by Jonathan Downie
Neutrality has often been touted as one of the cornerstones of interpreting ethics. The general view seemed to be that interpreters should be so good that the multilingual event would run as if everyone spoke the same language. In other words, it should be as if we weren’t even there.
Now, I have already publicly said that I have serious doubts about using “as if we weren’t there” as a basis for our practice but let’s pretend that it works absolutely fine and let’s simply ask the question: “what does it mean to make the event run as if we weren’t there?”
For many interpreters, the answer will be that, whenever we are faced with ethical issues, we should either do nothing or stay inside our roles as interpreters. If we are asked to hold a baby while a woman has a gynaecological exam, we should say ‘no’ and explain why. If we are asked our opinion by a lawyer, we should decline. If we notice someone being taken advantage of, we should do nothing at all.
The odd thing is that, the more we think about those kinds of dilemmas, the more we realise that doing nothing and standing back is the exact opposite of making it ‘as if we weren’t there.’ For instance, the fact that a witness does not speak the same language as the rest of the court, automatically puts everyone involved in a weaker position than they would be if they all spoke the same language. The jury will find it harder to pick up linguistic cues, the lawyers will find it harder to wrestle the nuances out of responses, the judge will find it harder to assure that the witness is not being badgered and so on. For that reason, if we don’t ask for side benches when necessary, a bilingual court becomes less fair than a monolingual one since not all the necessary information is available to everyone who needs it.
How about mental health interpreting? My colleague, Dr Robyn Dean once shared an ethical scenario presented to sign language interpreters which goes a bit like this.
You are interpreting for a Deaf person who is receiving care from a psychologist. After the meeting, the Deaf person leaves the room and the psychologist turns to you and says, “so what do you think?” What should you do?
The ‘right answer’ given in one handbook was that the interpreters should refuse to comment, since it is not their place or training to pass judgment. Yet, if it is our job to restore things to the way they would be if we weren’t there then refusing to pass on the kind of information that the psychologist would pick up if their patient did not need an interpreter puts both parties at a disadvantage.
Obviously, it is not the place of the interpreter to make clinical judgements on the person’s mental state. There could be a case to be made, however, for the interpreter to pass on the kinds of signals that a trained psychologist could read in a patient who spoke their language. So, it may be useful and relevant to say, ‘his signing space was small’ or ‘he tended to reverse the normal grammatical sentence order’ or, ‘when you asked him about his childhood, his signing became sharper and more intense.’
In this case, the interpreter is not doing the psychologist’s job for them but simply passing on the kind of information they need to do their job effectively. If they don’t, we could easily argue that someone seeing a psychologist with the help of an interpreter would be at a disadvantage compared to someone who didn’t need one.
If these cases seem controversial, it’s only because we are not used to actually thinking about the outcomes of our decisions. We are more used to defending our space as interpreters by telling people what we don’t do than thinking about our responsibility as interpreters and what we should do. We are not used to realising that there are consequences for every decision, especially deciding to do nothing.
In short, if it is our job to make it ‘as if we weren’t there’ then we have to realise that our work would necessarily include addressing the imbalances of power, differences in knowledge, and variations in cultural norms that arise when two people do not share the same language. Doing nothing or declining to act actually makes these differences more pronounced, which would seem to go against what we think we are doing when we try to make it ‘as if we weren’t there.’
I remain to be convinced that trying to do that is a sound basis for ethics. But I am definitely not of the opinion that declining to act is any better. There must be some better basis upon which interpreters can make decisions responsibly, what might that be? Let’s hear your views.