Thank You for Helping a Colleague Out

We love it when our articles get your attention. And especially when it is one of The Couch help pieces, because it is a teaching and mentoring tool and each one of you who comments on them is helping a colleague out.

We thank all who contributed with their comments to the piece published on November 08. To refresh our readers’ memories, a colleague reached out asking for guidance with a medical interpreting issue. Below is a collection of excerpts from the responses received.

The issue

One of our colleagues who is interested in the medical interpreting field had concerns after learning about the fate of a friend who is a medical interpreter. Our colleague’s friend was fired after refusing to interpret for something that went against her religious beliefs.

Our colleague asks,  “Aren’t professionals supposed to recuse themselves when they can’t be impartial?” These two concepts seem to contradict each other, and our colleague wanted clarification since s/he wants to join the ranks of certified medical interpreters in 2020.

Here come the answers

Rosemary points out that the Code of Ethics simplifies the situation: [I]t is not [the interpreter’s] dialogue, it is the dialogue of the provider and patient. The proper training and adherence to the Code of Ethics would have resolved the issue. And Maria Fernanda agrees, This is a profession of service, where we ideally only become instruments of communication.”

Jeanine also agrees with Rosemary, reminding us that “The lens is theirs. Not the INTERPRETER’s.” A Del adds to this argument ending her comment with a warning: “To insert your beliefs in this scenario is making the situation about yourself and this is not what you’re being paid to do. If you have such limitations, you have no business being a medical interpreter.”

Helen suggests asking what it entails before accepting the appointment, because “once you are there, recusing yourself is no longer an option.

Janis believes interpreters should be able to recuse themselves when their impartiality is at stake. And she sees it as a choice independent contractors have, but they should also inform those hiring their services or they can be let go, as Janis puts it, “It’s a two-way street.” Marcela agrees with Janis and adds that it is important to learn as much as possible about an assignment before agreeing to it.

Irene questions the wisdom of leaving the patient and provider in a lurch, frustrated and angry. That choice also reflects badly on our profession. While Alfred says that “Nothing beats a guilt-free conscience and a good night sleep.”

Let’s hear from the professional associations

We took it upon ourselves to complement our colleagues’ points of view by referencing the Medical Interpreter Codes of Ethics available. The International Medical Interpreters Association’s does not mention the above conflict. The National Council on Interpreting in Health Care’s and AMITAS‘ do not address the issue either.

The one document that mentions the needs of interpreters is the California Healthcare Interpreter Association Standards Manual.  Item g. on page 27 states “Request permission to withdraw if it is perceived that pursuing the interpreting session would cause undue mental or emotional distress to the interpreter, due to personal trauma or experiences, thus impeding the interpreting task.” 

The conclusion

It seems that besides the fact that as an independent contractor one has the power to select which assignments to take, that sharing one’s preferences and limitations with potential clients ahead of time is perceived as a must. Further to that, we only have what item g. in CHIA’s document states. In summary, there isn’t much out there in terms of professional guidance regarding our colleague’s conflicting information.


Feature photo by Aditya Romansa on Unsplash Article photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

4 Comments
  • Sandra Arthur
    Posted at 19:20h, 13 December Reply

    I would just like to add, that many times assignments are given without stating the case; meaning we do not know what we will encounter. I guess it is wise to ask before accepting the job, but on the other hand and as some of the colleagues have stated, we Interpreters are an instrument and as such we must learn to detach. We who have been in the Interpreting profession for a long time, have encountered situations perhaps similar to personal ones, but we have also learned to overcome; it takes time! All and all, it is up to each individual and the contracting party.

  • Daniela Schmidt
    Posted at 23:50h, 13 December Reply

    The issue here seems to be a situation that creates in the interpreter an impediment to performance, which, according to all Interpreter Ethics I am aware of, must be disclosed and interpreter replaced. This situation can happen in legal, not only medical interpreting. For instance, many years ago when I interpreted in an international abuse case, the interpreters who were parents of boys, could not stay neutral. These interpreters correctly disclosed this impediment to performance and not allowed to interpret in court but they made very good escort interpreters for the witnesses.
    Sometimes interpreters can recuse themselves, but sometimes they cannot because the impediment to performance might not be perceived before the interpretation.
    There is also the issue of necessity of interpretation especially in medical where a procedure, consult or other medical issue to be discussed with the patient cannot be postponed and another interpreter cannot be found. – in other words, an emergency situation when someone’s life is at stake. I am sure that indifferent of the religious-spiritual beliefs, no one would let the patient and doctor in the lurch.
    For the colleague who is interested in the medical interpreting profession, he/she should cover themselves before the assignment: I believe that interpreters should give their clients a pre-session before accepting the assignment. The pre-session should include a brief three minutes interpreter qualifications and situations where interpreter cannot interpret. If there is a longer interpreting assignment or a staff interpreter situation, the interpreter should request reasonable religious accommodation.

  • Alfredo Babler
    Posted at 20:39h, 17 December Reply

    Again, there are certain things you simply cannot undo. We all know someone autistic, right? Many of us have an autistic child in our own family, right? Seems like an epidemic. But why?!?! The incidence of autism has gone from 1 in 100,000 to 1 in 90 in a couple of decades. Why? At this rate, in 10 more years, half the children will be walking around pooping their pants. What if I tell you that if you sat in at an MMR vaccination of an infant of a mother that did not speak English in the last 25 years or so, and were instrumental in driving home the interpretation of the doctor/nurse recommendations to vaccinate the child with said MMR, thus being an active participant in the inoculation of the infant (A very common scenario)… well, you can’t take it back now. How would that make you feel today? There’s a caliber of evil out there that boggles the mind. I don’t know the answer, but I can tell you one thing: I am petrified of medical interpreting. Allow me to illustrate:
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=TXpqtL0zeBc

  • samir mahmoud
    Posted at 09:13h, 21 December Reply

    According to the Code of Ethics(based on location and available regulations) an interpreter or a translator has the option to decline an assignment for any personal reasons). A discussion between a translator/and or an interpreter clears the situation.
    A religious or a family personal situation has (always) two schools of thought. An interpreter has the option to lean on one side or another or withdraw from the assignment.

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