Question & Answer: Interpreter Ethics

We oftentimes get questions from colleagues and we are flattered that our colleagues think that we are qualified to answer them, and many times we can. However, due to the sheer volume, it can be difficult to answer individual questions. That's why we try to answer some questions here on the blog for the benefit of all. Here's one of the recent questions we received.

Ready for the EU? Picture by Dagy.
A colleague who is not yet court-certified asked us the following question (amended to protect the colleague's privacy):

"I have a big court hearing on Friday and I don't know anything about the subject matter or anything. I have never interpreted at this type of hearing before. Can you recommend some glossaries that I can use to study for this? I don't feel ready for this."

Wow, we thought! Finally, an easy one. 

Here's the short answer: Don't accept the assignment. It's a matter of interpreter ethics.

Now, we thought about this some more, and here is the longer answer with (hopefully) some useful nuggets of information.

This is indeed a good question, but the long answer is still relatively straightforward. Interpreters, just like all professionals, have a professional obligation to only accept assignments for which they feel qualified. This is in addition to any ethical obligation they might have under applicable codes of ethics. It's not fair to the client (be it an agency, a direct client, a government agency, an NGO, etc.) and very much not fair to the person you are interpreting for. This is especially important in judicial proceedings. Can you imagine being stuck in jail in a foreign country, say, China, and that the interpreter who shows up KNOWS she doesn't know what she's doing? Would that make you feel warm and fuzzy? Probably not. So in judicial matters, one really has to take a hard look at one's skills and ask: can I do this? Would I be putting anyone in danger if I accepted this assignment? What's the worst-case scenario in terms of outcome? Medical malpractice? Unlawful deportation? You get the point.

For other types of assignments, things aren't quite that dramatic. For instance, if you are Jewish and are asked to interpret at a Catholic wedding (mass), you probably won't know too much. However, these are things that can be acquired, and you can study up and read and print out prayers and other elements of mass in a week or so. Also, if you have to go interpret at a family court adoption hearing and you've never done family court, but you are a certified court interpreter, you will probably have enough of a terminology base and access to resources to get through this. For instance, you could ask the court clerk for a transcript of a similar proceedings and then study up on some vocabulary.

So the short long answer is that we think you should not accept the assignment unless you feel like you are qualified or you feel that you can adequately prepare in the time you have before the assignment. We'd be especially careful with court-related hearings and medical matters, but for community interpreting and perhaps even conference interpreting, the lines aren't always that clear. In general, if the assignment usually calls for a certified interpreter(and those certifications exist for a reason) and you don't have that certification (medical, court) then you should definitely stay away from it. Nothing good can come out of it.

That said, we want to leave you with one final thought. In a way, one can never be 100% completely ready for some situations. Even if you've interpreted hundreds of depositions, sentencing hearings, status hearings, arraignments and have spent years in court, the first time you do a trial is scary and will make you question your abilities. The first time you go to a hospital to interpret pre-surgery instructions you will be nervous, but if you passed the certification, there's only one way to get more experience under your belt: you need to go and interpret.

We hope we've provided some food for thought. Interpreter codes of ethics (Judy is certified in California and Nevada) are notoriously vague on some issues, but not on this one. When in doubt: decline the assignment. There will always be other assignments. Err on the side of the conservative.

We would love to hear your thoughts!


Marie Brotnov on December 11, 2013 at 12:19 PM said...

Sound advice! I think sometimes translators or interpreters don't want to decline a job because they need the work, or they are afraid that saying "I'm not qualified for this" will reflect poorly on them as a professional. But if you want to last longer than a year, saying no is exactly what you need to do sometimes. A bad translation or poor performance is much more damaging to your reputation and bank account than declining an offer. The times I declined a job offer I didn't feel qualified for, the client was usually thankful for the honest response and contacted me later with projects that were within my area of expertise.

blackheart on December 11, 2013 at 5:33 PM said...

I don't possess either a court or medical certification. However, I have attended trainings, have acquired experience over the years, and I've passed internal competency exams. I decline jobs for which I don't feel qualified for. And yet, each assignment is unique and challenging on its own way. Good food for thought. Thanks!!!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on December 13, 2013 at 8:49 AM said...

@Marie: Thanks for reading and for commenting. You are right: so many professionals think that declining a project will reflect poorly on them, but we actually think it's the opposite. We like to compare linguists with lawyers. No criminal defense attorney would touch a patent or a securities litigation with a 10-foot pole; because they are not qualified to do this work. We think it's important that linguists start recognizing that you simply can't excel all areas, and that it's important to explain this to the client, too!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on December 13, 2013 at 8:50 AM said...

@Blackheart: Thanks for your comment. Kudos to you for getting so much training under your belt and for declining assignments you don't feel qualified for. And we certainly agree that every assignment is full of surprises and challenges: we never entirely know what it's going to happen, even if you've done two hundred depositions.

Join the conversation! Commenting is a great way to become part of the translation and interpretation community. Your comments don’t have to be overly academic to get published. We usually publish all comments that aren't spam, self-promotional or offensive to others. Agreeing or not agreeing with the issue at hand and stating why is a good way to start. Social media is all about interaction, so don’t limit yourself to reading and start commenting! We very much look forward to your comments and insight. Let's learn from each other and continue these important conversations.

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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