Personal Experience: Sign Language Interpreting Ethical Dilemma

~Authored by Anonymous: For confidentiality, some facts have been changed.

Just a short time ago I was preparing for my Test of English Proficiency and BEI Basic Performance Test.  What a huge accomplishment it was when I held that certification card in my hand.  It has not always been easy.  Lots of ups and downs and emotional highs and lows.  I want to focus on one sign language interpreting ethical dilemma that lead to a personal victory.

I know everyone has had an experience when a job went from “I am qualified for this” to “I need to get out of this situation and fast” in a matter of minutes.  Those situations arouse a variety of emotions: panic, fear, dread, power, confusion, and the list goes on.  In this particular situation, I felt panic wondering how I would get out of the situation while still maintaining Code of Professional Conduct.

Interpreting in an Educational SettingSign Language Interpreting Ethical Dilemma

I primarily work in a K-12 setting.  I am one of few interpreters in this district.  This particular student I was with that day had informed me and one other staff member of events that had happened the previous day.  The staff member shared the information with the social worker and I agreed that the social worker should be told.  Not knowing what was going to happen next, I didn’t think an investigation would be taking place that day.

In the Moment: The Demands and Controls

In the middle of class, there was a call over the phone saying the student was to go to the office for a meeting with the Child Protection Service (CPS). That got me in a panic because I knew I could lose my license if I interpreted the interview.  I shared that with the staff member and explained I needed to call my agency.  I felt I had so much power in the palm of my hand.  Talking to the agency, they did inform me of what I already knew: I was not qualified to interpret for a CPS meeting.

When we walked up to the office, I remembered everything the agency told me to say.  But when I saw the officer’s stern face, I froze.  Taking a breath, I proceeded to explain who I was and that I could not interpret the meeting due to my certification limitations.  They didn’t understand and questioned what I was saying.  I politely asked if they would like to speak with my agency.  The agency talked to the social worker and the CPS worker.

The next hour felt like an eternity. I was getting mad at myself because I didn’t feel I had the right thing to say.  I couldn’t think of resources in the moment to get a Master Level interpreter for them.  It was hard to hear the social worker talking on the phone saying that this student deserves to have a qualified interpreter at all times.  The worst part was knowing the student was in there wondering where I was and having to write back and forth with a stranger answering questions.

Saying no was hard but the amount of power I had in my hands was scarier than saying no.  I am thankful that in the moment I had a reliable company to help me with this sign language interpreting dilemma.

After the Fact: Retrospect

There are so many things I would change about this situation.  I wish I could have offered resources such as the VideoPhone on campus.  I wish I had spoken in a confident manner.  I wish I could have explained to the student what was going on outside of the room with a staff member present.

As shown through this experience and others, sign language interpreters need to know what their certification allows them to interpret.  Have the skill level standards saved on your phone ready to go. That way you will have to refer to when you are in a sign language interpreting ethical dilemma.  Keep a list of quick responses and practice them with a friend.  If you practice saying it before you have to, you won’t be as nervous when the situation comes up.  Last, never be ashamed to say no.  Be confident when you have to say no.  Trust your gut and make sure with each choice you make you are able to put your head on your pillow at night knowing you made the right ethical decision.


Additional Resources:

Beyond Ethics: Rules Versus Values for Sign Language Interpreters

MCDHH: Sign Language Interpreter Skill Level Standards


Photo Credit:

MT & Associates | Sign Language Interpreting Practice BBB Business Review