Ethics in interpretation & translation: Non maleficence

* This is the first of a series of posts focusing on ethics in the field of interpretation and translation. The  book discussed in these posts is The Elements of Ethics for Professionals by W. Brad Johnson and Charles R. Ridley. I highly recommend it, especially if you are in a profession dealing with people.

Good advice. Photo credit is for the Public Relations Student Society of America (
Good advice. Photo credit is for the Public Relations Student Society of America (

Professionals in almost every field dealing with human beings, such as Interpretation/Translation (I/T), social workers, doctors, among many others, should internalize the well-known Hippocratic oath of “doing no harm”.

As someone working in the non-profit sector, this notion is not that foreign to me. It is usually expected from our organization that we are working for the good of the community, without any profit attached. Yet, I don’t think that I had really taken the time to reflect upon what the elements of “doing no harm” actually mean in the world of interpreting and translating.

There were several things in The Elements of Ethics for Professionals about non maleficence that merit further discussion.

Being vigilant of negative outcomes

When the authors talk about “being vigilant of negative outcomes”, it can be tricky for I/T professionals. It should be our duty to ensure that our translation or interpretation will be as accurate and clear as possible, as to not affect the outcome of a situation, but as interpreters or translators, we do not really have any power over what happens beyond the messages we are carrying back and forth.

For example, in a medical setting, if a medical procedure has complications or risks, all we can do is ensure clarity in the message so the patient will understand the possible risks and indications, but we cannot be responsible for any errors due to malpractice or to a patient’s refusal to follow orders. We cannot try to explain procedures in our words, unless they are coming directly from the doctor. In a court case, we cannot try to explain slang terms or alter the mode of questioning from an attorney, or the delivery from a witness. We must not give legal or medical advice.

However, I think if we do notice that a patient or a client does not understand a procedure or legal consequence due to the sender’s use of high register or unfamiliar terms, or other issue with our ability to interpret or translate the message itself, we can ask the sender to rephrase the message or use a different term, among other possible solutions. This is why ethics and competency is of utmost importance, especially on issues of accuracy and clarity.

Resisting coercion

Oftentimes, interpreters and translators can be put in a difficult position when it comes to summarizing a message or giving a skewed interpretation for someone else’s benefit. Someone can try to offer compensation or gifts for delivering our service in a certain way. At all times, we must be vigilant of this and resist it at all times. It may be frightening, but it is better to face that fear and confront a coercive situation, rather than risk doing harm to the client or to our own reputation, or both.

Interpreters and translators must be careful with the power of money, as well as the power position that being an interpreter or translator can give us. It may be tempting to forgo our ethics for a bigger chunk of money, especially in tough economic times, but it is not worth the risk. As the book states, financial arrangements should be transparent and documented at all times. Any “kickbacks”, to me, should be seen as a form of coercion and thus be avoided always. As for the position of power, I/T professionals must be aware of the respect they command from clients especially, and ensure not to use that power irresponsibly.

Prevent misuse of your work

One key element mentioned in the book was our responsibility to prevent the misuse of our work. This is applicable especially to translators, who may find their original translations altered to suit others’ needs. There are ways to electronically protect your work, such as sending all files as photos or as Portable Document Files (PDFs) or attaching print protection. It is good for people in our field to be aware of our intellectual property rights and how to protect against misuse.

Planning for illness and incapacity

This is very important for interpreters and translators. Imagine not having any type of backup plan for when you fall ill while assigned to a criminal court case and leaving a client completely voiceless. Or not having a backup to interpret for a family waiting for a loved one’s complicated surgical procedure. Our presence is crucial and we must take on the responsibility of planning for our absence, since it could have serious consequences on others’ lives.

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”― Aristotle

Published by vcmarcano

Vanessa C. Marcano-Kelly is a native of Caracas, Venezuela. She is a certified court interpreter in Iowa and a translator. She is a member of the Iowa Interpreters and Translators' Association and the Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters, with significant experience in community interpreting, translation, and journalism in English and Spanish. Vanessa has interpreted in community meetings with the Polk County Sheriff, the US Department of Labor, former US Congressman Tom Latham, and at the Food Sovereignty Prize 2014 in Des Moines. She graduated with honors with a BA in Global Studies and French from South Dakota State University, and received a judiciary interpretation and translation specialization certificate from Des Moines Area Community College. She works as a court interpreter in the Des Moines metro, and as a translator for Principal Financial Group, a Fortune 500 company. She has written for several publications, including the Venezuelan magazine Estetica y Salud, and has a passion for linguistics/languages, photography, community involvement, healthier living and travel. Vanessa runs a bilingual, bicultural household with her husband, Michael. Her immediate family lives in Venezuela, Lithuania and the US.

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