Do No Harm: Confidentiality in Community Interpreting

By June 12, 2015October 28th, 2017For Language Professionals, Interpreting

Look at any professional code of ethics for interpreters and at the very top of the list, you’ll find the tenet of confidentiality. The fact that it is so prominent signifies its connection to the most fundamental principle of all interpreter ethical standards: the interpreter shall cause no harm (NAD-RID, 2005).

Language serves two primary purposes: to facilitate social relationships and allow self-expression (Chomsky, 2004). It is the key to our success as a species. All humans regulate which information they wish to share with others: either to enhance social relationships or to be understood. When a person, government, or company believes that information may be damaging—particularly socially or financially—the threatened party either keeps private or actively works to limit the spread of that information.

Guaranteeing confidentiality is a way to prevent the harm caused by the dissemination of potentially damaging information to which a professional may have access. Community interpreters, because of the nature of their jobs, are often privy to highly personal details about a consumer’s health, wealth, education, and family. For example, if an interpreter is called to a person’s medical appointment at a certain location, the details of that appointment could cause harm to that person’s social, professional, and/or private life if they were made known to other parties. Thus, a professional keeps such details confidential.

Ethical standards emerge from a set of values and expectations shared by professionals within a certain industry and region. It’s not surprising then that in the U.S., many laws and policies reinforce the high value that this society places on privacy. As law supersedes any professional code of ethics, an interpreter who violates consumer confidentiality may, in many situations, be subject to serious legal consequences, as well as professional discipline.

These points raise interesting questions:

  • What federal privacy laws affect the work of interpreters in various settings?
  • If an interpreter or consumer originates from a region with different cultural expectations of privacy and confidentiality, does this alter the professional obligations in this regard?

How do Privacy Laws Affect an Interpreter’s Work?

Federal privacy laws affect the work of interpreters directly:

HIPAA: The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act protects the confidentiality and security of healthcare information contained in medical records and notes, as well as that disclosed during healthcare service, among other things (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). Interpreters assume the same responsibility as healthcare workers when interpreting in medical settings.

GLBA: The Financial Privacy Rule of the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act is an obligation of financial institutions (Federal Trade Commission). An interpreter must uphold the privacy agreement between a customer and a financial institution.

FERPA: The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act applies directly to information contained in educational records that may identify a student personally (U.S. Department of Education). Interestingly, these records include those that are handwritten, typed, on video/audiotape or film, as well as digital images maintained by an educational agency or institution, or by a party acting on its behalf. Interpreters, especially during IEP related meetings, gain access to this protected information and must keep this information strictly confidential.

Each act guarantees the privacy of consumers involved in these systems. Here, the U.S. legal system and U.S. interpreter ethical standards are compatible.

In addition to agreeing to follow a code of ethics, interpreters are often asked to enter into contracts with client organizations that commit them to follow these laws as they apply to their work.

When Cultural Values Differ between Consumers and Interpreters

Limited English proficient (LEP) consumers who require interpreters in healthcare, legal, government, and community settings, often come from cultures with very different values and norms. For many of them, loyalty to in-group relationships trumps adherence to what may seem to them to be arbitrary rules. Many interpreters themselves come from these cultures referred to as “collectivistic”. Knowing how to demonstrate the benefits of confidentiality, and being able to explain the ways in which it protects not only the individual, but the consumer’s community as well, can help build LEP consumer appreciation for the ethical interpreter.

How does an interpreter who is protecting individual privacy help a consumer’s community? In a country where a community must rely on the services of an interpreter, the interpreter becomes a third party with access to privileged information that a community member would otherwise keep private, for fear of negative social consequences or even ostracism. By maintaining professional confidentiality, an interpreter preserves the social integrity of the local LEP community.

For a more detailed explanation of culture’s influence on ethical reasoning, see the blog Putting the Ethical Interpreter in Cultural Context.

The Weight of the Principle of Confidentiality

Of all the ethical principles that interpreters must balance in the course of performing their work, confidentiality remains one of the most important. The reality involves the interplay of the values held by interpreters and consumers from vastly different cultures, the application of privacy laws, and the professional relationship between interpreters and the recipients of the services they provide. It is a critical principle that plays a major role in the preservation of the wellbeing of LEP consumers, the integrity of the communities to which they belong, and the legal obligation of the organizations hiring interpreters to provide services.

For a more detailed discussion, check out MasterWord’s June webinar, It’s Confidential! Privacy and Professional Ethics.


Works Cited

Chomsky, N. (2004). Language and Politics (2nd ed.). C. Ottero, Ed. Oakland, California: AK Press.

Federal Trade Commission. (n.d.). Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. Retrieved April 15, 2015 from Federal Trade Commission:

NAD-RID. (2005). Code of Professional Conduct. Retrieved April 1, 2015 from

U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Laws and Guidance: Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Retrieved April 15, 2015 from U.S. Department of Education:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Health Information Privacy. Retrieved April 15, 2015, from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: