When is it right to refuse to interpret?

Translating and Interpreting has a recent post on what assigment you would decline on a moral or ethical basis. Would you for instance translate a user manual adapted to children for a rifle knowing that the target audience were children soldiers?

The translation guy’s blog started the discussion (based on input from a company presentation he had listened to) but discussed whether you would translate porn or any defense or military work.

For me as an interpreting teacher this is always an issue that comes up. Can we at some point say: no – this is my limit, I will turn off the microphone. Last autumn I taught a course on consecutive interpreting to already seasoned community interpreters, several of them mentionned the difficulty of translating very crude language or swear-words if you are deeply religious. They said they had several colleagues who would refuse to translate such things. I argued then and I have also argued earlier that insults and swearing is not an excuse to not interpret. People have the right to be angry and they have to their own language use. Although, culturally you may have to adapt the insults of course(e.g. Scandinavians use less insults with sexual connotations than southern Europeans).

Then there is of course the situation where your speaker may have a completely different conviction than yours. It may be political, religious or moral. You may not agree with your speakers very right or left wing political views, you may not share the same faith or you may not agree with the sexual abuser who is totally convinced that his behaviour is perfectly normal and that the abused woman is only a drama queen. It does not matter, they all have the right to a voice. I have a very personal relationship to my speakers, even if I don’t agree with their views I still put my heart into their story and interpret it the most faithfully I can. I have turned of the microphone to let out some steam though, but I’m convinced my different opinion did not show in my interpreting.

But what to do when it comes to situations where you find it absolutely impossible to interpret, where you believe that it’s morally, ethically or personally wrong?

First of all, on a very practical level I think that interpreting agencies have an obligation to send the right interpreter to the right place. You don’t send an eight-month-pregnant interpreter to interpret a case of sexual abuse of very young children, for instance. This happened to me once and I can tell you that it was not only awkward for me. I fulfilled my obligation to interpret of course but it was clearly a very bad matching of interpreter. Had my agency cared to ask about the nature of the interpretation or had they cared to tell me I would not have ended up there. The same goes for male interpreter to a gynaecologist and similar situations.

Secondly, you must decide beforehand if you are going to decline an assignment, you cannot do it ad hoc. It’s very unprofessional to do it on the spot. Either you decline beforehand or, if you’re already there you fullfil your obligation, but decide not to take that type of assignment again.

I have to say that in my whole career I have not had to decline one single assignment for moral or ethical reasons (I actually only know of one colleague who has done it, and I would have done the same in that case), I have declined assignments due to very bad working conditions though or clear breach of contracts from the hirers side, but that’s a different story.

Update: I have just noticed that this discussion is also going on at interpreting.info. The thread is here


9 thoughts on “When is it right to refuse to interpret?

  1. I would refuse to interpret if I were concerned about my well-being. I would not refuse to interpret for extremists in court. I would even perhaps agree to interpret at their congress – and then shop them all! :oD

  2. I honestly don’t understand why a male interpreter shouldn’t interpret a gynaecologist conference. It is not a situation of moral or ethical strain. Also, there are male gynaecologists, why shouldn’t there be male gynaecologist interpreters? Otherwise, thank you for the text, it is very informative 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment Tomasz. I was thinking a gynaecologist appointment rather than a conference. But you’re right – there are both male gynaecologists and male midwifes. I was trying to make the point that in the case of a medical appointment, the patient should have the right to choose, if possible, what’s the most comfortable for him or her.

  3. Great discussion. What about a holocaust deniers conference? I suppose one could refuse the invitation. I ask because of the conferences in South Africa that received all of the media atention.

  4. Pingback: Weekly favorites (May 21-27) | Adventures in Freelance Translation

  5. I believe that professional judgment and circumstances might come into play. In legal matters you have to repeat everything word for word. However I was with a patient in recovery at a surgery center. He was in pain and cursing so much I learned a few new words that day. Nurses passing by had a look on their face that indicated that they wanted to learn a new curse word in Spanish. They asked me what he was saying with an eager grin. Under those circumstances I informed them that as an interpreter I am obligated to interpret everything; however I asked them if it would be sufficient for them to know that the man was cursing. They accepted that and went away.

    • Thank you Jeff. I think that was a very good example of a situation when you may actually protect someone’s integrity by not interpreting. There are not many cases of that, and in the end we have to use common sense and compassion as well.

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