Skip to main content

As stated in previous thoughts of mine, abiding by a code of conduct has many advantages even if some interpreters find these very restrictive.

Today I decided to use a scalpel to start cutting and analysing the code of conduct on my working table. I will be posting my thoughts in parts.

Part 1 – Integrity, Standards and Expectations

Even though the interpreting profession is not regulated, all professionals accepting interpreting jobs must have some sort of consensus as to what principles and standards we all must have. If we all agree to these principles, we are all going to work together towards the same standards. By minimising risk we safeguard the rights of users of interpreting services.

This means we should all have the same aims (point 2.2 of the NRPSI code of conduct):

  • Maintain the integrity of the profession, and
  • Provide assurance of professional standards to users of language services and to the public at large.

To maintain integrity of the profession, we need to have integrity as individuals. We must be honest and accountable for our actions, be reliable and trustworthy amongst other traits.

To provide services to high standards we need to be aware of the settings, the roles of other professionals, the procedures being followed, or services being offered, the ‘organisation culture’ of the service provider and the culture of the service user, who as we well know are vastly different. And all based on expectations.

But being aware is not enough.

Interpreters must be responsible for the services they offer, this ensures others can trust us.

Interpreters need to be honest and clarify terms they do not know or ask for repetition when they cannot hear something. This means being responsible for the mistakes made and for correcting them.

Interpreters are accountable for the services they offer and should not blame others for their shortcomings. This is what assures others that interpreters uphold professional standards.

So far so good. So where is the problem?

The problem is that there isn’t much guidance on good practice. Yes, there are webinars on ethics, supervision and reflective practice groups, but attendees are a mere 0.2 to 0.5% of the total of interpreters working in the UK.

We also read discussions on FB about real incidents with divergent opinions because there isn’t a clear, concise view on the importance of consistency in standards provided by all interpreters.

The NRPSI has a disciplinary committee that deals with complaints against interpreters, but this only covers those registered with the National Register. What about the thousands of interpreters not registered? How do they evaluate themselves, are any complaints made and if so, how are they recorded? To whom are these complaints made? Do agencies receive complaints?

So, if there is no guidance, shouldn’t we start thinking, talking and discussing?

If we look at the US, we can see they have been having dialogues on ethics in healthcare and in legal settings for 20 years and improving them and updating them to suit the reality of migration, language and cultures of those using interpreters.

How can we match this thinking with the reality of our Code of Conduct?

My first thought goes to Over-Arching Principle 3.2 of the National Register’s Code of Conduct:

do not bring the profession into disrepute by conducting themselves in a manner at variance with the high standards expected of a professional person.’

This assumes the interpreter is a registrant and accepts the code of conduct, second, knows and abides by high standards, and third considers themselves a professional.

If all three points are not combined, then we will not be able to continue.

But let’s assume they are.

My next question is, when we say ‘high standards’, do we all agree what these are?

One may say, having high standards means I am not going to accept to do something that goes against my beliefs and morals.

But having high standards includes many different aspects, such as respecting others and demand being respected, being trustworthy, but also demonstrating knowledge (mastery of our trade), be assertive to ensure others understand our role and setting boundaries so that others respect us as professionals.

We do not need to be perfectionists, but we need to be honest, authentic and follow models of behaviour that are expected from us as professionals. We need to do some introspection to find where we can improve, hence why we should be committed to continuous professional [and personal] development.

In my professional opinion, we must have high standards in our personal lives for them to shine and be applied in our work.

But… here is one major issue, we all have different beliefs. What is morally acceptable in my Portuguese culture (with influences from many other cultures) may not be accepted in a Muslim or Asian culture.

Standards cannot be bent to fit individuals, and we cannot have standards because others have them. Having a work-ethic brings us close to what is expected of us even if that means making certain compromises, not on morals but on habits that often tarnish the reputation of interpreters.

Whether we like to admit it or not, our personal morals will come into play at work if we do not abide by an agreed code of conduct and good practice. This has been the basis of some of my Thoughtful Tuesday’s articles, especially when it comes to expectations. Both service users and service providers have expectations of us.

We often forget that what others ‘want’ and ‘need’ are two very different things.

Service providers know this well and ensure that their patients/clients get what they need, not always what they want. Because ‘wanting’ can many times be an unrealistic expectation.

These expectations are often pushed onto the interpreter because of familiarity of language and culture.

These ‘wants’ can many times be requested from interpreters, when a service user feels they are not getting the service they expect from a provider, or when they get frustrated with the level of service provided, or equally when the service provider is not getting from their patient or client what is necessary to provide a service.

Being put in the middle compromises our ethics, and if we are led to act in ways that compromise our code of conduct then we risk doing something that is outside our remit.

This is why integrity needs to be shown even when no one is looking, so that when we are put in compromising situations, we can naturally set boundaries and professionally guide others to understand our role. Sounds easy but it is not that easy.

Where our personal views and morals get blurred with our professional assurance to others, maybe there is a reason behind NRPSI Code of Conduct points 3.1, 3.2, 3.4 and 3.5 after all.

When you drive over the speed limit you may think well the motorway is empty there is no danger. Or when you put on your seat belt, maybe you do not think it’s comfortable or necessary on the short drive home from buying your groceries. Or abiding to a stop sign, after all you checked quickly that there was no traffic both ways. The reality is that those rules were put in place because at some point someone was involved in an accident and these rules at the end of the year save many lives.

A code of conduct serves to make us stop and think before we act. Good practice helps us made the best decision at each crossroad.

The conversation must continue because we need to demonstrate good practices when interpreting to avoid incidents that do not necessarily harm us but may definitively harm others.

The conversation will not be straight forward but needs to address timely subjects and situations that may put us in challenging positions.

The conversation will eventually set the standards for good practice, we will bring integrity to the table and maybe this way the expectations of others will not derail us from our professional path.


by Helena El Masri