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Public Service Interpreting -Ethical Issues in Public Service Interpreting


Juan Jess Yborra Golpe

Si le traducteur ntait pas responsable, sil navait accepter de responsabilit pour aucun de ses choix, il naura it aucun problme dordre thique et donc aucune demande de principes susceptibles de guider sa pratique. (Pym, A., 1997:67)

A professional interpreter has to manage to maximise reliable communication along with service delivery, as well as minimise risk of misinterpreting. We achieve that through the codes of conduct and the guidelines to good practice which have been developed in the light of experience.

The Codes of Conduct

A code of conduct establishes the main standards of professional behaviour. They are presumed to be timeless, unchangeable core principles. Unfortunately, it is possible to find nowadays a number of different codes of conduct which, even though been quite similar in its core ideas, are no exactly the same. This could lead to a problem of confidence in the codes. Let us take the example of the Highway Codes. There is one single Highway Code for each country and every driver in the country has to abide by its rules. That every country has 16-17 different codes of conduct does not help the interpreter, as many times it will be difficult for him to decide among them insofar as they defend the same principles and hardly differ between each other. Thus, it would be helpful and necessary to promote the creation of official National Codes of Conduct on interpreting, to back up the interpreters in their ethical issues and moral dilemmas.

Ethical principles

From the codes of conduct we can extract four main ethical principles: a) Fidelity b) Confidentiality

c) Impartiality d) Professional conduct Fidelity Interpreters have a moral and professional, not to mention legal, commitment to convey the complete meaning of the speaker's message (Mikkelson: 49). Thus, their task involves not only encoding decoding speakers messages; it also involves ensuring translation equivalence by maintaining the words of the original language. Furthermore, it would be advisable to maintain all non verbal elements, as tone of voice or pauses, in order to preserve the entire message of an utterance and avoid any kind of distorting. Confidentiality Interpreters shall respect confidentiality at all times and not seek to take advantage of any information disclosed during their work'. The above is stated in section 4 of the Ethical and Professional Issues' in the National Register of Public Service Interpreters' Code of Conduct of the United Kingdom (Mikkelson: 50) Thus, interpreters must no disclose any information to a third party unless instructed by the Principal/Client and provided that it is not unlawful. Anyway, the duty of confidentiality shall not apply if: a) disclosure is required by law b) in the public domain Impartiality A qualified interpreter must always act impartially and never enter into discussion with any of the parties nor give any kind of advice to them. His individual opinions and emotions must remain hidden and adopt a neutral attitude. Thus, all parties will be shown that the interpreter is enough qualified and dedicated to professional conduct. Professional conduct For an interpreter, relations with his/her colleagues are really relevant. The Spanish Code of Ethics (sections 2.2.7 and 2.2.8) for example, argues that interpreters help their

colleagues, present and future, and refrain from expressing opinions about the competence of other interpreters' (Mikkelson: 54). Of course, adequate preparation is hugely required for professional interpreters. Therefore, rigorous and specialized training is essential in order that interpreters keep up with language development and any modifications in the field. Namely, participation in workshops, professional meetings, interaction with professional colleagues and reading of current literature (Mikkelson: 55). And obviously, any kind of illegal activities such as accepting bribes, or unprofessional behaviours like delegating into others without consent of the parties, accepting extra payments/rewards or not withdrawing when you are not capable of providing a good service must also be avoided.

Ethical decision making in social services interpreting

Social service interpreters often find themselves facing a number of ethical dilemmas when identifying competing values and competing loyalties (e.g. values of selfdetermination can conflict with a duty of care), etc. To begin with, every time we face an ethical problem we should proceed in a logical way: Firstly, read the required code of ethics from A to izzard just to become familiar with what it is said in its guidelines. Read about the ethical guidelines and dilemmas that social workers commonly face. Codes of Ethics give a good amount of information about them. Secondly, it would be interesting to follow a framework to solve the ethical problems. (Mattison: 209) provides a quite useful one which, in broad outlines would consist in:
1) Define and gather information. 2) Identify value tensions. 3) Refer to the professional code of ethics. 4) Measure the potential consequences of the actions. 5) After weighing up options, select an action for resolving a dilemma. 6) Being able to justify the decision.

Finally, it is important for social service interpreters to take time to reflect on their practice and own values, although many times this is not just possible due to the nature of their job. Anyway, we have to be aware of the fact that of spending too much time thinking about the answer because there are no easy ones and is easy to get stuck. Social work students and practitioners who spend too much time reflecting about professional ethics may find themselves in the same situation as the centipede who become incapable of moving about when it tried to understand how its legs worked. (Loewenberg & Dolgoff: 12)

Deontology vs. Teleology

Even though guidelines and codes of conducts have been developed (as it has been foresaid) to offer social service interpreters a logical approach to the decision making process, they cannot cover all the cases and variables that can affect to each single case. Codes must be prescriptive but they cannot be seen as an immovable law. It is then when we find the clash between two of the main branches of ethics: deontology and teleology. A deontological thinker is grounded in the belief that actions can be determined right or wrong, good or bad, regardless of the consequences they produce and so adherence to rules is central. Once formulated, ethical rules should hold under all circumstances (Mattison, 2000) On the other hand a teleological thinker is ground in the belief of consequences and so weighing up the potential consequences of proposed actions is central to this way of thinking (Mattison, 2000). Thus, an interpreter following a deontology way of thinking might differ in many cases from a teleology way of thinking one. It could be said that unfortunately there are no right or wrong ways to make a decision when facing an ethical dilemma. Codes and guidelines can be provided but in the end the interpreters inner ethic and morality is what must decide to what extend is it correct to get stuck to the codes or take a diversion in the way of proceeding.


Inter preter


Lack of professionalization
Even though we are supposed to be good professionals if we follow the codes dictations, in real life we shall find out that things do not happen to be the same than in the books. We shall have to meet or even suffer a number of people whose morality or ethics differ substantially from ours or from what it is supposed to be explained in the guidelines. In many cases it would even be necessary that we have to stop and think again about or way of doing things. In a world like the one in we live, it is getting harder to get a job. It could happen that in a certain moment we would be obliged by necessity and accept a job that could lead us to a clash of values. We do have to remain cold-headed and do not go astray.
The Tseng Model

Unlike doctors, lawyers or other prestigious careers, interpreters usually deal with clients that think what an interpreter does but unfortunately, they do not. Besides, in many cases, interpreting services in public services are not as much valued as other as health or legal ones. In order to give interpreting a prestigious status, Tseng developed a model which consists of four phases.
1) Market disorder (fierce competition among practitioners of an occupation) 2) Consolidation of the profession and consensus about practitioners aspirations 3) Professional associations formulate ethical standards.

4) The profession manages to ensure its own protection and autonomy.

And then finally, With publicity measures, the association tries to convince the clientele and the public to accept its definition of the professional content of work and working conditions. In other words, the purpose is to achieve market control". (Tseng: 51) Nowadays we are trough this inter-phase transition so as to achieve the status interpreting deserves.
Achieving sophrosyne by avoiding hubris

Did we as interpreters manage to reach the last phase Tseng established, we should not commit the same mistakes many practitioners of prestigious careers have not been able to avoid. We have to avoid hubris by acting under a deontological approach, following the codes dictations on professional conduct which, among many other things, agrees to encourage us to respect others. We cannot start a battle of egos every time our work is criticised. What we have to do in that case is to act professionally and defend our choices. And, if in the end it turns out to be that these critics were necessary and pertinent, accept it and use them to be a better professional. That is the only way we can achieve the balance status, the so-called sophrosyne.

Examples cases where ethical issues appear

We will see a couple examples that could illustrate better everything we have discussed until now. Example 1: Conflict between deontology and Teleology :

There is an interpreter in the Court, interpreting for an illiterate Spanish woman.

Solicitor: And you are the defendant before the court? Interpreter: Y usted es el que esta aqui en la corte? (And you are the one who is here in court?) (Hale: 49)

In this case, the interpreter deliberately chooses to simplify the solicitors utterance in order to make it understandable for the witness. The interpreter has then opted to follow a teleological way of acting, as he/she centers on the consequences of the action instead of in what the code says. This would not be a good choice as in many trials, the judge usually asks the witness if he /she has understood the question (especially in the case of an illiterate witness) in order to make sure the utterance has been understood.
Example 2: Lack of fidelity

In this occasion the Court interpreter was reprimanded for indicating a presumption instead of a fact.
Interpreter (in Hebrew): I imagine that she wanted to say the photograph. Bench (in Hebrew): Did she say document? Interpreter (in Hebrew): She said document - yes. Interpreters sometimes use this technique to get rid from an error but, in doing so, they draw attention on them as individuals and thus flout the legal authorities.


From all that has been discussed, it seems clear the interpreting is constantly evolving yet it has a long way to walk if it wants to reach the same level as other prestigious branches such as medicine or law. In order to do that, we should shift from phase to phase following Tsengs theory of phases. It is not yet clear in which precise phase we are, but we should not stop this evolution. Ethical and moral values are one of the main supports we have to achieve this goal so we must not forsake them in the process. Therefore, it is important as a social interpreter to be aware of the code of ethics and to discuss, talk and debate with other colleagues about dilemmas we find and face in or job. Not to mention that the onus is on social interpreters to be reflective about themselves and how self influences practice and decision making.


Hale, Sandra (1997a) The Treatment of Register Variation in Court Interpreting, in Mona Baker (ed) The Translator. Studies in Intercultural Communication

Kerata, A. Court Interpreting: features, conflicts and the future. 22 November 2011.
Loewenberg, F. and Dolgoff, R. (1996) Ethical Choices in the Helping Professions in Loewenberg, F. and Dolgoff, R. Ethical Decisions for Social Work Practice, 5th ed., Peacock Publishers, Illinois. Mattison, M. (2000) Ethical Decision Making: The Person in the Process Social Work Vol.45(3), pp.201-212. Mikkelson, H. Introduction to Court Interpreting, Manchester UK and Northampton MA: St Jerome Publishing. (2000) Mikkelson, H. The Professionalization of Community Interpreting. 22 November 2011. PYM, A. Pour une thique du traducteur. Presses Universitaires dOttawa (col. Regards sur la traduction)-Artois Presses Universitaires. (1997) Rodrguez-Martnez, P. PSI-Code of Conduct & Ethical Issues Tseng, J. Interpreting as an Emerging Profession in Taiwan -- A Sociological Model. Unpublished Master's Thesis, Fu Jen Catholic University, Taiwan, 1992.