretation is absolutely critical for ensuring our service users have the best possible chance of accessing justice. One interpreter described her role as the “bridge between the caseworker and the protection claimant”. She said, “It bothers me when people cannot communicate as they are already in a desperate situation when they come here. Without interpretation, legal support would be impossible”.

I love working with our interpreters for many of the same reasons I love working with our service users – they’re from all over the world, they often know three or four different languages, they come from diverse professional backgrounds, they are eager to learn about the legal process and our advocacy work to improve the experience of people seeking protection in Hong Kong, and they are enthusiastic about holding on to their native languages and using it to help others. Many of our interpreters grew up in households in Hong Kong or abroad where they learned one or more language that is not commonly found here – such as Pashtu, Swahili, or Somali. They tell me they enjoy interpreting these languages at Justice Centre because it’s a way for them to stay connected to their roots. When I am privileged to facilitate that connection between an interpreter and a service user, it often reminds me of the strength found in Hong Kong’s diversity.

My heart is full each time a service user meets an interpreter of their native language at our centre; the sense of relief and hope is palpable. I would hope that interpretation services are prioritised and adequately resourced going forward within Hong Kong’s current protection system, in order to facilitate a smoother and fairer system for people seeking protection here. The value of this cannot be underestimated.

Please consider making a donation today: just HK$ 500 enables us to provide legal and psychosocial support to a protection claimant with the assistance of an interpreter. 

At the moment we are in need of interpreters for Amharic, Arabic, Bangla, Somali, and Tigrinya languages.  If you are interested please get in touch with Ellen at for more details.

1416593Ellen Pucke is the Office Manager at Justice Centre Hong Kong. She is also a Hong Kong-registered social worker.

Lost in Translation

Published on . Posted in Asylum seeker, Blog, Interpretation, Refugee

Posted by Adela Kamaragoda

March 27, 2015

Have you ever told a joke to someone who just did not get the punchline? Or shared an anecdote with someone of a different culture, and found that the crux of your story was lost in translation? And anyone learning Cantonese knows how easy it can be to erroneously insult someone instead of complimenting them.

Imagine, then, how it must be for refugees in Hong Kong, of various backgrounds and origins, many of whom do not speak any English let alone Cantonese. Some of us have experienced adapting to a new environment and culture, but what if you had to navigate a legal process, submit your case for protection and meet with lawyers – all in a foreign language? What if your life depended on it? Depended on the outcome of this process, which you don’t understand?

Unsurprisingly, interpreters play a vital role in our work at Justice Centre. Interpreters facilitate communication between refugees and lawyers, social workers, psychologists, doctors and other human rights allies. We would not be able to provide legal and psychological support without quality interpretation. Our staff provide one-to-one training and support to new interpreters, so they are equipped to work with vulnerable refugees and handle sensitive issues, which can be both rewarding and challenging. Through the work of our interpreters, we give a voice to refugees whose stories must be told. The refugees we work with come from over 44 different countries, and speak various languages and dialects including Pashto (Iranian language also spoken in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan), Tigrinya (Eritrean language), Amharic and Oromo (Ethiopian languages), Ewe and Wolof (West African languages) and Kannada (South Indian language).

For the blog this week, two of our interpreters, Sabina and Yasmeen, tell us the highlights and challenges of interpreting with refugees, and Samuel*, a refugee himself, tells us the impact that this has on his claim for protection.

Sabina is from Bangladesh, speaks Bengali, and has been in Hong Kong for seven years. She has been interpreting for us since 2012. She says:

Sabina, one of our interpreters

“I enjoy what I am doing because it is something that can help others. I am excited to see the progress the refugees I work with have made by the end of the process with the psychologist at Justice Centre. I remember one client who could hardly speak at the beginning of his sessions with the psychologist, he was nearly crying, yet through working with the psychologist and me, he started talking more. As I work with the psychologist and the refugee over a period of 12 weeks, I can see that the refugees start to trust me more, and open up. The refugees are traumatised, and so they are much more comfortable speaking in their own language.”

“The challenge is then when a refugee starts to talk nonstop; it is a mental challenge for me. It’s also important to accurately interpret the refugee’s words to the lawyer for their testimony so that the decision makers can make the correct decision on his or her case. You can’t be just someone who speaks two languages. You cannot condense what the refugee says, you must fully interpret everything. That’s what I learnt when I was given the training by the staff at Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre (what Justice Centre was called at the time).”

Yasmeen is of Pakistani origin and was born in Hong Kong. She speaks Cantonese, and interprets for the Urdu and Punjabi-speaking refugees we work with. Yasmeen has interpreted with us since 2012. Yasmeen told me:

“I like interpreting with Justice Centre. I used to be narrow-minded, but when I started interpreting I became aware of refugees’ problems and experiences. There is a lot more going on in their lives than I ever knew. Having heard some of their stories, I have become more thankful – for my home, my life…I am blessed. And I have become more patient!”

“The challenge of interpreting is to avoid getting emotional. When they tell their stories, I hear the unimaginable things they have experienced. I must be very sensitive. They feel comfortable when they can tell their story in their own language, and they are grateful to us. When they speak in their own language, they can let out all their feelings – it’s better for them not to keep all the frustration and emotion inside.”

“Interpretation is vital; if a refugee doesn’t speak English well and doesn’t have access to an interpreter for their protection case, they may be granted a negative decision, and then their future is destroyed.”

Samuel* is a refugee from the Horn of Africa, and has benefited from an interpreter in accessing Justice Centre’s services. He says:

“I speak and understand English, but not so fluently. I have an interpreter to help me with my testimony. I need an interpreter to be able to express myself, to describe what happened to me more precisely. When I speak in my own language, it’s like living in replay, vividly remembering everything that happened.”

“Without an interpreter, how can I explain my testimony, and get the lawyer to fully understand what happened to me?  The interpreter is a must – a bridge between the protection claimant and the lawyer.”

Justice Centre is grateful to all the interpreters who dedicate many hours of their time to provide their vital services. We are currently seeking interpreters who are fluent in English and either Amharic, Tigrinya, Nepali, Somali, Sinhalese, Arabic or French. If you have some interpreting experience and are interested in this paid opportunity please email

If you would like to make a donation towards providing interpretation services for the most vulnerable refugees, please also get in touch.

*This refugee’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

Search the website


T (852) 3109 7359
F (852) 3422 3019