02 Mar Time for a Paradigm Shift, Part I: Are We a Man or a Muppet?
My apologies for the slightly off-topic salute to this year’s Academy Award-winning Best Song. The question I really want to ask is, of course, less silly and more important: is interpreting a technical profession or a practice profession?
Think of each of the following groups of professions; then consider which group you would place interpreting in:
1. Astronomy, medical research, product safety inspection, archaeology.
2. Medicine, law, law enforcement, pedagogy, ministry.
Can I get a show of hands?
So why the pop quiz?
I’m going to bet that most people would instinctively place interpreting into group #2, and therein lies the problem. It’s not that #2 is the wrong answer (actually, I would argue that it’s more correct than we know!), but that we interpreters (of all stripes, but particularly court interpreters) relate to our profession as if it belongs in group #1 … causing ourselves no end of headaches, backbends, self-justification, defensive posturing, and guilt. (Really!)
Let’s explore what the professions in each group have in common.The professions in group #1 are all scientific and objective in their approach; they are called technical professions. A technical profession follows a specified process to reach an unspecified end result. (For example, the Scientific Method: “First, define the question. Second, gather information and resources. Then, formulate a hypothesis…”) If the process is not strictly adhered to, then the end result is invalid.
The second group is a list of practice professions, which are extremely context-dependent and subjective in their approach, despite requiring technical skills. A practice profession employs various processes to reach a specified end result. (For example, the Hippocratic Oath: “…I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism…”) A physician may get from point A (sick patient) to point B (applying required measures while avoiding over- and undertreatment) through many different techniques, based on the circumstances, and the context in which he or she works; but the goal is always the same.
Why does this matter to me?
Why do I say we treat interpreting (especially court interpreting) as if it were a technical, rather than a practice, profession?
Pause for a moment, and reflect back to a situation in which you were interpreting, and you came up against an ethical quandary. You had to quickly decide what to do … and you went with your gut and did what felt right, knowing that under the strictest interpretation of our codes of ethics as you understood them, what you did was not exactly kosher. And if you were in the same situation again, you know you would do exactly the same thing.
Maybe you approached the bench with counsel to clarify a cultural issue. Maybe you were interpreting before court for an attorney-client conference and that attorney asked you a question about the judge’s usual procedure, and you answered it. Maybe you let your teammate continue with a difficult interpretation for forty-five minutes instead of thirty, without demanding he swap out. You probably feel, if not guilty, at least a little hesitant to discuss it in any but the most open-minded company. You know there are some people who would consider what you did to be very, very wrong. If you tell the story at all, you might say something like “But I had to do it that way, because…” But you know in your heart that what you did was not just permissible, ethically, but the best ethical decision you could have made given the many, many factors at play.
Here’s where the big words come in
In their decision-making, technical professions (which rely upon rules about process) use a deontological (rules-based) approach: decisions are made based on the applicable rules for proceeding and how correct or incorrect a decision is, is judged by whether the decision follows the rules.
Practice professions, which are context-specific and rely upon rules about outcome, employ a teleological (outcome-based) approach: decisions are made based on the result one is striving to achieve (the telos, ‘final cause’), and how right or wrong the decision is, is judged by how effectively it promotes that end result.
A good example of the difference between deontology and teleology is the requirement that medical professionals obtain informed consent before beginning a medical procedure. Following the teleological approach, regardless of the words the medical professional uses, and the format (spoken, written, etc.), consent is considered informed if the patient fully understands his or her options—this understanding is the desired outcome. In contrast, a hypothetical deontological approach would be for the AMA to require that doctors or nurses always use specific words and the same format , and using those words means that consent is informed, even if the patient does not actually understand; using different words means it is not, even if he or she does.
I think I get it, but how does that relate to me?
The reason you felt uncomfortable in the scenario above, and like you had to justify yourself, is that as interpreters, we have become accustomed to following a deontological approach, despite being a practice profession and not a technical one. We have internalized what we believe are the rules; and we feel guilty for breaking them. That’s deontology: you feel like you did something “wrong” because you didn’t follow the rules. You feel like you have to justify yourself because you’re in a practice profession, which by all rights should follow teleological decision-making; yet you feel compelled to use deontological decision-making instead. Teleology would say that if your actions contributed to the desired outcome, then they were completely ethical.
That’s why you know you did the right thing—you probably did, teleologically speaking.
Until next time, if you haven’t reviewed it recently, now might be a good time to make sure you’ve brushed up on the NAJIT Code of Ethics (http://www.najit.org/about/NAJITCodeofEthicsFINAL.pdf). Most of us think we know what it says … but do we really? Upon a close reading, it’s far less deontological than the code of behavior that I (at least) had internalized. When I started thinking about what I perceived at the time to be a conflict in what I “knew” I “should” do under the Code of Ethics, and what I knew I should do in a given situation, I went back to the actual Code of Ethics … and discovered that the conflict was an imagined one, and that what I “knew” (what “everyone knows,” in fact) was not what the Code of Ethics actually said. Think about whether your scenario actually violates NAJIT’s or your state’s code of ethics as written.
Next time, on “Time for a Paradigm Shift…”
Stay tuned for the rest of this series, featuring such questions as:
• What are the implications for our practice as interpreters if we begin to make and evaluate decisions teleologically rather than deontologically?
• What does the process of ethical decision-making look like in this paradigm?
• Would existing codes of ethics still be relevant?
• What does this mean for interpreter training?
I don’t want to show all my cards just yet, since this is just Part I, but the overarching topic is inspired by the writings and presentations of (in no particular order) Robyn Dean and Robert Pollard of the University of Rochester Medical Center; Anna Witter-Merithew of the University of Northern Colorado; Cynthia Roat of NCIHC; and Holly Mikkelson of MIIS. It draws in large part on current trends in American Sign Language and medical interpreting, as well as Revisiting the Interpreter’s Role by Claudia Angelelli.