Time for a Paradigm Shift, Part III: You Can’t Take No for an Answer

Back in March, I invited you to consider the NAJIT code of ethics. In April, we discussed the ultimate goals of the justice system, interpreting in general, and their intersection: court interpreting. Today, we re-examine the code of ethics in the light of the purpose of court interpreting, which is to provide the LEP party with as close to possible as the equivalent experience to what he or she would have if the language barrier were removed.

Last month, when I sat down to write this post, I thought to myself “This is going to be so dry and boring, picking apart each canon … and then I’m going to have to either argue that we need to substantially rewrite our code of ethics, or do verbal gymnastics to try to shoehorn the existing code into what I think it should say.” And I got so discouraged by that prospect that instead I expounded upon one of my pet tricks for interpreter training: the value of singing.

Spoiler: neither of those things will happen below. Our code of ethics already says what it should say; it already requires us to focus on outcomes rather than processes, and it doesn’t include many of the specific rules we’ve internalized as “part of our code of ethics.” (The question of why I didn’t know that is a matter for next month’s blog.) So let’s just do a quick refresher of the NAJIT code of ethics in preparation for getting back to the big, exciting ideas next month.

The first canon of the code of ethics is Accuracy. This is the most obvious canon to most of us, the one we probably are most likely to do automatically and so give the least thought to … but also the one laypeople understand the least. (Raise your hand if you’ve recently had to interpret something along the lines of “this is the translator; he/she is going to translate everything I say to you word for word.”)  We know accuracy definitely is not “translating word for word,” but what is it? I would say, focusing here on outcome and not process, that a rendition is accurate if the output (what you say) matches every unit of meaning in the input (what you hear). There are many, many ways to get there—but the focus of this canon is the outcome.

Canon 2 is Impartiality and Conflicts of Interest. Remaining neutral is a difficult goal, but one we adhere to so that our own views do not taint the process (after all, an English speaker in the same situation wouldn’t hear the message with a third party’s interference). There are a variety of ways we can achieve this, but the final effect must always be the same: we do not filter the message through our own views, and we never give the impression that we are on one side or the other or that we have a stake in the outcome.

Canon 3, Confidentiality, and Canon 4, Limitations of Practice, are two of the most common topics we discuss in ethics workshops precisely because they have the most nuances. Every time we discuss a situation with a colleague, we are making a decision as to whether that discussion maintains the desired goal of confidentiality. Every time we have to expand upon a term when interpreting it into the target language, we make a judgment not only about whether that rendition is accurate (canon 1), but also whether it stays within the limits of interpreting rather than explaining, which would be an unacceptable step outside the limits of our practice. We make the same judgments over bigger decisions as well, of course; but the criteria should always be the same: Is this within my purview as an interpreter (not an attorney, social worker, judge, etc.)?

Canon 5, Protocol and Demeanor, is purely a list of outcomes: conduct yourself appropriately. Don’t draw attention to yourself; be unobtrusive. Make it clear when you speak for yourself and when you don’t. (The specific instruction to use the same grammatical person as the speaker, of course, falls under the latter two instructions.)

Canons 6-7. Maintenance and Improvement of Skills and Knowledge and Accurate Representation of Credentials, are things we do outside the interpreting situation per se—as such, they are always focused on the outcome: are my skills the best they can be? (Is the LEP speaker receiving the best possible access to justice?) And have I represented myself fairly? (Do the people around me have an accurate picture of my qualifications?)

Canon 8, Impediments to Compliance, again asks us to focus on the outcome: that is, on whether we are able to comply the previous seven canons, and what to do when we can’t. It asks us specifically to rely on our own judgment as to whether we can achieve the desired outcome, and requires us to take steps to remedy the situation if we cannot.

So, in short, I submit to you that NAJIT’s existing code of ethics already very much supports the teleological (outcome-based) approach to decision-making in the profession of court interpreting. This is the code of ethics that we intend to follow—in fact, that (I hope) all of us would say we are following. So stay tuned for the upcoming issues in this series:

  • July: If it’s not actually in the Code of Ethics, why do I feel guilty for going against it?: Overcoming deontological thought processes
  • August: “It depends”: Making decisions teleologically in your daily practice
  • September: Profession-wide implications of outcome-based thinking
See you next month! (And by the way, I always tell people in my training sessions that the most important qualities of a good interpreter are the ability to think fast on your feet and owning your decisions and not backing down from them when you know they’re right–which is especially important when you’re having to judge for yourself whether your decision is ethical, rather than relying on externally-imposed rules. You can’t take no for an answer.)

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