Confidentiality and the Need to Talk

By March 11, 2016 June 18th, 2018 For Language Professionals, General

In a recent entry on the Integrity Languages blog titled Interpreters: We Need To Talk, interpreter Jonathan Downie discusses what he calls the silent contagion that affects both novice and experienced interpreters: a misguided feeling that in order to adhere to the tenet of Confidentiality, we must be some kind of secret agent. Having served in military intelligence, where “Top Secret” can be a matter of life and death, I can appreciate the metaphor.

A friend once asked for some support in applying for a job. I asked whether they had developed any training curriculum as the job posting required. “Yes, but it’s classified,” they said. So I explained that the fact that they had experience developing curriculum is not classified and would strengthen the application and their candidacy. While the content of the training was classified, other aspects of the work experience can be shared in a way that still protects the classified content in the training. Knowing what can be shared is as important in protecting the privacy of interpreted communication as it is in protecting a nation’s classified information.

In most professions, there are expectations of discretion that must be upheld. These expectations may at times be implicitly understood or explicitly stated in ethical codes, standards of practice, or the law. Those who have been infected by the silent contagion may argue that sharing any aspect of our interpreting experiences constitutes a breach of Confidentiality. I disagree.

We are able to accomplish the three important goals that the Integrity Languages post lists without breaching Confidentiality:

  • debrief and unload after difficult assignments
  • collaborate with colleagues and mentors
  • promote our profession


Just as not all aspects of a military intelligence or national security are classified or protected government secretes, not all aspects of an interpreting encounter are confidential. Setting ourselves apart as true professionals means that we understand the codes, guidelines, and laws as well as the information they intend to protect.

Take for example the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA): the intent of this law is to protect the personal and private nature of Protected Health Information (PHI). In order to apply it to our practice as interpreters, we must first understand what health information is protected, that which is individually identifiable health information. (45 CFR 160.103). With this knowledge, we are empowered to discuss health care encounters without breaking the tenet of confidentiality or the law. For instance, you can talk to a listening partner about a healthcare assignment but omit the details: patient’s name, diagnosis, appointment location, or date of the assignment. This is necessary and vital to protect the patient’s privacy.

When it comes to debriefing or unloading after a difficult or emotionally stressful encounter, consider this quote from a NAJIT Focus Group published in the organization’s newsletter:

“We’re trained so much on confidentiality…  And it is important… But just like every other profession that hears the not pretty side of human life, everybody else is taught that they need to create a support group, either professionally or nonprofessionally and how to get that outside of you. Where a lot of interpreters are not taught that and so they struggle with keeping it all inside. And that’s not good because that will affect your work. And I think that’s a shortcoming in interpreter training – that we’re not teaching future interpreters how to deal with fatigue, how to deal with the emotional wear and tear” (Rana S, Shah P, Chaudhuri K. Whose trauma is it? Vicarious trauma and its impact on court interpreters. Newsletter of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators. 2009-2010; 18(4):1, 6-9.)

Understanding the tenet of Confidentiality and the information that we must protect also allows us to effectively and ethically unload these emotional burdens, such as by talking with a listening partner who has also been trained on the professional tenet of confidentiality for interpreters. Talking and collaborating with colleagues helps us to improve our practice, and share experiences that promote our profession. For example, certain codes prohibit interpreters from discussing any aspect of their assignment when the case, conference, etc. is not open to the public. However, an interpreter can unload and verbally process an emotion they’re experiencing, or collaborate with colleagues on the best translation for a specific term without disclosing any details pertaining to the assignment.

We know that we must uphold the tenet of Confidentiality and we are invested in protecting the privacy of those we interpret for. It is time to go one step further and invest the required time in research and professional development so we are better prepared to knowingly apply this tenet and the corresponding laws. I implore you to revisit your code of ethics and standards of practice time and time again. Seek out professional development courses in ethics and confidentiality, and arm yourself with knowledge.

Share your thoughts in the comments below. We extend a special Thank You to Jonathan Downie for his insights!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.