Blind Adherence to Interpreter Ethics Can Hinder Communication

I love the code of ethics. First, it’s my best friend keeping me out of trouble. Second, it’s my mother watching over my shoulder and making sure I’m doing a good job. Third, I’m a rule-follower by nature (and I have the behavioral assessment to prove it), so it gives me a welcome framework to guide my work. Now that I’ve established my support for the ethics, let me say that ethics can hinder the facilitation of communication if not applied with regard for the situation at hand. 

Here are a couple examples of how interpreters can hinder communication by blindly adhering to ethical standards:

Relentlessly adhere to the use of “first person.”

If use of “first person” completely confuses the listener, and you’ve clarified this technique to the listener, and the listener is still confused by it, it is counterproductive to insist on using this standard. Note: Before dismissing the listener’s ability to catch on to the use of “first person,” make sure you’ve been using this technique consistently. If the interpreter waffles between first person and third person, the listener will naturally be confused.

Always interpret everything as it said regardless of the situation.

If interpreting everything as is it said by the speaker would be perceived as mocking or be completely disruptive to the encounter, it would be advisable to take alternative action to avoid hindering communication. The interpreter might need to speak more loudly than the speaker (due to room positioning, environmental noise considerations, etc.). For similar reasons, the interpreter might need to speak more softly than the speaker. The interpreter might need to not speak at all. An audiologist trying to conduct a hearing exam, for example, might need the environment to be free of “controllable” noise factors.

So, while I give the code of ethics two very enthusiastic thumbs up and implore rogue interpreters to get on the ethics bandwagon already, I also implore all you marvelous interpreters to use the ethics as your best friend and mother (with apologies to any for whom this analogy has a connotation opposite its intent), not your jailor.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting a call from the Coalition for the Enforcement of the Health Care Interpreter Code of Ethics. (P.S. I just made that up. To my knowledge, no such coalition exits. . . yet.)