How Neutrality Killed Impartiality


Working with people gives interpreters all sorts of opportunities to form opinions based on what we see. Sometimes we encounter exchanges or treatments that we don’t agree with personally. As human beings we are always shaping our thoughts based on our own experiences. 

As interpreters we pride ourselves on being word experts.  But even simple words can lead to different meanings for different people. Let's take a look at this sequence of words:


Impartiality:  Equal treatment of all rivals or disputants; fairness.

Neutrality:  The state of not supporting or helping either side in a conflict, disagreement, etc.; impartiality.

Neutralize:  Render (something) ineffective or harmless by applying an opposite force or effect.


On its face impartiality and neutrality seem to be the same.  However, when impartiality is thought to require that interpreters must exercise neutrality, it is easy to move to the assumption that neutrality means interpreters must neutralize communications between providers and patients.  If one is to be neutral then it must mean you are to neutralize heated encounters between providers and their patients.

This is flat out wrong. 

Impartiality means that you keep your own opinions and beliefs at bay and don’t allow them to affect the interpreted encounter. It does not mean that you take it upon yourself to alter the communication so a message comes across as anything other than the original intent. 

If you do this then you are no longer an impartial facilitator of communication. Instead you are, in effect, adding your own thoughts and opinion into the exchange. You are becoming partial to the way in which people are speaking with one another. This is a major no, no. 

The whole purpose of interpreting is to allow adults to be adults. 

When you’re angry do you want someone altering your frustration to come out flowery and nice? Probably not. Your anger comes from a source that causes you to act and express that anger, no matter the method you choose. 

That frustration is your right as an adult. And who else would you trust to communicate that for you? Sometimes it is the specific words you choose to express those feelings with, and the tone you use, that empowers you to take action. You feel slighted and it’s important someone knows. 

Now, this also means that people are going to feel uncomfortable. And, I’d assume, that is your point. You want to make sure that whatever caused your anger or frustration is clear so it can be avoided in the future. 

An interpreter that uses their position to mitigate uncomfortable exchanges between providers and patients are using their own internal filters to assess a situation and adjust it according to what they feel is right. This is not their role. It takes away the power an adult feels to remedy their own situation. 

Here’s another perspective. 

Imagine you are the recipient of such frustration. You are keenly aware of body language and the tone of the speaker. You wouldn’t need an interpreter to tell you someone is angry. There are many unspoken cues to indicate this. 

Now imagine if you didn’t understand the words being spoken. If those words where interpreted in a tone and the words are altered to come across as ‘respectful’ or ‘kind’ you would know that someone is filtering what is being said. You have plenty of life experience to know that someone is trying to neutralize the situation. 

That would drive me bonkers. I, as an adult and professional, do not need someone else to decide what I should or should not feel. I don’t want someone to calm the situation by choosing what I hear. Additionally, I would not trust my interpreter any more. It would be glaringly obvious that they are a partial party imposing their own filters to determine what I do or don’t hear from the other person. 

If you are an interpreter be sure you never step into the role of neutralizer. Allow the adults in the room to work out their differences. Respect the people your working with enough to handle their business and come to a conclusions on their own that is right for them. 

If you do your job right, all will be resolved in the appropriate manner between the provider and their patient. They will determine the outcome. Don’t make this encounter about you. Make it all about them. 

One last note. Facilitating uncomfortable communications between two people is very hard. When you want to be the one to clam the situation down, take a breath. You are not privy to all previous encounters nor do you know what’s happening with each person. 

You are only present for this one snapshot of time in the entirety of these people’s lives. To assume you know the answers is audacious at best. 

Be trustworthy and provide services that everyone in the room can trust. Empower adults to be adults and let the chips fall where they may.These are not your chips and you can walk away knowing you did a great job and stayed true to your profession. 



©Connecting Cultures Inc. 2018

Posted on March 29, 2018 and filed under Interpreter, Newbie, Trainer.