As If We Weren't There

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.

5 thoughts on “As If We Weren't There

  1. I think it’s a little disingenuous to extrapolate “do nothing” from “as if we weren’t there”, when the latter expression refers to a more practical “as smooth a discussion as if only two people were participating in the conversation instead of three”. However the main points of the argument hold, in my experience, and it has nearly always been better (ie serving the aims of the exchange) to add my two penn’orth than not. Those times when it has not have become learning points, to talk over with other professionals.
    I think it has been some time since the automaton model of interpreting held sway, but perhaps we need more overt ethical instruction over when it is prudent to jump in with both feet, and when to steer clear. Our Deaf clients can be vulnerable, but not all of the time, and in not all situations, and our Hearing clients may be as guilty of over-assumption as we so-called professionals may also be, in those very circumstances. So in the examples given above, how much is predicated on knowing the intended outcomes of the exchange before we participate, and whose expected outcome is paramount? Weighing up anticipated risks is an important part of our professionalism, but we veer dangerously close to relying on our own personal morality if we are not made aware of the ethical models available, and which choices could be appropriate in any given situation.

    • I would absolutely agree with you. I think there are a couple of steps from “as if we weren’t there” to “do nothing” but it is still the case that in some discussions of interpreting, the assumption is that they both mean the same thing. This is, of course, problematic.

      I do think we need to do more to present a variety of ethical models and perhaps even find new ones for interpreting. I definitely agree that we need to help interpreters build frameworks that cover the appropriate choices in different situations.

  2. I am torn on this issue. What you say makes sense and is logical. However it requires deep thought, common sense, and wisdom to execute. Sadly, many interpreters don’t possess those qualities. The ethical standards as they are now, are sort of “Interpreting for Dummies.” I fear that although the ethical guidelines aren’t perfect, allowing people to use their judgment could be disastrous.

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