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An ‘interpreter’ is a good verbal communicator but that does not mean we are active participants in the communication.

A ‘good-doer’ can often be an individual who gives generously, someone who helps others, a humanitarian, an altruist.

A ‘good-doer interpreter’ is an individual that thinks they know exactly how to communicate what others need or deserve.

Being a good-doer interpreter leads to involvement that is not asked for, nor required. They initiate, add and improve on what is said because they feel a need to help. After all, they know the language and the system better, therefore they think it is their role to bring power to the disempowered, help heal those suffering, disguised as a voice to those in need.

If challenged, the reason is often stated as ‘I do it out of the goodness of my heart’. But is it really the true call of one’s heart or the ego believing ‘I know what you need because I know better’; or because ‘I have been there myself’; or because ‘I am okay and you are not, therefore I know what you need’.

Having gone through something is not equal to what others go through, even when referring to the same event. We all experience an event differently because we have different personalities and even if we share the same language and culture we may have had different upbringings that shaped our reactions to that same event.

The truth is, interpreting for someone makes us feel good about ourselves. We feel powerful and capable of resolving unsurmountable problems. This power should make us humble (as in unpretentious, respectful) not superior or presumptuous.

Let’s face it, we all want to be paid for the interpreting jobs we do, so we are not really doing it selflessly (or altruistically). Thus, we are not that noble. So, why are so many interpreters falling into the good-doer trap?

On the one hand, we live in a time where social media pressures us to do the right thing. We must recycle, not use plastic, be politically correct, help the elderly, rescue a dog… therefore we need to help those we interpret for.

Social pressure can become a prison, and we have all witnessed the examples of ‘cancel culture’ lately, which begs the question, where is the ‘good’ in the doing?

On the other hand, because users of interpreters give us praise, ‘your work is amazing’, ‘you are reliable’, ‘I can always count on you’, ‘your help was really appreciated today, we had a breakthrough’, therefore we must continue to help them.

Praise can sometimes be poison because the perception of users may have been real and that is exactly what they felt after we interpreted for them, but did we evaluate ourselves? Was our interpreting accurate? Were we faithful to the message? Were we impartial? Or were we doing a ping-pong of helping left-and-right so subtly that no one noticed? Yes, that is what power allows us to do if we are not attentive and ethical in our work.

What good-doer interpreters think they ought to do is not always in sync with what their code of conduct prescribes. Hence why many academics paved the way before us and created a study of ethics so complex that needs to be adapted to each profession according to what is considered right or wrong in such profession.

Yes, our profession is not regulated, but that does not mean we should all be unregulated individuals doing whatever we believe to be right according to our own (descriptive) ethics. Remember, each culture and society have different beliefs so how can we all agree to disagree? Even though ethics may feel prescriptive, we need guidelines that help us make the right choice in a given situation.

Good-doers work according to their own beliefs as opposed to a collective belief.

Interpreting, despite not being regulated, should make us united, demonstrating core beliefs, behaving unanimously (meaning we all believe in the same core belief) so that there is no doubt in the mind of users of interpreting that we are right in acting the way we do.

Being a good-doer is not a bad thing, just perhaps not consistent with our code of conduct. Again as I have been questioning myself lately, ethics are prescriptive for a reason. To enforce unity amongst a group that performs the same job.

Yes, the profession has evolved to embrace a collective of individuals of different backgrounds, some with extensive training among some with meagre training. But this trend of good-doing is not a phenomenon of untrained interpreters. It seems everyone can fall into the trap. Therefore, we should work together rather than alienate colleagues that do it.

Perhaps the dialogue needs to happen at some point.

Perhaps more ‘good-practice’ directions should be created.

Perhaps sooner rather than later…



by Helena El Masri