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Examining Ethics: Professional interpreters’ ethical standards improve reliability


Ardeth Houde

Attorneys representing certain client bases may regularly find themselves in need of interpreters to communicate with their non-English speaking clients. More often than not, limited resources, limited time and the limited availability of interpreters force attorneys to resort to the use of clients’ children or friends to provide interpreting services. Using people who are not qualified interpreters may result in the waiver of confidentiality and attorney-client privilege.

Perhaps more importantly, reliance on volunteer interpreters is likely to leave attorneys with doubts about reliability and questions as to whether the volunteer interpreters are providing accurate and unbiased translations. Interpreters not familiar with legal terms of art and concepts may struggle to relate those concepts to clients or elicit meaningful responses from clients. These concerns multiply when the volunteer interpreter has an interest in the subject matter of the attorney’s representation. The bias risk is so prevalent in matters involving family dynamics that the American Bar Association’s standards for representation in abuse and neglect cases require the use of professional interpreters.

Emily Brady-Santos, director of Language Services at the International Institute in Buffalo, who manages interpretation and translation services, provides some helpful information. Brady-Santos describes an interpreter as “[a] person who renders orally into one language a message spoken in another language. An interpreter is a fluent speaker of both languages who has completed training as an interpreter and is a professional who abides by specific ethical standards … The interpreter’s duty is to convey the ‘content and spirit’ of what is said.” A reliable interpreter should be trained as a professional and know the culture of the non-English speaker. According to Brady-Santos, all interpreters must be trained in ethical standards of practice. Ethical standards for interpreters include:

  • Accurate interpretation – “add and omit nothing”
  • Being bound by confidentiality to the client or person speaking
  • Being impartial to the speaker and not biased
  • Being respectful of the speaker
  • Being aware of the speaker’s culture
  • Performing within professional boundaries
  • Having knowledge of the various modes of interpreting
  • Being transparent – speaks up to correct the record if a correction is necessary

The New York State Unified Court System provides a Court Interpreter Manual and Code of Ethics on its website. The manual applies to those who interpret in the courtroom setting, and it includes an oath to either be signed by the interpreter in advance of a proceeding or administered by the court during a proceeding .The manual sets forth interpreters’ responsibility for multiple modes of interpretation, including simultaneous and consecutive interpretation, accuracy, impartiality, confidentiality, proficiency, professional demeanor, case preparation, addressing the court and correcting errors. Importantly, the manual also includes a Code of Ethics that interpreters must follow.

Of course, attorneys should not rely on Court interpreters for client consultation before or after court. Courtroom interpreters are paid by the Unified Court System to assist with courtroom interpretation only. Instead, attorneys in need of interpreting services are encouraged retain professional interpreters from agencies such as the Catholic Family Center’s language program, Language Intelligence, JR Language Translation Services, Inc., International Institute of Buffalo or some other local professional interpreting services provider. For those who require an interpreter for a deaf or hard of hearing client, the DEAFund offers members of the Monroe County Bar Association reimbursement for the cost of an interpreter for up to two hours.

Ardeth L. Houde practices in the area of family law and is a member of the Monroe County Bar Association’s Ethics Committee. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and not those of the MCBA or its Ethics Committee.