Neutral to the matter, impartial to the parties

These are a series of tweets on neutrality and impartiality of interpreters. Sparked by an episode of Troublesome Terps.

Latest @troubleterps episode was indeed troublesome. Fascinating, but I have to stand up for neutrality & impartiality. I often hear @Colombias’ views from students or colleagues. Yet, it’s a serious misunderstanding of professional ethics. Let me explain in this thread. #1nt

A popular stance is neutrality & impartiality in #1nt is passé since interpreters are human beings and thus cannot be neutral. Well, exactly because we are human beings, we need to keep neutrality and impartiality. How would we otherwise like our interpreters? Partial and biased?

Neutrality & impartiality are concepts of professional ethics. We need professional ethics as personal ethics may vary. Professional ethics are common agreements on how to behave in varied contexts, e.g. even a murder suspect caught red handed gets a defense lawyer. #1nt

Neutrality is your handling of the case. When interpreting, your professional evaluation of the situation must not be colored by personal convictions. One is allowed personal convictions, but not to express them or let them influence while interpreting. Down to word level. #1nt

If you know that your personal convictions overshadow your professional evaluation you have all rights NOT to take, or withdraw, from an assignment. You will not be paid of course, but no one will force you to interpret. I have turned assignments down for that reason. #1nt

In fact, if I, as dependent on an interpreter, was going to discuss an abortion with my gynecologist, I think I would prefer having an interpreter showing no strong convictions to either side. It’s difficult enough. #1nt

Neutrality does not mean void of empathy. Empathy is a good personal trait of an interpreter, a socio- or psychopath interpreter personality sounds like a really bad idea. #1nt

Being empathic does not mean advocating. @NaomiSheneman’s tale of four interpreters is a wonderful description about how an interpreter can make a user feel (I note that #1 does not advocate, but show empathy and attentiveness) <blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>I was in the ER from 3 pm til 145 am. I had four different interpreters. Interesting to see how they were all different bringing up thoughts of characteristics of an ideal healthcare interpreter. Bedside manners and clear masks are a must. See my comments for a profile of each /1</p>&mdash; Naomi Sheneman (@NaomiSheneman) <a href=”https://twitter.com/NaomiSheneman/status/1313469819820404737?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>October 6, 2020</a></blockquote> https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

You can hand your client a handkerchief and still be neutral. You can show with your voice that there is sadness or anger in the account you’re interpreting. It does not serve your client well if you are overcome by the situation and cry or hit a desk in anger while #1nt.

What if you witness misconduct by a civil servant, or overhear that the person you are interpreting is planning a crime? In the countries where I interpret, there are legislation about this, and boards where you can report authorities’ abuse. #1nt

Neutrality does not mean you are a machine only that you are dealing with matters at hand in a non-biased way. Every situation is individual, yet there is a predetermined format that you adapt to, just like any civil servant. #1nt

Sometimes, deciding whether someone is or can be neutral is hard (just look at the discussions about the nominations to the US supreme court). Imagine a political activist in a local community for a political party with very immigrant restrictive policies. #1nt

The name and face are all over town because there is an election for an office in that community. Can that person work as a neutral interpreter in an immigration hearing? #1nt

Well presumably they can, as we have concluded that one is are to believe whatever one likes as long as you can be neutral to the case at hand. The question is perhaps whether the individual in the immigrant hearing will trust you, and trust is another crux of the matter. #1nt

So visibility may be an issue, but who on earth came up with the idea that neutral and invisible were linked together? Take the example of a judge: I would expect a judge in a court case to be neutral, but absolutely not invisible. #1nt

Users of interpreting can say, “that interpreter was so good, as if they were not there”. That’s not invisibility, that’s an #1nt who neither renounced the task nor took over the event event. Interpreters cannot be invisible, although though sometimes not seen. #1nt

I certainly want my kids’ football referee to be neutral, but an invisible referee would be completely useless. I don’t expect the football referee not to have opinions on football, but I would be very upset if it looked like he was partial towards one of the teams. #1nt

So, what about impartiality? Can an #1nt really be impartial? As individuals we belong to different groups, different nationalities, different organisations. We have different ethical backgrounds, different faith and different convictions. Isn’t impartiality only an illusion?

Well, the demand and the challenge here are to not take sides in the case at hand. And, to be aware of your own ideas and convictions so as not let them influence you. You are loyal to both sides (be bi-partial), (unless you’re a military interpreter, I’ll come to that). #1nt

If you very strongly believe that a person is guilty and decide to “help” the court by twisting the defendants statement a little, well then you are not the right person for the job. When taking sides one advocates and that is another profession. #1nt

Remember you only see the side of the story presented in that meeting, you have no idea of the mechanisms behind, are you sure that your understanding of the situation is the best one for all parties. See illustration from Skaaden 2019. #1nt

On advocacy: if I wore a hijab, I would prefer an interpreter who let me explain when I’m comfortable taking off my hijab rather than having an interpreter “helping me” by telling the other people in my meeting when I can take it off or not. #1nt

About hijab btw. Can you wear it and be neutral? In France (so I’m told), it would be absolutely impossible for an interpreter to wear a hijab (or a cross for that matter). In Sweden, I have many #1nt colleagues wearing a hijab, nobody bats a lash.

More on advocacy: When I lecture for MDs and show them this photo (Skaaden 2019), they say this interpreter did not do a good job “helping to get an answer”. Their reactions are: I wouldn’t know a thing about that lady’s pain! #1nt

There are #1nt we expect to be partial. A military interpreter would not be trusted, it they do not belong to our side. This is often a big issue in military interpreting and also put interpreters at high risk.

A president often brings their personal interpreter to different meetings, I assume it has to do with trust and expecting the interpreter to be loyal to one side. This also often goes for business #1nt

Impartiality, pay and trust is a final issue. A court interpreter is paid by the court, so is that person impartial? I’d argue that this is exactly where the professional ethics and regulations comes into play. #1nt

For more on neutrality, impartiality, bi-partiality, professional ethics and the interpreters’ discretionary power read this book. Valid for all types of #1nt despite the title.

3 thoughts on “Neutral to the matter, impartial to the parties

  1. My own issue with impartiality and neutrality as concepts is that they are either not well understood or describe something that we now know doesn’t happen.

    Take impartiality. It’s morphology screams “not partial” and assumes that there are two sides to interpreting. The truth is (as we can see from observational research from across interpreting like Philipp Angermeyer’s book, Ebru Diriker’s research, Claudia Monacelli’s thesis etc), interpreting just isn’t that simple. There are always several sides: the speakers, the interpreter’s professional ethics, the overhearing audience, issues of cultural taboos, organisational requirements etc. Interpreters aren’t ever picking from two sides but trying to negotiate between many “sides”. That’s before we even ask about whether impartiality even makes any sense in contexts where everyone is on the same “side”.

    Neutrality, for its part, seems to be a description of the interpreter’s relationship to the event, and perhaps their advocacy. I absolutely agree that it is not the interpreter’s job to twist statements in court or to take over the roles of the other participants. But I have to say that there is lots of evidence that interpreters do affect the course of events with every decision that take. That alone makes me wonder if neutrality is a poor choice of term there. We are ALWAYS involved and always affect the event, whether we are aware of it or not. Dropping the term “neutrality” might make us face that fact.

    Invisibility is another thing entirely and I do wonder whether we reify “being so good, it’s as if we weren’t there”, when there is plenty of evidence (from Diriker, Eraslan and me) that the “not there” kind of interpreting can often cause as many problems as it solves and isn’t always what clients need or want. Far better, I would argue, for clients to say something like “we couldn’t have done it without you.”

    We definitely do need to talk about professional ethics but I think we are better talking about how we use our discretionary power, agency and responsibility, rather than terms like impartiality, neutrality and invisibility.

    • “My own issue with impartiality and neutrality as concepts is that they are either not well understood or describe something that we now know doesn’t happen.”

      I agree that they are not very well understood (that’s why I wrote the thread), but do we want to renounce on them just because we have interpreters who decide to be advocates or who are biased in different situations?

      “Take impartiality. It’s morphology screams “not partial” and assumes that there are two sides to interpreting. The truth is (as we can see from observational research from across interpreting like Philipp Angermeyer’s book, Ebru Diriker’s research, Claudia Monacelli’s thesis etc), interpreting just isn’t that simple. There are always several sides: the speakers, the interpreter’s professional ethics, the overhearing audience, issues of cultural taboos, organisational requirements etc. Interpreters aren’t ever picking from two sides but trying to negotiate between many “sides”. That’s before we even ask about whether impartiality even makes any sense in contexts where everyone is on the same “side”.”

      Once again the key here, I believe is that ideally one would sail somewhere in between. I’m not at all arguing that these are easy concepts or that there are only two parties involved (although I used bi-partial), but I would argue that if I want someone to argue my case I would look for another profession, not an interpreter. I would really appreciate an interpreter who helps me linguistically though, and makes a difference, but I don’t se that as being partial. As an interpreter you can contribute to that for all participants. And if you’re e.g. a business interpreter clearly hired for one company to interpret for that product, then you are not impartial, but then that is not a problem either.

      “Neutrality, for its part, seems to be a description of the interpreter’s relationship to the event, and perhaps their advocacy. I absolutely agree that it is not the interpreter’s job to twist statements in court or to take over the roles of the other participants. But I have to say that there is lots of evidence that interpreters do affect the course of events with every decision that take. That alone makes me wonder if neutrality is a poor choice of term there. We are ALWAYS involved and always affect the event, whether we are aware of it or not. Dropping the term “neutrality” might make us face that fact.”

      But unless we argue neutrality, we cannot argue discretionary power. The discretionary power is how you handle a case following a legislation (or other protocol) written for many but applied for an individual (like in a courtroom or a civil servant handling your application). Understanding discretionary power means (I believe) that we understand impact, and that we affect a situation, but not dropping neutrality.

      “Invisibility is another thing entirely and I do wonder whether we reify “being so good, it’s as if we weren’t there”, when there is plenty of evidence (from Diriker, Eraslan and me) that the “not there” kind of interpreting can often cause as many problems as it solves and isn’t always what clients need or want. Far better, I would argue, for clients to say something like “we couldn’t have done it without you.””

      I didn’t want to reify it as an USP for an interpreter, but I have many MDs, lawyers etc. who says that that’s how they’d like their interpreter. I take care to explain to them that they get that feeling exactly when I’m making a difference, when I’m very present, and handle all the different issues. That it is my presence and visibility which creates it, not vice versa. I also often get an impression that they’ve had ample experience of the interpreter taking over the event and thus leaving them thinking that maybe it’s better with a machine.

      “We definitely do need to talk about professional ethics but I think we are better talking about how we use our discretionary power, agency and responsibility, rather than terms like impartiality, neutrality and invisibility.”

      We need all of these concepts, they go together and the problem is that we have used impartiality and neutrality in isolation, without relating them to discretionary power, agency and responsibility.

      • Great points. I would want to ask a lot of questions though.

        On impartiality, it’s very easy to get into dicey ground. Sure, clients don’t look for interpreters to argue their case but there is evidence in newer client expectations work that interpreters are expected to explain, ask questions for clarification, even switch pronouns. This gets very close to Gile’s “rotating partiality”… until we mix in all the other loyalties.

        The issue with sailing between is that there might not be a central position. Standard professional ethics might say “make the audience forget they’re listening to the interpreter” but if the meeting is heading for failure due to a terminological misunderstanding, the interpreter might feel that they’re better pointing that out.

        In many situations, the idea of partiality fails as everyone has compatible interests. In such cases, we have to ask what an interpreter might be sailing between.

        On neutrality, we’d have to come to an agreed definition first. It does seem simpler to start with something like “agency” that assumes we make a difference and talk about what responsibility looks like. Neutrality, at least in its traditional use, seems to put the prescriptive cart before the descriptive horse.

        I think invisibility is a different animal. There’s a really good discussion about that and taking over is definitely not on. I do wonder how responsible it is to be Invisible or to strive for it when machine interpreting makers are selling the same thing. Is it not better to talk about partnership, which can mean making everything smooth and can occasionally mean intervening if necessary in a professional way.

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