Ethics in interpretation & translation: Respect

* This is the second 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.

Remember the 3 "Rs". Respect for yourself. Respect for others. Responsibility for your actions. (Photo: mamabiker's blog)

Remember the 3 “Rs”. Respect for yourself. Respect for others. Responsibility for your actions. (Photo: mamabiker’s blog)

Ridley and Johnson’s discussion of the elements of respect highlight several aspects that comprise this essential ethical value. Having respect for people is crucial for all professionals, but especially for those of us that work with people, providing a service such as translation or interpretation. There were two aspects of respect that stood out to me and I would like to elaborate on: honoring human differences, and confronting irregularities.

As mentioned in the text, we all have differences and similarities among each other, and we are each unique individuals. We are each worthy of being treated with dignity, and that means that we must honor the individual differences –racial, ethnic, religious, gender, etc.– but not assign value judgment to any of these differences, because they should not have any bearing on the way that we provide our services.

In a society rife with prejudices and stereotypes, especially related to some of the people we serve, we must be aware and careful of any “unconscious” bias that we may have, and strive to address whatever issue we may discover. I am not so naive to believe I am not guilty of this “unconscious” bias and how it may affect our work.

One of the first steps towards ethical excellence is acknowledging the fact that all individuals deserve respect, and that each one of us may have been socialized with an “unconscious” bias that could put that relationship with our clients at risk, if we do not strive for ethical excellence. It is also important to note that some of our clients may also have that “unconscious” bias – we are all products of the society and media we live in. I elaborate more on this last point on a previous post.

In my experience, I have struggled a bit with this concept because I may have acted in a “paternalistic” or “care-taking” way with some of my clients. I assumed that because they did not speak the dominant language, they were at an automatic disadvantage and may not have given them credit for their own voice.

However, with deeper reflection, I realize that’s why interpreters are there in different settings, to ensure a “level” playing field for those that do not speak the dominant language. Those that speak the dominant language are also monolingual, so they also require our service, it’s not just the Spanish-speaking (in my case) client that needs assistance. Interpreters are there to transmit messages between two or more parties. It is sometimes difficult to get out of that mindset created by our society, but this is why a constant evaluation of ethics is important.

Another important discussion in the book was the issue of confronting irregularities. Clearly, any human being, especially if we are providing a service for other people, should speak up immediately when he or she encounters any irregularity. But, perhaps there should be more information or guidance on what constitutes a situation where the interpreter must step in and advocate for the client, and where the interpreter should refrain from getting involved due to his or her personal values.

For example, I may read a situation as gender discrimination, but the client may not feel that way and it may not affect the outcome of the interaction, so I may choose to stay quiet or address the situation outside of the interpretation service. But, if it is clear that a Spanish-speaking client is getting sub par treatment or discriminatory treatment due to his or her ethnicity or inability to speak the dominant language, and it will affect the outcome in a medical, legal or other field, I believe the interpreter must exercise ethical judgment and step in to address any irregularity. This could be as subtle as conveying the tone of the offending person, to allow the client to speak up for him or herself, or it could take the interpreter leaving his or her role to ask questions and ensure that both parties know that he or she is raising up an issue about an irregularity.

“Every human being, of whatever origin, of whatever station, deserves respect. We must each respect others even as we respect ourselves.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

And on a more light-hearted note, here’s Aretha to sing it best:

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