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Ethics for Health Care Interpreters

In addition to all of the discussion of journalistic ethics that the News of the World scandal has provoked, I have also been interested recently in ethics for interpreting, particularly in the field of health care.

I am beginning some part-time medical interpreting and have had to read standards and ethics for medical interpreters. In the United States there is a National Council on Interpreting in Health Care that establishes standards, ethics, and certification for health care interpreters. Certification is not necessary, just as there is no "official," required certification for translators in the U.S., only unofficial certifying organizations such as the American Translators Association, which [ALERT: unproven assertion] usually offer dubious value while requiring a lot of time and money.

What these professional societies are useful for is networking with others in the field and providing good discussion of standards of practice. The NCIHC has at least two such documents that I have recently read, their Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics.

As with journalism and academics, I am finding that these standards and ethics are usually common sense (accuracy, confidentiality, impartiality, professionalism). But I suppose that everyone needs to be reminded occasionally so we don't have more scandals. (And health care is a highly litigious, regulated, danger-fraught field.)


  1. As a cardiac nurse in a large teaching hospital, let me say that the work of translators is extremely important. It is vital that patients be informed at every step so that they can give informed consent to any procedures. I have seen cases where the only interpreter available was a 12 year old child or a personal friend. These are not ideal situations. It may not be appropriate for a 12 year old boy to be translating about a procedure for a 40 year old woman. Even in the case of a friend translating, the translator may not be fully grasping the concepts or accurately translating, or the patient may not want the friend to know the details of his or her treatment.

    Our hospital now contracts with a translating service that can be called at any hour and will have a translator for any language. We have a special phone that has two handsets, so that the medical person and the patient are both on the line throughout the conversation as the translator translates. This has been a huge relief for me as a healthcare provider. Of course, even with this system, the patient needs to know that their personal diagnosis and treatment will be kept confidential, hence the need for a code of ethics.

    That is all to say kudos to you for offering your translating services!

  2. Hi Charles,

    That's fascinating to hear from the perspective of a nurse. In my situation, there is a hospital policy that family members and friends may not interpret. I have not had it happen to me, but colleagues tell me it can be very awkward trying to tell family members (esp. adults) that only the approved interpreter is allowed to interpret. I think it's a good policy though, because as you say family may not get it right, and patients may not want friends to know everything, whereas as paid interpreters we are obligated to maintain complete privacy and confidentiality with the patient and provider.

    Thanks for the input.


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