Redefinition of the (Sign Language) interpreter’s role?

Something big is happening silently in Norway. The Norwegian labour and welfare administration NAV has issued a report as a first step to restructure and hopefully improve the Deaf population’s access to Social Services through access to interpreters. The report is generally constructive and relevant, but on one important point it suggests something rather disturbing. Ingeborg Skaten (Lecturer at Bergen University College’s sign language interpreter training) discusses this very important turn in this article.

What is this disturbing change then? Well, the report suggests that “when the communication does not work, then the interpreter – both free-lance and employee – should both feel obliged to and have the right to suggest actions to improve the communication”. (my translation from Norwegian). Furthermore, the report suggests that interpreters should get training in evaluating the functioning of the Deaf client.

Are these new suggestions really compatible with the neutrality of the interpreter and the professional secrecy of the interpreters? I’m very reluctant. Neutrality is probably one of the most important and difficult issues for an interpreter. I believe that it is of utmost importance to be neutral as far as possible. The reason for this is that neutrality is the only guarantee we can give our customers that we will faithfully interpret everything they have to say – as they say it. Every person has the right to his or her own language without it being filtered through somebody else’s values.

I teach my students that if communication does not work it must be up to the users of interpreting, be it a police/judge/case worker/assistance seeker or business person, to identify that and find solutions to the situation. As an example, I often use a situation that once happened to me in court. There was a clear misunderstanding between the prosecutor and the witness. Over and over again I interpreted the exact same words from the prosecutor, and over and over again the witness responded on a completely parallel track. I was convinced that the witness misunderstood something in my interpreting, and the prosecutor was just as convinced that I must be missing something in my interpretation. As I struggled on it finally became obvious that the witness had changed the story. In my view, had I started to evaluate the communication I would have made the situation even more confusing.

Now, imagine instead that the interpreters should have an obligation to judge when communication works or not. Where would that have put me in the court case above. And what if the communication does not work because of the interpreter? Now, interpreters already have an obligation under most code of conducts to decline work they are not qualified for. But, there may be situations where the interpreter for different reasons is not aware that he or she is the reason for the failed communication.

Another rule that many code of conducts take up is the one that states that the interpreter’s job is to interpret and nothing else, but suddenly this is challenged. The interpreter is not only an interpreter any more with this change of role. The interpreter becomes a social worker or police assistant, and what does that make with the trust from the clients. I’m also wondering where it will end. If it starts with evaluating the communicative situation, then it may easily slip into evaluating the reasons behind it, the client’s condition, the client’s family situation and so forth. For language interpreters it may be also understood for instance as judging somebody’s background on the basis of language. Briefly I believe that this can quickly turn into something challenging when it comes to interpreter’s neutrality and professional secrecy.

Yesterday evening there was an open debate at the Centre for Deaf in Bergen, where this issue was being discussed. I have not heard of the results of this debate, but I do hope that it will be clear that an interpreter’s job is to interpret – nothing else.