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  • Writer's pictureYelena McCafferty

When worlds collide

What happens when an interpreter’s professional role conflicts with other interests or beliefs? Yelena McCafferty has personal experience of the topic.


Most of my career has been dedicated to translation and interpreting, which fortunately has kept me very busy. However, as my child was growing up, I found more time I thought I could devote to other causes, so I became a school governor. I know colleagues who take on other separate roles, such as becoming part-time magistrates. And when you hold more than one position, you are bound to come across more situations when you, as an interpreter, will face the question of a conflict of interests.


Over the years, my colleagues and I have mulled informally over this issue, and over various circumstances where decisions had to be made. This year I took a step forward and, as a committee member for the Interpreters’ Development Network, invited Mike Orlov of the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) to do a talk for us on this subject. Naturally Mike concentrated on how the conflict of interests was relevant to public service interpreters, but of course there is an overlap with other contexts too.


A simple issue with complications

Put simply, a conflict of interest occurs when an interpreter’s personal, private, religious, political or financial interests clash with the interpreter’s duties and obligations to the client. That means the interpreter may not be able to perform the work commissioned with complete impartiality as required. If such a conflict is identified, it should be declared to the client and addressed.


But of course, in real life it may not be as simple and straightforward as it says on paper. Years ago I interpreted at a private consultation between a suspect and a duty solicitor at a police station. At one point the suspect drastically and blatantly changed his account of the events leading to his arrest. As a result, the solicitor said he would no longer be able to give advice, since he knew that his client was going to lie to the police. The solicitor cited a conflict of interests.


This development confused my own position somewhat: if the solicitor is not allowed to act for the client knowing he is going to mislead law enforcement authorities, am I allowed to interpret for him if I know the same? I asked the solicitor’s advice and his view was that ‘interpreters are also officers of the court’. He suggested that I should withdraw my services too, to be on the safe side, and I did.


Acting by the code for public service interpreters

At the time I was not aware that different codes of conducts applied to the two of us. The code of conduct for solicitors specifically warns them against misleading or attempting to mislead their clients, the court or others, either by own acts or omissions or allowing or being complicit in the acts or omissions of others (including their client). For my part, the code of conduct I should have referred to was the NRSPI’s code for public service interpreters, specifically the clauses requiring practitioners to interpret truly and faithfully and to act impartially. So looking back now, it appears that it would have been acceptable for me to continue interpreting in this case with another solicitor. However, no harm was done, as they say.


In his talk to us, Mike Orlov spoke more about the code, and how we should refer to it when we have to make a decision. One of the key rules here is immediate disclosure to the client of any factor which might jeopardise our impartiality. For instance, in a very simple situation such as being assigned to interpret for a person you know – perhaps not as a friend, but a friend of a friend – it’s best to be straight with the client and explain that you know the person and how you know them. This way you’ll protect yourself and the other parties involved, and while you may still be allowed/asked to interpret, it will be up to the client to weigh up the circumstances and run their own impartiality/bias test. The fundamental principle for us will still be maintaining the accuracy of our interpreting output.


The code is also useful to refer to when you are working in a public service environment with another interpreter and your colleague is not doing a terribly good job, having already made a few errors. If you flag this up will you be bringing the profession into disrepute – which is also against the code of conduct? Mike Orlov says the NRPSI's core function is to protect the public and that’s what should guide registered public interpreters.


Other conflicts and further complications

Sometimes the situation is more complicated still. For instance, another interpreter recently received a transcription and translation assignment from a translation agency. As she got on with the job, it transpired that she had acted as an interpreter at the suspect interview she was now asked to transcribe and translate. She didn’t know who the end client was, whether her translation would be exhibited as evidence for court and whether the court would throw it out as inadmissible because the transcription/translation was not completed by an independent translator.


She came to talk to me about this, and I advised her that the proper thing to do in this situation would be to tell the agency about this conflict of interests and let them make this decision, or withdraw from the assignment entirely, having explained your reasons. Courts do often require independent transcription and translation of audio material; in fact this has happened recently in recent cases where the initially translated transcript was successfully disputed.


Or what happens if you wish to diversify your career and apply for a part-time civilian job at a police station in addition to your current work? Will you still be able to work as an agency interpreter for this police force when you are not there as a police employee? Again, this question would be up for discussion with the police. Your employment contract may allow you to take interpreting assignments outside your contract hours.


Exceptions from the customary neutrality

Importantly, the NRPSI Code of Conduct goes on to say that ‘practitioners working in other contexts may provide additional information or explanation when requested, and with the agreement of all parties’.


The Association of Interpreters and Translators recently held a webinar with the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) as guest speakers, and I used this opportunity to ask a question which explores the conflict-of-interest issue further. If impartiality and neutrality are cornerstones of public service interpreting, are we free to report if we suspect an instance of modern slavery in a situation where we are interpreting? Or do we just do this job and move on to the next? The GLAA told us we would never get into trouble for reporting cases or suspected cases of modern slavery to the police. If we work with a foreign language speaker who shows signs of being a victim of labour abuse, we may want to ring the police during a break, rather than after the assignment, and do so safely. The principle of protecting the public comes into play here in a situation where individuals are put in danger.


Clearly this is one example of an exception from the absolute neutrality rule that stops interpreters from entering into discussion, giving advice or expressing opinions or reactions to any of the parties that exceed their duties as interpreters. For example, humanitarian interpreters working with front line negotiators operate in a totally different environment. The Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (Switzerland) has recently published a very useful guide titled Interpreting in Humanitarian Negotiations. The guide uses a broad definition of humanitarian interpreters: these can be qualified interpreters; experienced interpreters without formal training – all working with humanitarian organisations; humanitarian workers interpreting for their colleagues; or members of local communities hired to interpret by humanitarian organisations or working for them as volunteers.


When interpreters take on other roles too

In practice, this wide range of roles and capacities means that negotiators can also act as interpreters, and vice versa. For this reason, the guide helpfully clarifies the role of the interpreter, as someone whose job is to communicate across language barriers – and not to intervene as a party to the negotiation. The guide states that interpreting is a profession with its own professional standards, and that anyone who is acting as an interpreter should observe these standards, even when they have different roles in another setting (for example as a negotiator, programme manager, or anything else).


As a representative of the organisation, the interpreter should be included in preparing for the negotiation (while remaining within the boundaries of their interpreting role), and during the negotiation itself they should be free to manage the flow of the conversation by indicating whose turn it is to speak next.


Crucially, the guide points out that if the interpreter’s role is unclear, this can lead to interventions from the interpreter as a party to the negotiation, which can cause confusion and undermine trust. It can also frustrate the interpreter because they have to juggle different roles at the same time. In addition, failure to distinguish the interpreter’s role at a particular negotiation can create lack of trust if the interpreter was previously known to the other parties as a negotiator.


And here we come to a significant point of exchanging opinions after a negotiation. The guide recommends that the negotiator and the interpreter discuss their respective experiences afterwards, because this helps both of them in their future work. As part of exchanging impressions on the other negotiator’s reactions, body language and emotions, the interpreter can clarify if that person was happy or not with the outcome of the negotiation. This may prevent any cultural mistakes that could make it harder to build a relationship.


Of course, business or diplomatic interpreting has its own nuances on what may or may not be a conflict of interests, and perhaps it could be a subject for an interesting discussion at a future event. There is certainly a lot we can learn from each other by debating real-life examples and establishing best practices for interpreters.


This article first appeared in the May-June 2023 issue of the Bulletin, the bi-monthly magazine published by the Institute of Translation and Interpreting.

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