Accuracy: it doesn’t mean what you think it means!

A few recent interpreting encounters have inspired me to take a deeper look at the meaning of some of the ethical tenets for professional interpreters. What I’ve found is that they do not always mean what we think they do at first look, and each tenet is not independent of the others. Rather, they build upon and borrow from each other.

Let's look at accuracy. One might interpret accuracy to mean a lack of errors:

Types of errors include:

This isn’t necessarily wrong. An interpretation that is accurate is more or less free of errors. But the tenet of accuracy according to IMIA’s Guide on Medical Interpreter Ethical Conduct says that we select “the language and mode of interpretation that best conveys the content and spirit of client messages” and “use skillful unobtrusive interventions to avoid interfering with the flow of communication.”

This second point is so important, as it defines accuracy in relation to two other tenets: professionalism, interpreter role boundary, and impartiality. An accurate interpretation does not involve mediation by the interpreter. Interpreting accurately means facilitating communication across language and culture within the role boundaries of the professional interpreter.

The IMIA Guide defines the guideline of “minimal intervention” as intervening only when there is misunderstanding, not disagreement.

So how do we skillfully intervene if misunderstanding occurs?

Let’s look at two strategies:

Using Expansion

Earlier this year, while I was interpreting during a genetic counseling session, the provider asked about a family history of miscarriages. In Spanish, the word for “aborto” can mean abortion or miscarriage, distinguished from one another only by the adjective: provoked or spontaneous (or by natural causes). When I interpreted the question, the expecting mother quickly answered, demonstrating a full understanding of the question. The father, however, responded with another question: does it matter if someone has had “un aborto?” His question indicated to me that he did not understand and was maybe thinking of an abortion, or “aborto provocado.” To avoid misunderstanding, I used the technique of expansion, interpreting his question as, “does it matter if someone has had an abortion or a miscarriage?” In this case, interpreting both potential meanings of the word used gave the genetic counselor the opportunity to address the misunderstanding herself.

Using the Clarifier Role

Sometimes a different form of interpreter intervention is necessary to maintain accuracy and avoid miscommunication. Two weeks ago, while interpreting during a speech therapy session, the language pathologist asked me to interpret each word as it was presented to the patient. Three flash cards later, the word presented was “will. In Spanish and many other languages, the future tense is a conjugation without a stand alone word, therefore there is no one-to-one equivalent of “will.” What did I do? In the third person, while exercising the tenet of transparency, I acted as the clarifier, explaining the linguistic issue to the provider, who opted in that case to have me interpret her explanation of the future tense in English.

Lessons Learned

In our role as professional interpreters, we have the responsibility to gain a deeper understanding of each of the tenets and learn how to apply them. In these recent experiences, my greatest take away is that when we use the tenet of accuracy to empower the other participants, we help provide more equitable access.

Let’s face it, our mere presence is an intervention. However, we can strive to limit our intervention and provide accuracy in a manner that empowers our consumers: the provider and patient. That’s how we close the health equity gap.

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