QUESTION AND CONTEMPLATION
Edgardo: Hi, John. How are you?
John: I’m fine. How are you and your family?
Edgardo: Oh, they’re OK. Can I ask you a question?
Edgardo: Do you have a religion?
This simple question gave me pause, forced me to examine morals and ethics honestly. Did my religion interfere with the decision to accept an interpreting assignment? My colleague Edgardo posed this question last week. An agency asked him to interpret for an abortion appointment. He wondered if he should or shouldn’t accept the assignment, hence the phone call. I responded that I was born Catholic yet did not practice a religion. I do engage in a spiritual practice. “Would you accept the job today?” he inquired. From years of interpreting in pediatrics with witnessing everything from birth to death, my feelings changed.
I interpreted for an abortion once over twenty years ago. Edgardo’s question uncovered deep emotions long stashed away. Sadness comes to mind. Since that experience I watched a humble couple become overcome with joy to see their little one for the first time during an ultrasound. Another different session included vain attempts to relay the gravity of fetal anomalies to a family from the highlands of Central America. A somber mood dominated another job where a mother learned the child she carried no longer moved.
The abortion assignment took place in a non-descript building on a major thoroughfare in a Midwest city. There I met a frightened young female who waited with her high school companion. Her friend served as an interpreter till my arrival. The provider asked me to sight translate paperwork, explain the procedure and allow for questions before initiating the procedure. I adhered to the tenets* of impartiality and accuracy throughout and conveyed the messages in a calm voice. “I sure knew these medical words”, I thought.
It’s imperative for medical interpreters to remain impartial, that is “eliminate the effect of interpreter bias or preference. The interpreter does not allow personal judgment or cultural value to influence objectivity. An interpreter does not reveal personal feelings through words, tone of voice or body language” . I had trained first as a judiciary interpreter and clung fiercely to maintain an intellectual separation. One supervisor at LanguageLine Solutions remarked, “John, you are just a voice.” Sure, ethics and standards of practice are integral components to the interpreter’s role. Ethics comes from the Greek ethos: principle of right in good conduct; a moral custom. Ethics help us decide how to use our power and we are trusted by people who depend on our use of power. Would I use that power once again?
I can refuse assignments as an independent contractor and told Edgardo that I didn’t have a religion. After serious contemplation I said “No, I would refer the job to someone else.” What do other medical interpreters do when faced with equally difficult assignments? Please comment below.
*tenet: a principle or belief, especially one of the main principles of a religion or philosophy “People raised in a religion tend to accept its tenets, often without independent examination.” www.lexico.com
 National Standards of Practice for Interpreters in Health Care https://www.ncihc.org/assets/documents/publications/NCIHC%20National%20Standards%20of%20Practice.pdf