When Ethics and Common Sense Collide in Medical Interpreting

It never fails that at least one session at the American Translators Association annual convention results in a very entertaining, lively debate over interpreter ethics. Entertaining for me, not at all for those involved in the debate. Especially if it disrupts the presentation and the speaker is being attacked.

For me, the debate typically falls in the area of common sense.

For example:  ethical principle; the interpreter should remain unbiased.

The speaker might indicate that under certain circumstances, such as interpreting for a person that has suffered abuse or trauma, the interpreter needs to show empathy and kindness to gain the confidence of the victim.

The heated reaction is typically “no, that is unethical!” Interpreters are conduits for information and nothing more!

Someone else might say, “listen, you can still stay professional and be kind. We are human beings with emotions dealing with other human beings!”

The response, “That is precisely why ethical guidelines are in place in order to avoid an emotional response!”

This would then be followed by “Obviously, a person must use discernment and common sense so as not to break any ethical principles”

The debate continues with “Most people don’t have any common sense, which is why it is always best to stick strictly to the ethical principles!”

Usually, at this point the flustered speaker will regain control of the presentation by stating that we agree to disagree. Then, the presentation continues.

When I end up observing one these debates, I find myself agreeing with both sides. I can’t decide. The ethical principles are just that, principles designed to be vague and applied differently under different circumstances.

For instance, one hospital I know has a policy that all interpreters must stay outside the room and only enter when a healthcare professional enters.  The reason for this guideline is to help the interpreter to not get emotionally compromised by the patient. The hospital understands that under extreme circumstances, an interpreter’s empathy might overtake his logic and cause him to take an emotional unethical action in behalf of the patient. Although there is no specific rule stating that an interpreter cannot be alone with a patient in a room, that that is how the hospital interprets the principle of being unbiased. Many professional interpreters in other settings have no such rule.

I understand the need for flexibility and professional judgement in different circumstances. However, I have also seen many interpreters who lack common sense. Some people flourish better when given a set of specific guidelines. They see everything in black and white. It is altogether too much to request that these individuals use their own judgment in a gray area. For them, strictly following the guidelines is the best course of action and the most balanced.

What do you think?

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