Ethics of Interpreting

professional development workshop
certification maintenance, RID
Lebanon, NH (31 October 2009)

Real World Ethics

One thing I love about the sign language interpreting community is how seriously we take the matter of professional ethics. We have no choice, actually, because the Deaf community holds our feet to the fire on a regular basis. It is an extraordinary dynamic. The effects of participating in simultaneously-interpreted communication may appear to be concentrated in the interaction between the interpreter and the signer, but the significance of using interpreters extends as well to the entire group and among all languages. Patty Azzarello writes of a team-building activity without an interpreter, detailing the embarrassing lessons learned by the team that discounted the member who was not fluent in English.

He was the smartest guy in the room.

He tried to share his good ideas with us – over and over again.

We basically threw him overboard.

I cannot speculate as to how the dynamics in Patty’s team would have been changed if there had been an interpreter included, but I can say that interpreters witness Deaf people being “thrown overboard” on a far too regular basis.  Michael Harvey has researched and written about vicarious trauma  and interpreters. Notice the disturbing chain effect: Deaf empowerment is (largely) directed at interpreters, who are (often) traumatized by the effort to balance Deaf claims for accessibility to goods, resources, and other forms of participation in democratic society against the (too typical) non-Deaf person’s disregard not only of the claim, but even of the person asserting the claim.

What Can Be Done?

Two dozen interpreters gathered last fall to explore “The Intersection of Ethics and Interpreting” with Robert Nash (author of Real World Ethics: Frameworks for Educators and Human Service Professionals) and Patricia Chau Nguyen (Assistant Dean of Students and Director of  The Asian & Asian American Center at Cornell University). We spent the day exploring the “three moral languages” framework to our experiences as professional interpreters.  “Each of us,” Nash explains, “lives our lives in at least three overlapping moral worlds, and each world features its own special moral language” (Real World Ethics: A Holistic, Problem-Solving Framework, p. 3).

First we explored what Nash calls “zero-level first moral language.” His investigatory questions inspired a range of passionate identifications with deeply-felt personal beliefs:

  • “giving back” as a volunteer because without that “we don’t survive as a community”
  • “treating people equally,” “not making judgments on them”
  • the absolute significance of children: “children have the right to claim my full attention without any preconceptions”
  • the ultimate prioritization of right here, right now, “All that I’m sure of is being right here right now right away.”
  • “I believe relationships are primary in this short life that we live.”

Among the challenges of making good moral decisions – and of being a good interpreter – is not getting stuck at the zero-level – because there is no “resolution” to be found there. The zero-level involves an individual’s intrapsychic being, which is usually not amenable to alteration. The second language refers to moral character and the role of a person in relation with others. Someone characterized the narratives of the second moral language as a “responsiveness” that is “more than duty.”  I jotted down two examples that captured the gist of this language in relation to sign language interpreters (who tend mainly to be female):

“I think I should be a big girl and stay.”

“I got my big girl pants on today.”

Interpreters are on the boundary not just between languages (and the cultural norms, values, pains, and pride of the people who use them) but also between the second and third moral languages. Naming and excavating our second moral language elicited as much – and in some cases even more – passion than we discovered at the zero-level!

“Brimming over with Beliefs”

  • “people should be there for each other when there’s a need”
  • “meaning is in deep connection”
  • “there is a duty to love”
  • “everybody should get what they  need”
  • the need for balance: “If you push a virtue to an extreme, it becomes a vice.”  I think this was illustrated by someone’s tease: “You never had a feeling you didn’t express!”
  • the skill of empathy, defined as “feeling for” (which raised questions about “the authenticity of generosity” and the risk of vice through “overgiving” and/or “becoming a doormat”)

While the second moral language occurs at the level of the community, Nash and Nguyen showed us how the third moral language is the one imposed by the professional working world. This third level of moral language eschews both the first (personal) and second (communal, cultural) moral languages, emphasizing codified rules and principles rooted in respect and tolerance of moral differences.  Rather than promoting one moral  language over another, Nash and Nguyen both shared examples of ways in which all three languages are always interwoven in any professional discussion of ethical behavior and decision-making.

Interrupting Moral Silence

“Whoa!” Patricia was excited. “That brought out the signing!”

Damage from a spring thunderstorm in New England
A Spring Thunderstorm in New England

One of the interpreters shared a horrific situation that she’d just been through with a medical doctor who had aggressively refused to negotiate how to make the communication with a Deaf patient work. Her story hit us where we live; we’ve all been there.  Stuck.  Because there is a Code of Conduct that governs the boundaries of the professional delivery of services, and because you can’t reason with people who aren’t willing to listen. Implicit throughout the institutional-level moral language in the professional code is that we won’t disrupt the proceedings by making issues out of dynamics that are problematic. Debate over when and how we should and why we should or should not has raged over decades between the Deaf community and interpreters. Meanwhile non-Deaf users of interpretation services remain generally oblivious, content to assert the supposed role supremacy of their status and their normal ways of doing business.

Our colleague was still fuming over the blatant disrespect that the physician had shown for the client (not to mention herself). We took the situation as a case, and applied the nine questions Nash has developed for analyzing and deciding upon an ethical course of action. The involved interpreter reflected on the range of perceptions she had about the doctor being unaware that the (new) patient was Deaf, not knowing an interpreter had been hired for which his practice was financially responsible, and otherwise being completely unfamiliar with interpreted communication. In general, we agreed that all these factors combined still did not justify his reaction, however the involved interpreter was able to perceive that if he was already having a bad day and then “all this” happened….well, even doctors are human. After the initial exchange, he had made an effort to work with the situation and the patient did receive treatment.

Knowledge for Action

A few weeks later that same interpreter happened to be driving by the offending physician’s office with some time on her hands.  She decided to stop in. As it happened, the doctor was available, and they spoke about the incident, de-briefing it together.  I’d like to report that the doctor made a 180-degree shift, but that would be exaggerating. However he did apologize, and it seems possible that he won’t put another Deaf person through the trauma of watching non-Deaf people argue over whether or not communication access is going to be provided to them while they seek health care.

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