When Good People Interpreting Are Unethical


Imagine this scenario.  Instead of hiring a professional interpreter, familiar and cognizant of the code of ethics, an untrained bilingual person is hired to simply cover the assignment, a warm body.  Without proper knowledge and training, the bilingual person who interprets most likely will unconsciously commit serious ethical violations, all the while believing she is doing a good deed.


Example 2:

Workers’ comp interpreter accompanies a patient to the hospital for surgery. Because the workers’ comp interpreter has been with patient for many months, the patient understands him well and trusts him. For this reason, when the hospital interpreter presents himself, the patient makes a request that the workers’ comp interpreter takes the lead.


The hospital interpreter and medical staff explain that per hospital policy, the hospital interpreter that must interpret. The patient is visibly upset and frustrated.  At this moment, the workers comp interpreter that has been with the patient for many months realizes:


  1. That the patient doesn’t understand the hospital interpreter well;
  2. The patient has the legal right to refuse an interpreter he doesn’t understand;
  3. The hospital policy does indeed allow another interpreter to lead long as the hospital interpreter is present;
  4. The patient becomes distressed over this policy;
  5. The workers’ comp interpreter can do a better job;
  6. Hospital employees are being unfair and unreasonable;
  7. The patient isn’t being cared for properly; and
  8. The patient doesn’t know the language, culture or the law and is afraid to defend his rights.


The natural reaction of any good bilingual person driven to serve unfortunate people with a language barrier is to defend the patient.  It seems like the right thing to do!


Not so fast. Taking this action might seem right, but it is unethical and isn’t in the best interest of the patient. Here’s why:


IMPARTIALITY:  To eliminate the effect of interpreter bias or preference.

  • The interpreter does not allow personal judgements or cultural values to influence objectivity;
    • For example, an interpreter does not reveal personal feelings through words, tone of voice, or body language;
  • The interpreter discloses potential conflicts of interest, withdrawing from assignments if necessary
    • For example, if due to time the interpreter develops a friendship with the patient and is no longer impartial.


ROLE BOUNDARIES:  To clarify the scope and limits of the interpreting role, in order to avoid conflicts of interest. Interpreter refrains from personal involvement.

  • The interpreter limits personal involvement with all parties during the assignment; and
  • The interpreter limits his or her professional activity to interpreting within an encounter.


PROFESSIONALISM:  To uphold the public’s trust in the interpreting profession, interpreters must at all times act in a professional and ethical manner.

  • The interpreter shows respect for professionals with whom he or she works;
    • For example, an interpreter would not discredit another colleague;
  • The interpreter acts in a manner befitting the dignity of the profession and appropriate to the setting;
    • For example, an interpreter never argues in front of a patient.


ADVOCACY:  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 advocate on behalf of a party or group to correct mistreatment or abuse;
    • For example, an interpreter may alert his or her supervisor to patterns of disrespect towards patients. There is an appropriate time and place to resolve disputes and unless they are in imminent danger it shouldn’t be in front of a patient during treatment.


There is a reason for these guidelines. The interpreter needs to be professional at all times. The bilingual person reacting from a mistaken sense of justice will often increase the anxiety of the patient by fostering mistrust for the professional hospital interpreter!  The scene will sow distrust among colleagues, resulting in further problems down the road for other interpreters.


So what can an interpreter do when faced with a conflict over who takes the lead?


  • Respect and cooperate with the hospital staff and its policies;
  • At an appropriate place and time, along with respect, raise the issue known to your supervisor in the patient’s absence;
  • If you are allowed to be present, assure the patient that he is getting professional service from two interpreters, and that you will be there to clarify if he has any questions.


Future posts will consider other scenarios that test ethics.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

1 thought on “When Good People Interpreting Are Unethical”

  1. Pingback: When Good People Interpreting Are Unethical &nd...

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *