The Confidentiality Dilemma in the Language Profession

Where should interpreters and translators draw the line?

Last month, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee proposed to subpoena the American interpreter present at the private meeting between the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and President Trump on July 16, 2018. Although it sounds like a blow to the profession, it may actually be good news that Congress turned its attention to the occupation of translators and interpreters.

Republicans did their thing: They blocked the request, and professional translators and interpreters everywhere were able to breathe again. The question remains, however: Are interpreters, like attorneys and priests, bound by confidentiality at all costs and under all circumstances?

The answer is neither clear nor simple. For one thing, no specific regulations exist for interpreters or translators. There are no state or federal standards of accountability, no governing bodies or professional oversights at any level, no board exams or education requirement of any kind. In other words, it is a completely self-regulated profession. Anyone can practice as an interpreter or a translator regardless of their background or knowledge.

Unlike attorneys or doctors, translators do not have to prove their qualifications to anyone or operate under any particular professional standard. It is truly up to the person or entity contracting the service to check credentials and provide any non-disclosure agreements required for the particular job or relationship. If this is not done properly, however, the consequences can be disastrous. Let’s recall the story out of Tampa, Florida last December that made national headlines, where a woman claiming to be an American Sign Language interpreter “signed” nonsense at a police press conference announcing the arrest of a suspected serial killer who had been terrorizing the city for months.

Despite all this, for every unqualified person out there, there are dozens of truly dedicated and educated language professionals who operate with integrity. Of course, it only takes one questionable experience to create mistrust within the profession. So, while some of us may have been outraged at the idea of subpoenaing the interpreter at the Trump-Putin summit last month, it may be a good idea to start filling in the gaps of the profession, looking more closely at ethics and confidentiality, including diplomatic settings under the protection of the U.S. Department of State.

Now, whether Congress can really subpoena the interpreter is another question. Surely, this interpreter was bound to secrecy under an iron-clad non-disclosure agreement. And even if not, the rules of conduct and ethics for interpreters and translators require confidentiality in the language profession. The American Translators Association (ATA) Code of Ethics states that language professionals must “hold in confidence any privileged and/or confidential information entrusted to us in the course of our work.” However, this statement cannot be absolute or understood as such, nor is it even legally binding alone. It is merely a guideline set forth by a professional association in an attempt to unify an unregulated profession.

Consider this: In 48 states, physicians, counselors, mediators, and other designated professionals are compelled to file a mandated report when they suspect child abuse, harm to others, and harm to oneself. These are all logical and reasonable exceptions to confidentiality, and interpreters should not be the exception in that regard.

In the case of one state, the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania, in accordance with Act 172 of 2006 (42 Pa.C.S. §§ 4411(e) and 4431(e)), has established a confidentiality exception for interpreters: “In the event that an interpreter becomes aware of information that suggests imminent harm to someone or relates to a crime being committed during the course of the proceedings, the interpreter should immediately disclose the information to an appropriate authority within the judiciary who is not a party to the proceeding and seek advice in regard to the potential conflict in professional responsibility.”

Now, in cases of suspected child abuse, the line is pretty clear. The safety and well-being of a child trumps any non-disclosure agreement, without question. But what about when an interpreter is being asked to disclose the nitty-gritty of a private meeting that may expose risks to our national security interests? Perhaps that should become another concrete exception.

Yes, the nature of a bilateral meeting is based on privacy. The interpreter is not a microphone to the public nor a reporter of the meeting. The interpreter is the voice of the participants, who, typically, citizens trust to represent them. The interpreter is not a spy for the American people, nor should he or she be compelled to disclose any details of a meeting… that is, unless the interests of the American people are not being faithfully represented. And to that effect, the U.S. Congress should most certainly issue a ruling.

So far, this matter has been handled from the political perspective. But interpreters in all settings should be prepared for more incidents like this during the next few years. If this issue comes up again—and it very likely will—what happens with this situation in Congress will set a precedent for us all.

Image source: Pixabay

About the authors

Salua Kamerow works as a Spanish linguist for Penn State University – Berks campus. She is a Colombian Esq., Master of Laws from Penn State University, and Master of Science in Translation from New York University. Her interests vary among contrastive stylistics and terminology. She has extensive expertise in the fields of law, energy, community justice, and alternative dispute resolution.

Nikki DiGiovanni is an Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French translator, specializing in financial translation, with a Master of Science from New York University. She currently works as a quality manager for the Italian translation and interpretation provider Intrawelt S.a.s. and volunteers as a translator for Translators without Borders.

How Interpreting Principles Have Influenced My Translation Practices

As a translator, I find that the principles I have learned in interpreting serve me every day. I am a certified translator, a certified court interpreter, and a certified medical interpreter. These professions, in my opinion, have a lot in common. Practicing in both professions for over 30 years has broadened my perspective. Having applied the ethics of both professions has prepared me to interact in unique conversations and help some regulators in my home state of Oregon make more informed decisions.

For example, in March 2016 I made a chart comparing medical and court interpreting ethics for the Worker’s Compensation Division of Oregon (WCD) to help them understand the ethics of interpreters in these two fields. The WCD rules said anybody could interpret. They were not aware that we had certification processes and that certified interpreters did, indeed, follow a code of ethics, which are applied by the certifying organizations. The WCD had studied the issue carefully before the national medical-interpreting certification exams had been implemented, and they were unaware of the changes. Since we wanted them to work with professionals and value them, they needed to know what we brought to the table. They were especially appreciative of the commitment certified interpreters have made to confidentiality, impartiality, and accuracy.

The core values of ethics for medical and court interpreting are different, but they both apply to translation in many cases. For example, in both it is important to be culturally sensitive. In translation, this is especially important when preparing documents for public-relations departments or advertising. The goal is that the non-English speakers be placed in the same position as similarly situated persons for whom there is no such barrier. This always applies in translation, but in a legal document it would mean that we change and adapt as little as possible, while still making the text readable.

Confidentiality is common to both interpreting codes of ethics mentioned above. As translators, we are also expected to keep all materials that we work with confidential and not take advantage of the information that we acquire through translation. In court interpreting, that goes so far as to include a specific restriction on public comment. As translators, we sign NDAs that require the same level of confidentiality. Even without an NDA, translators are expected to share information only on a “need-to-know” basis: with people who are working on the project and are equally committed to confidentiality.

Both medical and court interpreting require that we be accurate in our rendition of the message in the target language. We are expected not to explain, alter, omit, or add anything to the message. Depending on the purpose of our work, we might have a conversation with our clients if we need to stray from these guidelines.

All codes require that the interpreter be impartial. As translators, we must be careful not to change the nuance of the text. The author chose certain adjectives and nouns that carry a particular shade of meaning to show his bias. We need to make sure our translation reflects the same tone, nuance and bias of the source text. Additionally, we need to translate in a way that t carries the voice of the author and is easily understood in the target language.

All interpreting codes require that we act professionally. That means answering emails promptly, meeting commitments, keeping deadlines, and charging what was on the estimate. When issues that will delay the project come up, professionals communicate that as soon as possible. They also take pride in the quality of their work, so it is quite appropriate to tell our clients exactly why we are great.

All the applicable codes include professional development. As a matter of fact, this is a common thread in all professions, and nurses, teachers and doctors, for example, also have to submit continuing-education credits to maintain their credentials.

Court interpreters are expected to represent their qualifications honestly. They should not accept assignments they are not qualified for. This is an important principle for everyone to follow.

Court interpreters are also expected to report impediments to their performance. As translators, we too should be able to tell our clients when a deadline is too tight to deliver appropriate quality, or whether any other impediment could affect our work. For example, we might ask for additional documents on the same subject translated by the client so we can adopt similar terminology to avoid confusing their readers. I often ask language companies to share with me how the reviewers have modified my documents so I know how to come closer to their expectations the next time. I do not always get what I ask for, but I keep trying.

Beyond ethics, interpreters and translators also have overlapping skills. One of the skills evaluated in interpreting certification exams is sight translation. This skill is helping me a lot now that I have a rotator-cuff injury and an arthritic thumb, and I am dictating a lot of my translations into Dragon, a voice-recognition program. Interpreters often sight translate forms for patients in medical offices and write, in English, the patient’s verbal response. Since the end product is written, this is listed as audio translation in the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) skill descriptions.

Due to the “live” nature of their work, interpreters are in close communication with those who benefit from their services. They get instant feedback on whether their message was understood or not. As a translator, I benefit from my interpreting experience. I know my target readers because I have spent time with them. In addition, I am starting a Spanish-language book club at my local library so we can stay connected with the language at a different level. We start in September, after almost a year of planning. My Venezuelan, Mexican and Colombian friends are thrilled.

Interpreters are in close contact with the language-access needs of the community. As translators, we can learn from them and partner with them to meet those needs on the translation side. As we hear about problems, we can offer our services in the organizations where our interpreter colleagues say the forms are wrong or they do not send letters in the language of the Limited English Proficient (LEP) person. We can also offer to fix the incorrect language on the signs on the walls. Without talking to our interpreter colleagues, we would never know what services are needed!

As translators, there is a lot we can learn from our interpreter colleagues. The next time you have an opportunity, swing by one of their ethics trainings. You will discover you are participating in a lively discussion! Reading interpreting codes of ethics can also add perspective to our work as translators. Do not rule it out as you seek guidance in your translation career.

Image source: Pixabay