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=””>October 6, 2020</a></blockquote>

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.

Of course I am science, too

Have you seen the twitter hashtag #IamScience? An initiative started by Kevin Zelnio and with the aim to share stories of how scientists became what they are. Kevin published his post end of January, and since then researchers have shared their, in most cases, less than straight path to science. Kevin Storified #IamScience here and stories are also shared on Tumblr. And Mindy Weisberger’s collected quotes in a video.

Although, my path to science was by no means as rough as some of the stories that have been shared, it was far from straight either. I have touched upon parts of my background in earlier blog posts, but here I will share my way from high school to PhD scholarship a short story of some 20 years. This post is mostly for my students, who usually believe I had a career as straight as a highway in the US :-).
My senior year in high school was very tough. I completely lost my drive, and just couldn’t force myself to go to school. Unfortunately, I had moved out from my parents’ that year, so not much of parental control either. My grades started declining, and by the time I reached graduation my grades were mediocre. Luckily for me since I came from being a good student, at least I got my diploma. Today, my children laugh so hard at the fact that their mother had an (equivalent to) E in English. They also laugh hard at pictures from this period since I was experimenting a lot and my hair changed between colours such as blue, red, Bordeaux and black.

I did graduate after all, but I swore I would never go back into a classroom ever again. I started working, first various unskilled jobs, and eventually with horses. The only thing I wanted to do at that time was working with horses, and I took a job as a groom. My horse career was not brilliant, but I was happy doing what I did. Personal life was worse though, my father passed away, and I ended up in an abusive relationship which cost me most of my friends and almost the relationship with my mother. On top of that, I wasted the savings my parents had entrusted me and ended up indebted.

After four rather dark years, I took a course in logging with horses. I spent a year learning horse carriage driving and logging, and I finally left the guy. But horses is a tough business there are thousands of talented and skilled young people (girls) around, who will work for nothing. Although, I had managed to get a few really nice (though short-term) jobs, the truth started to dawn on me – since I was neither rich enough nor talented enough – I would most likely spend the better part of my youth working very hard with other people’s horses without ever being able to own one myself. And I still had my debts to pay.

Usually, in everybody’s life there is always someone special, a person that really made a difference. In my case, I’m happy to still have him by my side. When I met my husband, I was as deep down as somebody can be without using drugs or being locked up. I still have no idea what he found in the selfish, shallow, big mouthed surface I exposed in order to protect my empty, hurt soul. Luckily he saw behind that. When I met him I was between horse jobs, but worked double shifts to pay my debts, nights as a security guard, days as an office hand. He would listen for hours, but also challenge me: “Was this really how I wanted to spend the rest of my life?” With him I figured out that I loved teaching and he reminded me that despite my E in English, I was actually fluent in both English and French, wouldn’t teaching be a good idea? It was really hard to swallow. I had sworn I would never set foot in a classroom, and here I was discussing a career that would put me in a classroom for the rest of my life! I’m not sure I would have done it hadn’t it been for an extended dead line to apply for the teacher training program. Vite fait, bien fait.

I’m not sure when the change took place, probably somewhere in my first, fairly chaotic, year. I was still working two jobs on top of school, and it was not easy to adapt to academia. But somehow I realized I could not get enough of learning. I loved learning new stuff. As I approached the end of the 4-and-a-half years of study, one of my big concerns was to leave university life and look for a job, I was not, as many of my friends (and quite opposite my high school experience) tired of studying. But then another opportunity opened up, I could go on to interpreting school and do a master in conference interpreting. I jumped to that, not that I didn’t want to become a teacher, but because it seemed fun to try something different. After a year of interpreting school and with a Master’s in Interpreting, I had to start working. I started working as an interpreter, but went back to university part time, immediately. At first because my teacher training degree was a Bachelor of Education and I wanted a Bachelor of Arts, and I thought it could be fun to write papers in French and English (yes, I’m serious), later because I wanted to write a Master’s thesis.

Both teacher training and interpreting school went fairly smoothly, but my papers and theses have been another laughing stock in the family. English – two terms instead of one, French – three terms instead of one. Master’s – six (!) terms instead of two. But hey, I have worked and had three children at the same time.

When I met the director of studies to discuss a possible Master’s thesis, she asked me: “Would you be interested in doing a PhD?” I couldn’t even imagine myself doing a PhD, PhD students were those nerds who didn’t have a life and were digging themselves down in something as uninteresting as “The use of “so” in newspaper texts”. I, for my part, was just pursuing something I thought was fun at the moment, but of course the director of studies sow a seed.

And here I am, I’m hopefully soon done with my PhD thesis, I would love to continue researching, I love teaching. I’m not particularly young anymore, but when I look back, I don’t think I would have been as happy and as confident with what I’m doing had I chosen a shorter or more direct path. And of course, I am science too.

Interpreter mediated illusory communication

This is a post that I have translated from Anne-Birgitta’s tolkeblogg and publish with her permission. My apologies in advance to Anne-Birgitta and other Norwegian speakers if I have misunderstood or mistranslated something (in that case please let me know, I need this caveat since neither English nor Norwegian are my mother tongue). I wanted to share it on my blog because I think it’s a very good illustration of what can and do happen in interpreter mediated events. This is an illustration of why we need to train interpreters and work on interpreting ethics and standards.

The term, ‘interpreter mediated illusory communication'(tolkemediert skinnkommunikasjon) is defined here as two parallel dialogues with different contents, and where the interpreter is the only one who understands what is actually being said, as in the example below from an interview with an angry Palestinian who considers himself a victim of racism:

1. Police: So the police is lying about this?
2. Interpreter: Are you saying that the police is lying?
3. Suspect: He is a liar, yes, his mother is a liar, his father is a liar (raises voice)
4. Interpreter: Yes
5. Suspect: Tell him his father is a liar, his mother is a liar, the racist pig
6. Interpreter: (laughing out loud)
7. Suspect: His mother and his father are liars
8. Police: What’s he saying now?
9. Interpreter: Yes, the police is lying and mother and father also lying (laughs so much that the phrase is almost inaudible)
10. Suspect: Tell him that racism is like AIDS, the disease AIDS, racism is in his blood
11. Police: What does he say about AIDS?
12. Interpreter: (laughs)
13. Suspect: Tell him that he has the racist disease, like AIDS
14. Interpreter: They all have it, the police is sick (laughs)

In the example we see that the interpreter does not render what the suspect says, and that the discussion sounds quite different in Arabic and Norwegian. This example is taken from a tape recording of a police interrogation and is described in: Andenæs, Kristian et. al. Of 2000. Kommunikasjon og rettssikkerhet. Utlendingers og språklige minoriteters møte med politi og domstoler. Oslo: Unipub publishers.