When Good People Are Unethical: ADVOCACY

Imagine this.  Instead of hiring a professional interpreter who is familiar with and cognizant of the code of ethics, an untrained bilingual person is hired to simply cover the assignment.   Without proper knowledge and training, the bilingual person serving as an “interpreter” will most likely unconsciously commit serious ethical violations while at the same time thinking he is doing a good deed.

Example 12

Ms. Ana Moura was contracted to interpret for Mrs. Amalia Rodrigues for a CT scan. The technician quickly sets the patient up, appearing to be in a hurry. When the technician asked the patient if she was allergic to shellfish, he walked away before the patient answered yes. The scan called for contrast dye; however, the patient is highly allergic to it.

Before the technician injected the patient, the interpreter asked him to stop because the patient had said she was allergic to contrast dye. Annoyed, the tech told off the interpreter, stating that her job is to only repeat what is being said, and she had no place to be speaking on behalf of the patient. He then proceeded to ask the patient if she was allergic to the dye. When the patient said yes, he complained that the patient should have spoken up sooner instead of wasting his time.

This scenario demonstrates another ethical dilemma that interpreters face when it comes to advocacy. Let’s look at some more NCIHC National Standards on advocacy to understand better.


The objective in the NCIHC National Standards of Practice for Interpreters in Health Care in this case is to prevent harm to parties that the interpreter serves. When the patient’s health, well-being, or dignity is at risk, an interpreter may be justified in acting as an advocate.


The interpreter may speak out to protect an individual from serious harm

  • An interpreter may intervene on behalf of a patient with a life-threatening allergy, if the condition has been overlooked


The interpreter may advocate on behalf of a party or group to correct mistreatment or abuse

  • An interpreter may alert his or her supervisor to patterns of disrespect towards patients


This scenario demonstrates a very challenging situation that interpreters face. While it is true that interpreters should typically communicate what is being said without adding or paraphrasing or imputing their own opinions, there are appropriate moments for advocacy. Professional interpreters know when to advocate and when not to interfere. It requires sound judgment and courage to understand and follow ethical guidelines.  This article covered the last point of this series.  However, a future article will summarize everything we considered in this very comprehensive series on interpreter ethics.

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