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.

Homework time

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.

0 thoughts on “Time for a Paradigm Shift, Part I: Are We a Man or a Muppet?”

  1. Gio says:

    I can hardly wait for the rest of the series. There is a common thread in your piece with regard to interpreters having to make decisions on a deontological basis: they were not in control in the scenarios you described. Was that a coincidence?

    Respect has a lot to do with changing our approach to professional performance. The other day I was at a deposition which was being filmed. I was placing my dictionaries on the tables next to me when my client protested because the books could be seen in the film. I told him those were my tools, just like a doctor needs his scalpel, and they were there to ensure that I did a good job for him. But I can see many colleagues just bowing down…

  2. Bethany Korp-Edwards says:

    No, Gio, that’s exactly correct! It’s not a coincidence at all. I always tell my students that three-quarters of being a good interpreter is being able to think fast on your feet, and most of the rest is confidence in your abilities and your expertise and the ability to own your decisions.

    Actually, Robyn Dean and Robert Pollard’s work is primarily about what’s called the “demand-control schema,” and I’m planning to get there eventually, but I wanted to start with the foundation. The paradigm shift I’m talking about has huge implications for the change in approach you mentioned—as soon as we realize we actually have many types of control (things we can do) in the face of various demands (factors that influence our work), and that there are many possible correct decisions, then we can own those decisions as professionally correct and appropriate.

    (See also, Holly Mikkelson’s work on interpreting’s evolution into a “powerful profession.”)

  3. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

    I’m floored! This is such a breakthrough for my way of looking at the profession and how our daily work fits into the code of ethics! Like Gio, I look forward to the rest of the series. Excellent analysis!

  4. Lissett Samaniego says:


    I anxiously await your next installment in the series! I suddenly feel like a ton of bricks has been lifted off my shoulders. During the course of my work in Immigration Court, I have faced several ethical quandaries (One involving a Pro Se respondent, one involving a speaker of an indigenous Mayan Language and one involving a respondent with a barely perceptible mental health problem) where I felt it necessary to momentarily step out of my role of an interpreter. In each case, I feared that I had somehow betrayed my code of ethics but in my hear of hearts I knew that could not possibly be the case. So, without hesitation, I made a decision to seek clarification and share a deep concern about the proceeding. Each of those times, I was immediately thanked by all parties and though this allayed my conflicted emotions, I still rushed home to consult Najit’s code of ethics. I felt gratified in reviewing them that my decision did not contravene the code. I was able to sleep at night, knowing that my decisions were justified ethically despite my trepidation. THis is an awesome topic. Thank you for straight up pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes.

  5. Bethany Korp-Edwards says:

    Thanks! It floored me when I first heard it framed this way. I’m glad to be able to bring my own interpretation and expansion to this audience.

    I think this can be very scary to a lot of people, like I’m encouraging people to run amok. I’m actually really conservative in what I personally feel comfortable doing (other people in the same situation might do differently, of course), and there are absolutely ways interpreters can overstep their codes of ethics.

    But I think that as long as we keep in mind the result we’re working to achieve, which for most legal work is that the LEP person has an experience as close to possible as an English speaker would, we should feel comfortable judging ourselves against that standard.

  6. Maria Cristina de la Vega says:

    Bravo! Great post thinking outside of the box and nudging the rest of us to add another perspective to the way we view our profession and transmit it to our clients and audience. Looking forward to the next installment.

  7. Like Jennifer, I am floored (stunned was the word that came to my mind as I read your piece). You have captured very eloquently something I’ve been mulling over and struggling to express for years, and taken it several steps further. I am really excited about the prospect of continuing this discussion at the conference in October (Albuquerque, Oct. 5-7 – save the date!), now that you’ve framed it so nicely.

  8. Bethany Korp-Edwards says:

    Thank you, everyone!

    Holly, it was your keynote at the NM conference in 2009 on becoming a powerful profession that started me down this path, and I presented on something similar at NAJIT in 2010; but Robyn Dean’s keynote the following year had exactly the same stunning effect for me. I’m thrilled to be able to expand it for application in spoken-language interpreting and court interpreting.

    As to this year’s conference, New Mexico is a very exciting place to be an interpreter right now and the AOC’s support for this kind of thinking is extremely gratifying, but other than that I’m going to send you an email, if you don’t mind.

  9. Liana Arias says:

    This is great Food for Thought Bethany! Thank you so much for sharing. Like everyone I am looking forward to the rest of the series.

  10. Diane B, Korp says:

    Reading this was an eye-opening experience in more ways than one.I had previously realized that interpreting was not as cut and dried as one might think, but I had no idea that interpreters’ rules and regulations made them feel so constricted that they questioned themselves to this extent. I am proud to have read it first here. We must speak about this sometime.

    Food for thought: when I translated song lyrics into sign language (note that I did not write “ASL”), a student who actually “spoke” the language questioned the validity of my interpretation. The signs were not in the order she was used to reading. However, I maintained that my version was more valid than one in the usual ASL order, since the signs coordinated with the melody – and, more importantly to a non-hearing person, the beat – of the piece. In point of fact, any song I have seen interpreted by a non-hearing person has always been in traditional English order. Perhaps this was meant forhearing audiences, but I still find it more reasonalble to allow the non-hearing to align the concept with the composer’s original melodic feel. The question is, do non-hearing people feel this way, or have I stepped on their toes by changing the order?

  11. Judy Jenner says:

    Wow, fantastic food for thought, dear Bethany! Thanks so much for addressing this important topic into such a wonderfully written article. May we have permission to reprint a shorter version of this in the NITA newsletter? (www.nitaonline.org). I will be happy to e-mail you previous versions of our newsletter if you’d like. Every interpreter in Nevada and beyond must read this.

    BTW — happy to hear that NM is such a great place to be a court interpreter. I thought Nevada was, too. However, 2 weeks ago, we were presented with a take it or leave it new contract that reduced the rate by 28% for Spanish only. Naturally, I did not sign the contact, and I hope to get my colleagues mobilized (the court interpreters in the UK inspired me). Let’s see if we can get something done. Highly trained professionals need to be compensated fairly.

  12. Irene Gosnear says:

    Thank you, Bethany. To me the Interpreters Code of Ethics is a crystallization of the role we interpreters play in the processes in which we provide services. It is our framework and understanding and internalizing it is step 1. The second step for us is to extrapolate from this framework to make ethical decisions each and every time we are faced with an ethical quandary. We must then feel empowered enough to voice our concerns and, finally, we must know how to voice them succinctly and in ways that go directly to the outcome we and our end users desire – giving the LEP person an experience as close as possible to what an English speaker would have.

    Seen in the light you propose, some of the ethical quandaries we face are, in reality, opportunities to engage in a bit of gentle client education, which may in turn have the effect of promoting ours as a powerful profession. I truly look forward to the rest of your series!

  13. Bethany Korp-Edwards says:

    Judy – I’d be happy for you to re-print, and I’d love to see the shortened version, since (you might have noticed) I have quite a bit of trouble shortening things! I’m not really involved in the state court system here since I’m with the feds, but I do know the Court Interpreter Advisory Committee and the Supreme Court really work to support our interpreters. I think the payment/cost-cutting issue plays into the question of being treated as a respected profession like any other, or not. We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet.

    Irene – First of all, congratulations to you! I don’t know if you remember me from the NJ staff interpreter trainings back in the day, but I remember you. And thanks, I do have at least the next three topics in the series in mind! Next up is the question you mention, of exactly what is the goal we are working for, and how it compares to the goals of the other players, and what intermediate goals we are also trying to meet.

    1. Irene Gosnear says:

      Hi, Bethany. Of course I remember you!

      I really excited about this series of yours and truly look forward to your upcoming posts.


  14. Kathleen Shelly says:

    Just fascinating, Bethany. I am looking forward to the next installment of this series.

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