When Good People Are Unethical: PROFESSIONALISM Part 1

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 8

Mr. Ruibal was contracted to interpret for Mr. Pedro Guerra at his doctor’s appointment. Mr. Ruibal comes running into the waiting room. Out of breath, he greets the patient and introduces himself apologizing for running late. He then presents his business card to the patient and case manager who notices that it says certified interpreter.

The case manager then asked Mr. Ruibal if he was certified to which he answered yes. She then asked him what process an interpreter must take in order to get certified. He responds by saying that he took a course at the local community college and got the certificate from them.

The interpreter assures the case manager and patient that he is a professional. “Don’t worry, I am highly familiar with medical terminology. Everything will be fine.”

While in the examining room, the doctor proceeds to say” Mr. Guerra I have you have a lumbar herniated disk L4/5. Since your pain medication doesn’t seem to be working, I am going to suggest an epidural corticosteroid injection and see if that works. If that doesn’t work our last resort might have to be discectomy.”

At this point, the interpreter pauses and tells the patient, “Mr. Guerra, you have problems with your back, your medicine isn’t working so the doctor will give you an injection and if that don’t work another procedure is needed.”

What just happened in this scenario is very serious and dangerous. Sadly, it is more common than you might think. Mr. Ruibal the interpreter is guilty of several ethical infractions and puts the patient at great risk. Let’s take a closer look as to why by looking at NCIHC-National-Standards-of-Practice guidelines.


The objective in the NCIHC National Standards of Practice for Interpreters in Health Care in this case is to uphold the public’s trust in the interpreting profession. At all times, interpreters must act in a professional and ethical manner.

The interpreter is honest and ethical in all business practices. For example:

  • Interpreter must accurately represent his or her credentials
  • Certification occurs through a credentialed organization that typically requires
    1. Minimum requirement of education (perhaps from a community college)
    2. A written test
    3. An oral test

Obtaining a certificate by passing a class is a wonderful start, but it should not be confused with a certification that establishes a minimum level of proficiency.

 The interpreter is prepared for all assignments

  • Asks about the nature of the assignment beforehand
  • Reviews relevant terminology


It was obvious that our interpreter was running late and was not prepared or familiar with the terminology.


The interpreter discloses any skill limitation during assignments

  • An interpreter who is unfamiliar with a highly technical medical term asks for an explanation before continuing to interpret


Perhaps the interpreter in this scenario was embarrassed to admit that he didn’t understand what was being said.  However, professionals recognize they don’t always know everything. Pride must be set aside to assure accurate interpretation.

In example 8, the interpreter was unprofessional. He misrepresented his credentials, was unprepared, and did not seek out clarification to interpret correctly. Untrained bilingual people, although well-meaning, typically fall right into this trap.

Because professionalism is such a big issue, future posts will consider more circumstances where good people can be unprofessional and unethical without even knowing it.

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