Roles & Ethics

What exactly is the interpreter’s role?

Interpreters are called upon to relay spoken content from an L1 into an L2, orally. The goal is to facilitate quality communication and good rapport between speakers of different languages. To effectively do so, the interpreter needs to operate in the least invasive way that will assure a positive outcome. The good interpreter will translate the content accurately, indicating the social and cultural cues that play along with the words, and maintain a facilitating role throughout the interaction.

Researchers have defined interpreters in their roles as conduits [of communication], clarifiers [of meaning], cultural brokers [translating cultural meanings that affect understanding], and advocates [of their clients’ interests] (Roat, Putsch, & Lucero, 1997 in Hsieh, 2008). These roles remain important in all interpreted situations: medical settings, community settings, business settings, wherever else interpreting is involved.

Aiming for success

It is important that interpreters align with the style and tone of the interaction. Doing so means adopting relevant and favorable communication strategies that will help the clients achieve their goals. Good communication between interpreters and clients prior to the meeting will help establish close rapport, effective communication, and common grounds for success. The physical positioning or sitting arrangement between the interpreter, client and audience become especially important factors for success.

Very importantly, interpreters need to remain impartial and independent of cultural biases at all times. Maintaining a trusting, non-threatening, and respectful relationship with the people involved will support communication at a professional and social level.

What is the translator’s role? 

The task of the translator is to convey a written text from a source to a target language, in writing. Rightly doing so means preserving the text’s original meaning, form, tone, as well as cultural significance. The reader should be able to read and understand the text properly and fluently, without struggling.

It is a fact that some words and expressions cannot be transferred from one language to the other. An accurate translation requires an in-depth linguistic analysis, taking into account the cultural context, readership, and the relationship between source (L1) and target (L2) language.  Where the translator is a trained linguist and fully masters both the source and target languages, the translated text should reflect “translatability” of L1 into L2, or the extent to which these language combinations contain equivalent terms and expressions that the translator can use to relay the same meaning and impact from L1 into L2.

It is also a fact that, often, there are more than one different translations of one single text or book. Questions arise as to whether one translation is better than the other, or even, as to whether translations are correct or not. A key lesson in translation studies comes to shed some light on the matter. Translators learn that there are different approaches to translating a text: the translator is always somewhere on a line between the author and the reader. This means that the translator may choose to place him/herself closer to the author or the reader. Positioning oneself closer to the author involves translating the original text as closely as possible, remaining 100% loyal to the author’s stylistic and word choices. When translators position themselves closer to the reader, however, they will be creative with the text in terms of style, word choice, and cultural significance to make the text more appealing to the reader. In either case, the translator delivers a pragmatically, grammatically, syntactically and culturally approved text in the target language, preserving its original meaning. More about the characteristics of these two approaches to translation here.  So, can the translator who translates a text, “re-creating” it to a certain extent to fit the needs of culturally diverse readerships, be considered an author as well? The discussion is particularly fervent in literary translations.

Similarly, the globalization of the market has nurtured the advent of localization services and has generated terms such as “transcreation” that describe the translators’ efforts to transfer aspects of commercial campaigns to other languages and cultures. In short, localizators or “transcreators” are translators that re-create content such as slogans, websites and companies’ e-profiles from one language to another. The aim is to make this content understandable, recognizable and identifiable for culturally diverse audiences to ensure the business’ outreach and success in the new markets. It derives that for a business to have a true impact on a new market, it needs to be able to transfer its content in a way that is culturally and emotionally meaningful to the new audience.

Interpreters’ and translators’ liability

It is always a good idea for interpreters to meet with their clients beforehand to discuss and establish goals and communication styles. Nevertheless, there are times when interpreters are called in urgently, with no time to get contextualized. In high-risk situations, such as healthcare settings, this carries its own perils. Interpreters with many hours of hospital work have been reported to be more effective. Even if they do not have, and are not expected to have the medical knowledge of physicians and healthcare practitioners, knowing the right terminology and the goals of the interaction between doctor and patient, for example, can lay the basis for good practice and adequate care.

There are also strategies that an interpreter can apply to minimize errors. First, it is important that the interpreter translates everything and does not make decisions on what is relevant or not to doctors or other field experts for that matter. Indicating the presence and significance of body language and cultural information, where relevant, can help establish the sequential order of the conversation (in the case of simultaneous interpreting involving multiple speakers, for example), and facilitate a good overall understanding. Nothing is to be left unmentioned. What may be thought of as insignificant may reveal itself important in conjunction with surrounding hard facts. Returning to mistakes, the stakes are too high for interpreters not to rectify their mistakes as early as they become aware of them. Medical interpreters, in particular, take an oath to do so. It is not a matter of losing prestige or shame, but a matter of health and the well-being or even the life of another.

When unsure of the actual or exact term, periphrastic ways of explaining the meaning of the word can get interpreters, patients, and doctors out of a difficult spot. To convey periphrastically means to use more than one word to convey a concept, helping the audience form a mental picture relating to what is being described. For example, “pinpoint pupils” could periphrastically be conveyed as “pupils significantly reduced in size”. This wordy description is very likely to help the medical experts match it to the equivalent term and enable them to reach a proper diagnosis by going through the causes of pinpoint pupils. That said, interpreters should not hesitate to ask for clarification on medical terms they are not familiar with. Remember: interpreters are not physicians. They are language experts and, as such, facilitators of communication, medical or other. Gaining experience across fields helps the interpreter’s/translators’ growth, expertise and ongoing development.

More about legal translators’ liability here

Confidentiality and interpreter/translator code of ethics

Maintaining confidentiality is a central stipulation in the interpreter and translators’ code of ethics. ModoGlobal will protect the privacy of all parties and maintain confidential all the information we interpret and translate.

Useful documents:

Interpreter Code of Ethics by the Cross-Cultural Health Care Program (CCHCP)

Works cited

Hsieh, E. (2008). “I am not a robot!” Interpreters’ Views of Their Roles in Health Care Settings. Qualitative Health Research, 18(10), 1367-1383. Retrieved from:

Roat, C. E., Putsch, R. W., III, & Lucero, C. (1997). Bridging the gap over the phone: A basic training for telephone interpreters serving medical settings. Seattle, WA: Cross Cultural Health Care Program.