Academic journal article Translation & Interpreting

Condemned to Repetition? an Analysis of Problem-Setting and Problem-Solving in Sign Language Interpreting Ethics

Academic journal article Translation & Interpreting

Condemned to Repetition? an Analysis of Problem-Setting and Problem-Solving in Sign Language Interpreting Ethics

Article excerpt


Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. --George Santayana

Most sign language interpreters in the United States can likely recite it without thinking: 1964, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana. It is a reference to the inaugural meeting of concerned stakeholders of the then fledgling field of sign language interpreting (SLI) in the U.S. This gathering eventually led to the creation of RID, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. It is one of the first historical events taught to American Sign Language (ASL)-English interpreters about the profession.

This history appears to be of great meaning. It has been chronicled in published volumes (Ball, 2013; Fant, 1990). As an orientation to the field, many popular textbooks in ASL-English interpreting detail this history (Frishberg, 1990; Humphrey & Alcorn, 1996). Similarly, articles on the topic of ethics and professionalism frequently begin with a review of the history (Cokely, 2000; Hoza, 2003; Janzen & Korpinski, 2005).

These historical accounts depict familiar anecdotes of the sometimes unfavourable ways in which interpreters, mostly ad hoc and volunteers, acted in the days before the start of RID. Moreover, many set the turning point in the field not only with the start of RID but to the establishment of RID's Code of Ethics. The profession's past, particularly in the field of ethics, is remembered and recounted for students and new professionals in these texts and in the stories we tell about our work.

Dilemmas versus situated practice

Retelling the stories of the past is not unique to the field of sign language interpreting (SLI). Hill (2004), from the field of counselling, proffered that it is these stories of the past that has lead to their profession's standards of care. Standards of care (or practice) are those documents that form a corpus of ethical material within the field--an ethical code being a subset of the standards of care. Moreover, such historic narratives constitute a profession's raison d'etre (Hill, 2004). As Hill (2004) states:

   One primary goal for forming a profession is to limit practice to
   those who are aware of the misdeeds of prior practitioners and who
   are dedicated to using strategies that allow them to avoid those
   pitfalls in the future (p. 134).

While the task of maintaining established standards is valid, Hill (2004) suggested that this is only one part of professional ethics. He expressed concern that such an emphasis on the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour fails to advance a practitioner's ability to identify or accurately interpret an ethically troubling situation in the first place (Hill, 2004). Developing new professionals' moral sensitivity or the ability to accurately interpret the situation (Rest, 1984) is further complicated when ethical content presents to students pre-determined ethically troubling material (Hill, 2004). Pre-determined ethically troubling material is manifested mostly through the use of ethical dilemmas--relaying to the student a real or hypothetical practice scenario that ends with the implied question of, "What would you do?"

Dilemmas are used with frequency in the ethical education of SLIs. Encounters with Reality: 1001 Interpreting Scenarios (Cartwright, 1999, 2010) literally contains 1001 scenarios for discussions of ethical practices with students (Cartwright, 1999). For example:

A good friend is also an interpreter and she asks you if you would interpret for her Deaf husband in therapy. This worries you because it's so personal, but at the same time, you're honoured to have been asked (Cartwright, 1999, p. 2).

The use of the term "you" places the reader as the character in the scenario and feelings are assigned. What is ethically troubling is outlined for the reader.

Encounters with Reality (EWR hereafter) is only one of several texts available for use with students and practitioners that propose ethical dilemmas as a starting point for ethical discussions. …

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