20 Jul 2015

Call to review interpreting services

5:17 pm on 20 July 2015

Chinese Association president Meng Foon says it is time New Zealand's language interpreting services are reviewed.

Meng Foon

Chinese Association president Meng Foon said interpreting services should have the resources to help people in times of stress. Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

The revelation of a phone call made to the police on the night in 2012 that Auckland woman Cissy Chen went missing has highlighted the problem.

Her long-term partner, Yun Qing Liu, made a 12-minute-long 111 call to report her missing, but the police operator could not understand him.

Mr Liu made his first call to police in November that year to say Ms Chen had not returned home from her walk.

Mr Liu told the operator his English was no good, and that he wanted someone who spoke Mandarin.

The operator continued with the conversation, saying his English was good.

He gave Ms Chen's Chinese and English name. "Your wife is English?" asked the operator. "My wife's English is okay," he said. The operator asks where his wife is. "Not at home," he replied.

The operator then asked whether he had come home and "someone's stolen your house."

Two minutes later, the operator asked that his wife call back in the morning.

Close to seven minutes into the call, the operator asked if Mr Liu spoke Cantonese, and then spent the next few minutes trying to get someone who spoke Mandarin to help.

The phone call was played to the jury during Mr Liu's trial.

Mr Liu was acquitted of Ms Chen's murder last month.

'This could have been a very serious event'

Mr Foon, who is Gisborne's mayor as well as the president of the Chinese Association, said interpreting services needed to be efficient.

"It is probably timely for a review to ensure that all the appropriate languages and dialects are actually catered for, from not only Chinese people, but from new immigrants that actually come from overseas that actually struggle with English language at the present time."

Mr Foon said services should have the resources to help people in times of stress.

International Federation of Translators president Dr Henry Liu said interpreters should be available 24/7.

"This is something that we have failed in providing adequate services to all New Zealanders across different language groups," he said.

"This need not be that way and we could remedy that with a more strategic approach."

He warned that a slow language interpreting service could be the difference between life and death when it came to 111 calls.

"Clearly hearing from that, the operator could not - well, there were multiple steps of misunderstanding.

"This could have been a very serious event - 12 minutes could make a difference, in terms of life or death."

Mr Liu said many professional interpreting services were available.