A Brief Guide to Ethics for Interpreters and Translators

Guide to translators

Interpreters and translators serve as the only gateway between two people who speak different languages.

Because they are usually hired to interpret in stressful or delicate situations, a Code of Ethics for medical interpreters was developed by the International Medical Interpreters Association (which can be found here). But these guidelines are relevant for other professionals in the translation and interpretation business as well. Below is a summary of the main points from the code of ethics.

Maintain Confidentiality

As an interpreter or translator, you are likely to be handling sensitive or otherwise confidential information. Even if it seems trivial, clients need to be sure they can trust you not to share it with other people. Only share it with someone else with express permission of your clients, or in a case where there is an urgent need to share it for legal or safety-related reasons.

Be Accurate

Interpreters and translators are hired for their ability to correctly understand what one client is saying and convey it accurately to the other. As the IMIA guideline puts it, you should “select the language and mode of interpretation that most accurately conveys the content and spirit of the messages” of your clients. This holds especially true for interpreters, who are translating a real-time interaction. Much of human communication is portrayed not through words, but facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, etc. Interpreters should have clients speak to each other rather than to them, and make eye contact, to help them pick up on these nonverbal cues. But even so, they may not be understood correctly.

Be Sensitive to Cultural Misunderstandings

There are some situations where conveying information is not enough. As an expert on the culture of both languages, you should be aware of any cultural differences that may interfere with effective communication. As an interpreter, if a situation arises where that seems to be happening, it is your duty to do what you can to help your clients bridge the misunderstanding. As a translator, it’s important to anticipate any misunderstandings that might arise from you translated text, and adapt it to most effectively communicate the original meaning.

Maintain Impartiality

You can only convey someone’s message accurately if you are not clouding it with your own feelings and opinions. You are hired for your expertise in language and cultural differences; even if you have knowledge and training in the subject at hand, it is not your job to give your opinion on it. This is especially important for interpreters. Clients may not be able to differentiate between your opinion and that of the other party, and that can make injecting your opinions dishonest and harmful.

If a personal attachment to one or both clients may affect your ability to be impartial, it is best to step aside and let another interpreter take on that assignment.

Be Professional

Only accept assignments that are appropriate for your training and expertise—both in terms of subject or setting, and in terms of language fluency. Have the humility and integrity to step aside if an assignment you are offered is outside your scope of knowledge.

Stay Up-to-Date and Pursue Professional Development

Languages are constantly evolving, and new terminology comes to light in every field all the time. You need to be aware of these changes to interpret and translate effectively.

Enhance your knowledge and skills by engaging in continuing education and staying in touch with other professionals and organizations in your field. This will help you stay informed and become a more effective interpreter or translator.

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