Ethical Decision Making & Language Professionals: An Endless Journey

Photo by Raúl Nájera
A national conversation related to the professionalization of interpreting and translation in education has been developing under the Interpreting and Translation in Education (ITE) Workgroup. One of the committees under this Workgroup is the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice Committee. As a volunteer serving on the committee, I started reflecting on my ethical decision making journey and the many codes and standards I observe. I discovered that, in over 10 years of interpreting, my ethical decision making has evolved significantly.

What is ethics?

Ethics is a set of standards of behavior that tell us how we should act in any of the many situations we may find ourselves in (SCU, 2009). Codes of ethics established specifically for interpreters and translators, usually establish accuracy, confidentiality, and other commonly expected behaviors for all in our profession, as well as domain specific behaviors or practices that are specific to the sector to which we are providing our services. For example, court interpreters are expected to observe courtroom protocols and refrain from engaging in activities that could be construed as the practice of law (NAJIT, 2016), while healthcare interpreters are expected to develop awareness of the biomedical culture and advocate when a patient's health, well-being, or dignity are at risk (NCIHC, 2004). Additionally, ethics is not our feelings, religious beliefs, laws, cultural norms, or a science (SCU, 2009).

In my transition into the translation and interpreting profession, I found that ethics was one of the scariest parts of my training. The way our codes of ethics and standards of practice were introduced made them seem abstract and confusing. I had started my career after formal codes and training had been established for years, so unlike veterans in our profession, I had no excuses for finding myself in situations for which I felt ill prepared. But why did it all seem so abstract and confusing?

How should ethics be applied?

I discovered that I had learned it all wrong. About 2 years into my interpreting career, I was introduced to Robyn Dean and Robert Pollard's work on decision making for interpreters, who teach that the roles based approach to ethical decision-making is not ethical, and that the "It depends" method of teaching ethical decision making, although indicative of the need to apply contextual factors in our ethical decision making, is not a helpful pedagogical tool and leaves learners as unprepared for true ethical decision making as they were before participating in the class (Dean and Pollard, 2011). However, even after learning that, I must admit that as an interpreter trainer I found myself falling into the "It depends" unproductive training trap. If I knew better, why was I failing other interpreters who were looking to me to help them address the demands of our profession? Time.

One of the reasons I believe our profession falls back to teaching rule-based decision-making that oversimplifies a complex and context-based process is a shortage of time for thorough training. Never the less, there are many formal and informal training opportunities to help us develop our senses and prepare us to apply a more sophisticated, proactive, and truly ethical decision-making approach. We should seek pedagogical opportunities that allow us to consider the environmental, interpersonal, paralinguistic, and intrapersonal demands of interpreting encounters and develop and apply controls to prevent escalation and reduce the likelihood of true ethical dilemmas from manifesting (Dean and Pollard, 2011). Some examples include degree, certificate, mentorship, internship, or coaching programs that implement Dean and Pollards Demand Control Schema and dialogic work analysis. As we do so, we will develop a natural instinct that helps us foresee challenges and address them in a way that considers all of the factors (the entire context) of the encounter.


Santa Clara University (SCU). (2009, May). A Framework for Ethical Decision Making. Retrieved July 04, 2020, from 

National Association of Judiciary Interpreters & Translators (NAJIT). (2016, September). Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibilities . Retrieved July 04, 2020, from

The National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC). (2004, July). A National Code of Ethics for Interpreters in Health Care. Retrieved July 04, 2020, from

Dean, R. K., & Pollard, R. Q., Jr. (2011). Context-Based Ethical Reasoning in Interpreting. In The Interpreter and Translator Trainer (1st ed., Vol. 5, pp. 155-182). Manchester, UK: St. Jerome Publishing.


  1. Hi, Gabriela. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog on ethics. The Dean and Pollards Demand Control Schema has been introduced in MasterWord's interpreter assessment. My question about Dean and Pollards(2011) is this: Does NBCHI board embrace this model? If so, to what extend? Thank you! - Catherine

    1. Glad you enjoyed reading it. The Demand Control Schema is a reasoning and ethical decision making method that, to my limited knowledge, has not been adopted or embraced by any particular interpreter organization. It is intended to be more of a teaching/learning tool for real world application. It is an alternative to the "it depends" ethical decision making teaching practice that helps students/participants quickly learn to make the best possible decisions, because they learn to consider a number of factors and practice making decisions by eliminating obstacles.

  2. Thank you, Gabriela. I got a chance to read about this ASL publication. I have to admit that authors on this topic are very systemetic. I am interested in applying this theory in a class that I teach. Thank you.

  3. Thank you, Gabriela. I got a chance to read about this ASL publication. I have to admit that authors on this topic are very systemetic. I am interested in applying this theory in a class that I teach. Thank you.


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