Ethics of Interpreting

In Part II of this book the ethics of interpreting are discussed in detail in several instances where the role of the interpreter is in danger of becoming something other than that described in the code of ethics. In order not to place the interpreter in conflicting situations, we must know some basic facts about the interpreter's role.

An interpreter is supposed to translate everything spoken in the room, if that is possible, so that the deaf person has the same information as the hearing persons present. Quite often this is not possible, especially when interpreting tactually. In this case the interpreter has to condense the information and often has to ask people to speak more slowly and only one at a time.

Since the interpreter's first obligation is to make sure that spoken information is truthfully conveyed into sign language, one could not upset the situation worse than by saying "You do not need to translate this to the patient, I'd just like you to know . . ." In a situation like this the interpreter will sign the words just as they were said and will then have to correct the person, which is not very easy if dealing with a doctor in his or her own office.

In some situations it is advisable to delay the interpretation for a short time while you describe the finding to the interpreter in detail to help him understand the contents exactly. In order not to insult your deaf patient, you should start by saying "I have to talk to your interpreter for a short while to make sure that we understand each other. Please wait a moment, then he will interpret the information to you." Most deaf patients seem to tolerate almost anything, as do our hearing patients, from their doctor but this is no justification for the continuation of any bad habits.

Quite often we need a little help during the assessment. If the nurse is not present it may seem to be natural to ask the interpreter to lend that help. In principle, only if the interpreter is a member of the hospital personnel with other assigned duties can he be asked to do anything else but interpret. Of course, there is some space for the use of common sense. The situation is quite different if the interpreter is trained to function as a member of the assessment team, but even then we should not hinder interpretation with other duties. Many interpreters experience a medical interpretation as being so demanding that they have to concentrate and use all of their imagination to make the constant jumps from spoken medical English into the world of signs, keeping in mind the restrictions related to the patient's visual impairment.

Uninterrupted interpretation should not last for more than 20 minutes. Since the medical examination has natural pauses, an assessment session of up to two hours can usually be handled by one interpreter. The patient usually needs a break after about 45 minutes and thus the interpreter also gets a chance to rest at these times.

The deafblind community is small and therefore the interpreters learn to know most deaf- blind clients quite well. They often have a much more complete picture of the patient's life than the ophthalmologist ever can get. Knowing this, the ophthalmologist may want to discuss the patient's life situation with the interpreter, but that is not proper. The interpreter cannot express opinions on anything else but language and communication. Confidentiality related to everything expressed during an interpreting assignment is as strict as the confidentiality in medical services.