More Thoughts on the Ethics of Interpretation

I wanted to post a bit of additional commentary after Clare’s excellent presentation (although, I could be biased since I was an actor in the skit!) on How to Use a Translator/Interpreter yesterday. For a bit of context, my undergraduate degree was partially focused on language studies, so I have some knowledge of the mechanism of translation and interpretation from that end, as well as more than two years of professional experience working with diverse immigrant and refugee populations, who quite often required interpreters, in the Southern U.S.

First, again, stressing the difference between translation and interpretation, as Clare outlined at the beginning of her presentation, is really of great importance. You wouldn’t want to be sitting with a client, waiting for a liaison to facilitate your face-to-face communication, only to have requested a translator from a language service rather than a simultaneous interpreter! Another important note is that there are many different types of translation and interpretation. It may be common sense for those who are bi- or multilingual, but being fluent in a language does not make you an expert or even competent in some of the specialized areas where the domain of public health often dwells (especially medical, to some extent political, legal, etc.). You can start to become familiar with some of the different types of translators and interpreters here:

Also, as mentioned by Clare again, it is common practice for family, friends or other untrained individuals who speak the language of your client (or partner, colleague, participant – whoever the LEP [Limited English Proficient] individual may be) to act as informal interpreters. Often the client brings someone familiar with him/her to the appointment, or a worker is pulled from somewhere in the building to hastily fill the interpretation need. This can, and often has to, do in a pinch, but there are serious ethical implications involved. First, interpretation is really a science, and involves cultural brokering and a detailed code of ethics. The person who is filling in in an informal regard almost certainly does not have the appropriate level of knowledge and skill necessary (this comment is not meant to be disparaging to those who speak other languages; as you all heard in class, I speak Spanish, but would be wildly unqualified to facilitate language needs in a business interaction or legal proceedings!).

In my previous professional role, I worked closely with children and families from over ninety national origins. We would find that many of these immigrant and refugee children were pulled from school to help their parents navigate complex societal functions through informal interpretation on a daily basis. I have heard of cases where children had to interpret in uncomfortable or grave medical situations, or a spouse who was the perpetrator of domestic violence acted as the interpreter for the partner who was trying to report an assault. After that example, I don’t think I have to explain any further to elucidate why use of informal, especially familiar, interpreters can be problematic and unethical! On the other hand, there are sometimes situations where your choices are limited. A population I often worked with in Kentucky was Burmese, especially Karen, refugees. This population was newly arrived to the area, and there was only really one professional interpreter in the area that spoke all the dialects needed. It was also quite a small and close-knit community, so this individual, the interpreter, was known to most of our clients. Obviously, certified interpreters are ethically sound, but there is sometimes no way to get around involving someone familiar to your client in your conversation! Just be aware of these issues, and do your best. More on reasons to use professional interpreters here:


Some of the awesome kiddos I worked with at a diverse community service agency in Kentucky. Immigrants and refugees thank you for using translation and interpretation services in a competent, considerate manner! Photo credit Dana Duncan, courtesy of

In the U.S., Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act states that any federal or federally-funded agency must provide an interpreter for LEP individuals, or they are engaging in discriminatory actions. This includes hospitals and clinics that accept certain types of common insurance (including the insurance that refugees generally receive; legal immigrants are barred from receiving any federal benefits for at least 5 years upon entry []). More about the legality of interpretation in the U.S. here (it is a complicated mandate, and largely unfunded, so, as Dr. Corbett was mentioning, phone interpretation services are often used): I speak to the U.S. context because that is where the framework of my knowledge on this subject is based… here in Canada, the issue is a lot hazier to me! Of course, there is no official language in the U.S., where in Canada, most literature that I’ve been able to find focuses on the mandate of English-French translation and interpretation at a federal level. I’d like to open the comments on this post, or invite future blog posts, if anyone knows more about the legality of interpretation services in Canada than I do!

Further readings:

Communicating More for Less: Using Translation and Interpretation Technology to Serve Limited English Proficient Individuals (Migration Policy Institute)

National Council on Interpreting in Health Care

Best Practice Recommendations for Hospital-Based Interpreter Services (Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Office of Minority Health)

Interpretation services in Greater Vancouver area:

The Provincial Language Service (Provincial Health Services Authority)

Interpretation and Translation Services (MOSAIC)

— L. Miramontes


One response to “More Thoughts on the Ethics of Interpretation”

  1. aislinr says :

    Thanks for this post, Lara. This topic is also of interest to me. I did some translation training and have also worked with translators and interpreters. The issue of this being a profession is a big one. Certainly when I was studying translation, we frequently had discussions about the misconception that anyone fluent in both languages is qualified to be a translator or interpreter. In my professional experience, I was often surprised by the degree to which some of my coworkers under-valued the work of their translators and interpreters – as if this was really easy work for anyone who could speak two languages.

    Of course, this is very frustrating for people who have trained as translators/interpreters and know how much time, thought, and energy goes into translating or interpreting. But you bring up a good point about the pressure put on those asked to act as informal interpreters, and of the potential problems and ethical issues that can come up.

    It’s true that paying a professional translator or interpreter can be very expensive, but I would argue that it is well worth the investment in order to make sure that people are getting accurate, understandable, and culturally appropriate information.


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