Should the good interpreter take any assignment offered to him or her?

February 11, 2013 § 24 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I recently worked an event for the Tea Party of Iowa. It was my first experience working with this organization, and I found it interesting, challenging, and important for my professional development and resume. Many of you congratulated me when I posted about this assignment on my Twitter and Facebook accounts, but a smaller number told me not to take the assignment, they told me that they would never accept work from this organization, and a few were truly angry.

From the time I started my career I have always worked understanding that we are professionals and as such we should provide our services as long as we feel capable of doing the job and the pay is what we asked for.  My answer to many of these colleagues was a second question. I asked them how they interpret in the courts for serial killers, rapists and child molesters.  When we work as interpreters we are messengers between two parties. We let them borrow our voice and skill, not our beliefs.

The other argument , and in my opinion a valid one, is that sometimes an interpreter cannot interpret a topic that he or she is uncomfortable with; thus some colleagues refuse to work in a court or a hospital setting.  I find both positions valid. In the real world I have chosen to interpret any subject to any audience as long as I feel prepared to do it and the pay is good.  For this reason I have interpreted death penalty trials, Pro-choice and Pro-life gatherings, NRA conventions, child molester trials, and political conventions.

I know many distinguished colleagues who systematically decline assignments that go against their political views or personal values and I respect that position.  My question to you is: When offered an out of the ordinary assignment, do you have my attitude to take the job as long as it is interesting, you are capable of doing it, and the pay is good, or you take the position of our colleagues who pick and choose based on content?

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§ 24 Responses to Should the good interpreter take any assignment offered to him or her?

  • Dear Tony:
    As an Engish/ ASL interpreter, I totally agree with you! I have always believed any assignment which presents an ethical or moral conflict FOR ME which would interfere with my rendering the message accurately should be turned down. For example, I have colleagues who are Right to Lifers and therefore would never interpret for certain medical procedures. As I am a staunch supporter of women’s rights, I am able to remain neutral in any medical setting providing equal quality healthcare/ procedures for women. As you have also stated, the pay must reflect respect for our skills rather than the cut-rate concept of ” saving the budget” while ” shaving” the communication!

  • Tony, if I am not able to separate my emotional self from the assignment on the basis of value, morals, faith or whatever reason, I will refuse the assignment with the understanding that the fault lies with me. I will also bear the financial loss. My choice.

    But I agree with your position: we are lending our voices with the objective of making the playing field level. Hence, if I can’t remain neutral, I will recuse myself.

    Good topic!

  • One more comment: I think you should change the title. The only correct answer to your question is NO: we have to pre-qualify ourselves for each assignment. Also, the issue is not whether one is a good or a bad interpreter (as the tile implies). It is more a matter of values.

  • I echo Gio’s words. As long as I am confident that can remain detached, I can do any assignment. That’s the key! However, there are interpreters that will not compromise their values or their beliefs.

    • I do not agree with your comment that “there are interpreters that will not compromise their values or their beliefs”. As an interpreter I am able to detach myself from any moral or emotional feelings associated with an assignment. After all an interpreter is there to bridge a gap between two parties that do not communicate in the same language. For me it is my time that I am selling to a service provider and as long as I am paid the going rate for it, I am happy to provide a proffesional interpreting service.

  • Agree with Giovanna!
    Facilitating communication between parties when we find the message offensive or dangerous to society goes beyond my personal code of ethics.
    There is no equivalency or comparison to our work in court for criminal defendants: when we interpret in court we are guaranteeing due process and providing a service to society.
    When we help disseminate a racist or inflammatory message, we become part of the process regardless of what our motivation is.
    Being a paid participant is no excuse!

  • Dear Tony,
    This is a question of professionalism even when it involves our values. I have interpreted for people who held values completely opposed to mine. I believe that I’d you are completely impartial and neutral and this does not create a personal conflict of conscience for you, then go for it. It is about remaining neutral and not letting any of your beliefs even slightly color the rendition.
    I did once though have a situation where I was interpreting in a course where what was being taught went so far a field from my beliefs (they advocated torture and lies to achieve there purpose and human life was theirs to dispose of in the pursuit of their goal) that I actually resigned mid way into the assignment. I allowed the employer a day to find a replace ment for me until which time I continued interpreting neutrally but very uncomfortably. I could not continue interpreting or being the conduit to propagating something I found abhorrent. Let someone else do it that would personally not feel so guilty, as I began to when I realized the true content of the lectures. I must say I had no way of knowing this ahead of time since I had worked for this employer before and this had not arisen. I continued to work for them after this event without any problems and a testament to their own professionalism, was the fact they never held my one time resignation against me.
    So I believe each instance is unique depending on circumstance and interpreter.

  • mariosphere says:

    Agree with your position in general. Ethically speaking, a professional interpreter is bound to interpret for any assignment he or she has accepted to work under agreed-upon conditions. Outside of the ethics realm, an interpreter who refuses to work in an assignment based on his/her beliefs is not entirely being professional enough, in my opinion.

  • I totally agree with this last two replies. We are just Interpreters we just lend our voice to facilitate communication, we do not change our beliefts by doing so. But of course if you don’t feel capable of remaining neutral by all means refuse that assignment, always be professional.

  • JWAlfonso says:

    I once interpreted when a doctor asked a patient if he was a legal citizen of these United States of America. The patient calmly answered no but that he did have a valid green card. He then asked the patient if he was Mexican. When the patient answered Guatemala, the doctor mumbled “same difference.” I managed to stay calm and professional in the moment but I found myself extremely angry about it afterward. Ever since then I don’t accept assignments that send me to that particular doctor. If an assignment will bother my conscience, I believe I would pass.

  • Michelle Gonzales says:

    My first concern is if I am qualified to interpret the subject matter. After that there are only a very few circumstances where I would not accept the assignment due to my conscience.

    In court I have had to repeat words that go against my personal beliefs. But I am not promoting or participating in those thoughts. I am participating in the attempt to make the justice system equal for all.

    Now if, for example, I were to go to an abortion clinic to interpret, the words I repeat there are just as much not mine as the words I repeat in court. But personally I feel that by being there I am helping to make that abortion available.

    So, I guess it isn’t always the words that we have to repeat that go against the conscience. But the action that we are making possible by facilitating communication.

    I hope that makes sense.

  • Polina says:

    Wonderful topic, Tony! I definitely agree with the “pre-qualification” statement, but I believe we need to continuously develop and “upgrade” our skills and abilities, therefore accepting an out of range topic could be extremely beneficial without any detriment to the quality. You have to find the right balance. Taking an assignment for a Medical Conference just to see if you could do it, is definitely not smart, but trying something new within your scope of expertise is not only pleasantly challenging, but crucial for our development and constant growth.

  • mariosphere says:

    If an interpreter refuses to take on, or continue, an assignment because one of the parties is being rude to the other —even in the example of the Mexican/Guatemalan comment above— I believe that interpreter is crossing a line, no matter how prejudiced or obnoxious one of the parties in the communication is or appears to be.

    I’ve done interpreting in medical settings before. The content being interpreted is never about the interpreter, but about some facts or information that need to be conveyed in more than one language.

    Ms. González makes an interesting point above: what does an interpreter who is against abortion (or human cloning or any other arguably unethical or reprehensible practice) do in such a setting? My suggestion: leave your beliefs, religious or otherwise, at the door. The people needing your interpreting services are more important than you. Like I said, the interpreting assignment is never about the interpreter.

    • Michelle Gonzales says:

      I see your point. And it is a dilemma. Are we really ONLY facilitating communication? Or is our facilitating communication facilitating something else, an action? I put my conscience aside to repeat words that are not mine all the time. Someone in court can talk all they want about their feelings in favor of abortion (just for an example), and I can repeat them as that person has said them with no problem. But to actually go to where they are performing the procedure, and assist….I cannot do it.

      I know that the woman has a legal right in this country to have the abortion if it does not bother her conscience. But don’t I also have a right to NOT do something that goes against mine?

      • mariosphere says:

        In that case, Michelle, your position as an interpreter preludes you from doing anything about what your conscience dictates. Again, it’s not about you or your conscience or beliefs, but about the needs of the people who don’t speak a given language.

    • I agree entirely with you, well said.

  • Bora says:

    I agree with Tony, not a word less, not a word more. Let’s do what we do best and facilitate communication between people!
    On the other hand, I do believe that it is ultimately up to the interpreter to decide, and nobody can judge their decision, regardless of the reasons behind it.
    As for myself, I cannot think of a hypothetical setting in which I would refuse an assignment (provided it is interesting and financially rewarding), unless I had another job or simply would not feel like working on that specific day 🙂

  • Bora says:

    …I forgot to mention that every new event/assignment is a door towards learning about something new – and that’s something I’m always up for.

  • Tony Evans says:

    I think I would distinguish between situations where my ‘client’ is in a position by choice or through necessity.
    If I am asked to interpret (English/BSL) for someone in court or a medical setting, I can put my emotions and beliefs to one side and work as a professional without letting them spill over. These are situations where the people I am working with need access and that is my job.

    If I am asked to interpret in a political meeting for someone who chooses to attend because they have racist or moral views that are at odds with mine, I feel I have more choice and may well refuse with a clear conscience.

  • Virginia Perez-Santalla says:

    I accept assignments if I think I will be able to interpret properly. I do not let my beliefs or emotions control me professionally. For example, I have interpreted during a trial for someone who murdered his wife and cut her up disgustingly. As much as I abhorred what he had allegedly done, while interpreting, I was just the conveyor between one language and the other. I have also interpreted successfully at a medical conference that updated orthopedic surgeons on the latest knee and hip replacement procedures. I accepted both of these assignments because I was confident on my ability to deliver. However, if I had received a conference assignment related to nuclear fusion, unless it was promised I would receive ample material to prepare properly, I would think twice about accepting.

  • Victor says:

    I have been a court interpreter for a combine experience of ten years and part of our job is to take our emotions out of the equation it’s that simple, always be prepare an if anyone takes on an assignment for the first time get familiar with the topic,(s) and make sure to look for as much info as you can get your hands on!!!!! Good luck!! And always challenge yourself!!!!

  • The Indigenous Geek says:

    I believe that if we were not present to facilitate communication, the situation would be much worse. Let’s say you interpret for a doctor or nurse that is racist, would one then say: “I don’t interpret for racist providers…”? I don’t think that is the professional approach. I believe this will affect you. Every encounter should and does. SO if an interpreter was not there where would this world be? SOmetimes our presence alone changes things for the better so that an unfortunate soul can finally get better treatment as a dignified human being. And sometimes, if we do our job properly, an ignorant soul will be educated and change their point of view…

  • Juan Pablo Piedrahita Aguilera says:

    In my view, professionalism implies independence from emotions and/or opinions from the interpreter’s side. No involvement implied. Should an interpret feel its work compromisies his/her beliefs and could affect the result of the work assigned, he/she should abstain from accepting a determined job. It is just a matter of personal professional accountability.

  • Rania Awartani says:

    thank you for such an interesting topic. i am currently finishing my level 6 in community interpreting which makes me a qualified interpreter ( Arabic- English) for the UK police and court. i have been in the field for the past two years and i am still learning, and i came through your article which was very interesting to read, also the comments from other interpreters gave me an idea of their experiences.
    in my opinion, i would keep my impartiality regardless of the subject or emotions. although it might be disturbing to you, but you have to remember that you are bridging a better communication between the two parties.

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