Biographical Ethics Pulse

Errors, Risks, Fixes & Ethics

Professionals, like lawyers, doctors, judges and others, recuse themselves at the appearance of partiality. Do translators bear the same responsibility?

My last article, Risks When a Client Corrects an Interpreter, introduced a situation where an interpreter made a mistake. I understood the mistake and corrected him. Robert was a 20-year veteran interpreter, but his honest mistake flipped the meaning of an instruction in my photography class.

In that article, I left you hanging with the question, “What would you have done in that moment when a client identified your error in the privacy of a side-bar consultation?” Thanks to Jorge Andora, Jim McInnis, Radovan Pletka, Steven Marzuola and Betina Frisone for your comments when answering my question. Follow the Linkedin link at the bottom of that article to read their comments.

In memory of Paul Harvey, I offer this article as “The Rest of the Story.”

Robert responded to my correction but he was not as cordial as the textbook answers some of you offered. He blasted out,

“Well if your Spanish is so damn good, you don’t need me! Why don’t you teach the whole course in Spanish?”

Robert, Interpreter

Yes, a few tense moments followed. Our relationship was in total breakdown. The students’ learning experience was at risk. As I said, this exchange happened in private, out of earshot of the photography students. It was time to hit the reset button in this relationship.

Only a few weeks before, I had taught the exact same lesson plan through a different interpreter to a different group of Spanish-speaking students. Over dinner at the end of that course’s first day, James asked me,

“You perfectly frame complete ideas and give me the space to convey each complete idea before continuing to the next idea. How do you know when to pause and how long to pause?”

James, Interpreter

Truth be told? I don’t know. I’ve been working through interpreters nearly all my life.

My Spanish skills were irrelevant because this had been my experience across countless languages where I hadn’t a clue. I knew the photography subject domain better than I knew the back of my own hand. I said in my first article, “A teaching session through an interpreter was like a dance, a tango.” That described my sessions like those with James.

Some comments to my first article shared, and I was very aware even back then, that there are different and valid interpretation styles. But this article is not about the presenter’s style or the interpreter’s style. This article is not about psychoanalyzing what went wrong or right in that fateful session with that honest mistake.

I share this experience to highlight our responsibilities — as trusted translation and interpretation professionals — to build positive relationships and bonds of trust between three parties: the interpreter (or translator), the presenter (client) and the students (audience).

Is Trust Dead?

There was a day when translator and interpreter impartiality was paramount because those values form the foundation for trust. Codes of Ethics, like those of the American Translators Association, promote a translation professional’s duty “to convey meaning between people and cultures faithfully, accurately, and impartially.” Continuing, “Impartial translation and interpreting requires the translator or interpreter to adopt a mantle of neutrality.”

Today across social networks, some translators openly share their activism for various social causes. They proudly disavow neutrality and impartiality. They boast of using their language skills to advance those social causes. I can’t point to the latest, most egregious example on Linkedin because when I asked a question about ethics, that translator blocked me.

Are faithful, accurate and impartial translations (interpretations) dead in an age of social activism?

Honest mistakes can create communication breakdowns. What damage is done when intentional and biased activism influences the translator’s word choices? Is an unwitting audience placing unearned trust in an inherently untrustworthy translation (interpretation)? Should translators and interpreters be bound, as other professionals are, to recuse themselves from projects that convey even the appearance of partiality?

Here I am over 30 years after my breakdown with Robert. I can’t tell you how we worked through our breakdown. I just don’t remember but I know we worked it out. I know because we were both commitment to building a trusted relationship. I know because the course continued, our students learned and life went on.

What do I remember? I remember Robert and I resolved our breakdown because a couple months after all the courses were taught, James, Robert and I meet. We enjoyed a great dinner at a restaurant in Washington, DC overlooking the Potomac River. As I sat looking at James and Robert, I remember catching myself staring. I was in awe because you see… James and Robert were identical twin brothers.

And now you know… the rest of the story.

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By Tom Hoar

Tom Hoar is a pioneer transforming the translation ecosystem. He founded Slate Rocks LLC to create machine translation software that gives translators a better way to keep more of their earnings. Tom is tenacious and passionate about creating a win-win-win for translators, agencies and clients.