Four Questions: On Interpreter Training, Ethics and Challenges
Properly trained interpreters and translators have never been in more demand. At the UA, the National Center for Interpretation strives to produce professionals to meet the needs of an increasingly interconnected world.

By Eric Swedlund, UA College of Humanities
Aug. 1, 2018


Tools of the trade: translation headphones await participants in a business conference room.
Tools of the trade: translation headphones await participants in a business conference room.

Recent news events, from high-level diplomatic relations to immigrant detention, have placed a spotlight on the role that interpreters and translators perform in an increasingly interconnected world. However, the importance and parameters of that role aren’t always understood, said Sonia Colina, director of the University of Arizona's National Center for Interpretation.

Since 1979, the NCI, which is housed in the UA College of Humanities, has developed programs centered on training and testing for interpreters and translators. The groundbreaking work of NCI’s founding director, Roseann Dueñas González, has defined the field of professional interpreting and created the national standards for medical and legal interpreter testing and training curricula.

With support from Agnese Haury, in 1983 González created the Court Interpreter Training Institute, which every summer provides intensive instruction to professional interpreters and translators and those preparing for federal and state certification exams.

With growing immigrant and refugee populations in the United States, properly trained interpreters and translators have never been in more demand, said Colina. The NCI has remained committed to upholding the rights of limited- and non-English speaking populations and ensure fair and legal access to all federal services, regardless of language, as required by law.

Q: What are the ethical responsibilities and concerns that translators and interpreters face in various situations?

A: In legal, medical and diplomatic contexts, interpreters are generally expected to just relay what is being said in another language and be as neutral – ‘invisible’ – as possible. They are expected to function as conduits rather than participants in the communicative exchange, thus their ‘invisibility’ claim. Consequently, any interpreted information that would be deemed confidential if there were no interpreter present would be expected to remain so. The interpreters’ code of ethics captures all of these expectations and roles.

While it would not be impossible for an interpreter to have to step out of the conduit role and to have to report on the interaction they facilitated, there would have to a solid legal basis for it.  Furthermore, that legal basis would have to allow for the breach of confidentiality in confidential exchanges, such as those protected by attorney-client privilege or HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). 

Q: What are the challenges of ensuring that interpreters and translators are available when necessary, especially in legal and medical contexts?

A: The most significant challenge is preparing and assessing qualified interpreters and translators, in particular in a country like the United States where bilingualism is widespread. Lay people tend to equate bilingualism with interpreting or translating ability, which is a misconception that can lead to more dangerous situations that the total absence of translators or interpreters.

Interpreters and translators are individuals who have a professional understanding of language and language ability. While all human beings have an innate ability for language and bilinguals have a natural ability to move from one language into another, not all have the skills and qualifications necessary to use language for professional purposes. Similar to what happens in other fields, professional interpreting and translation skills must be acquired through education and training and must be evaluated and assessed to determine the level of skill and competence of the translator or interpreter.

In order to prepare translators and interpreters and assess their competency, the NCI does research, develops curriculum and testing, and offers intensive training and testing for legal and medical interpreters.

Additionally, the NCI offers translation, interpreting and consultation services to the UA community and to external clients, as well as research and internship opportunities to graduate students. The NCI is an excellent resource for UA researchers who work with Hispanic or other limited-English proficient populations in the Tucson area and can help them develop and target their research instruments to their intended subject population.

Q: How important are properly trained and educated interpreters to ensuring the principle of equal access to justice is upheld?

A: Someone who doesn’t understand the language of legal proceedings cannot be said to be a participant in that process. Yet, making the information available in the language of the participant is not sufficient. If the information conveyed by an interpreter is incorrect or inaccurate, the legal process can lead to a miscarriage of justice. Since this would not happen in the case in which the defendant speaks the language of the court, equal access to justice cannot be said to have taken place. The quality and qualifications of the interpreter or translator are crucial in high-stakes situations such as legal and medical settings, and also in situations like diplomatic encounters or business deals.

Q: What are some of the particular challenges and nuances of training interpreters for specific contexts, like legal and medical situations?

A: Legal and medical interpreters, as well as any interpreter who works in a specialized setting, needs to possess significant knowledge in that context. In fact, some interpreters the NCI works with have law and medical degrees. This is a serious challenge, as it is definitely not possible to teach interpreters all that a lawyer or doctor knows, and the type of knowledge that will be needed in a particular interpreting event is unpredictable. As a result, we teach interpreters the most relevant and likely-to-be-needed content in combination with the skills to learn on their own and prepare for their interpreting assignments

Another challenge for an interpreter is to have to interpret for professionals who do not understand how interpreters work. In addition to advocating for customer education, the NCI’s training includes interpreter strategies to address situations created by clients who are uninformed about interpreting events.

The NCI has contributed to the professionalization of specialized interpreting in the United States for decades, through both innovative training initiatives and the development of certification testing. As the field evolves, we intend to continue providing the highest quality targeted training and testing to fulfill our mission to help ensure equal access to major societal institutions, such as the courts. 


Resources for the media

Media contact:
Sonia Colina
UA National Center for Interpretation
520 621-3798