Putting the Ethical Interpreter in Cultural Context

By June 19, 2015 October 28th, 2017 For Language Professionals, Interpreting

Ethical dilemma: You are a passenger in a car driven by a close friend, and your friend hits a pedestrian. You know that your friend was going at least 35 miles an hour in a 20-mile zone. There are no witnesses. Your friend’s lawyer says that if you testify under oath that your friend was driving only 20 miles an hour, you would save him/her from any serious consequences.

Would you lie to protect your friend?

How you answer may vary tremendously depending on the part of the world in which you grew up. That became clear to researchers Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden Turner after they surveyed 15,000 managers in 28 countries across the globe with this very question. (Trompenaars, 1996)

“Of course, I would protect my friend! Why would I turn my back on him for such an arbitrary rule?”

“The right thing to do is to tell the truth. Laws are what keep society safe. Besides, it’s probably better for my friend in the long run to face the consequences of his actions.”

How do you feel about the two responses above? In Trompenaars and Turner’s survey to managers in the international community, an overwhelming majority of respondents from Venezuela and Korea answered that the right thing to do is to lie to protect a friend. In contrast, more than 95% of Americans and Germans held the opinion that it was their responsibility to tell the truth despite feelings of loyalty to their friend

Point of contention

In many situations, what is considered right largely depends on the cultural context in which such decision is made, i.e., one needs to take into account the cultural dimension that helps differentiate perspectives on how one weighs the obligation to follow rules versus the obligation to remain loyal in relationships. Cultures that put more weight on relationships are called Particularists, while those that ascribe to the obligation to follow rules are called Universalists.  (Trompenaars, 1996)

Particularistic Universalistic
Korea, Venezuela, Brazil, Russia, India, China

  • Tend to be Collectivistic , or group-oriented, cultures
  • People are not first and foremost citizens; they are friends
  • The most trustworthy person is the one who honors his/her obligations to in-group members and friends


Norway, Switzerland, US, Germany, Australia, Sweden

  • Tend to be Individualistic cultures where individual responsibility is emphasized
  • Citizens have obligation to adhere to standards that are universally accepted by society
  • A trustworthy person is one who follows their word or contract

Ethical challenge: Interpreters in universalist societies

In the United States, we consider someone a professional primarily if he/she is capable of following a code of ethics or a standard of conduct unique to his/her job. Doctors, lawyers, journalists, and interpreters all have standards that they agree to uphold. This reassures those who use their services that the professional is trustworthy. What constitutes trustworthiness to a particular person, however, is dependent on whether s/he leans towards either particularism or universalism.

Particularistic thinking influences, to varying degrees, the vast majority of limited English proficient (LEP) individuals who require interpreters in health care, legal, government, and community settings. For them, loyalty to in-group relationships trumps adherence to rules. Many interpreters themselves come from particularist cultures.

In situations involving an interpreter, LEP individuals may naturally feel a greater connection with the person speaking their language, creating a certain expectation of loyalty. This can make understanding the interpreter’s serious obligation to follow a code of ethics a bit mystifying to them.

Why can the interpreter not tell me what happened when she interpreted a doctor’s appointment for my wife?

Why won’t the interpreter give me his opinion about which medication I should take?

Why can’t the interpreter give me a ride home after my appointment?

Why did the interpreter refuse my gift?

Can you explain the answers to these questions in terms of particularist values?

Professional ethics differ from the general study of ethics in that they “are the standards that an organized group of people working in the same occupation develop and hold to be the ideal way to practice their ‘profession’” (Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions). The various codes for interpreters in the United States were designed and agreed upon by interpreters living in the country and bound by its cultural norms. Certainly, the structure of these codes lean towards a universalist approach, but their primary function is to preserve values held dear by those who require interpreting services, particularists and universalists alike. The principal goal of these codes, as stated explicitly in the NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct for sign language interpreters, is that “the interpreter will do no harm” (NAD-RID, 2005).

Cultural value of ethical interpreters

The ethical standards that professional interpreters agree to follow focus clearly on protecting the rights, dignity, and well-being of consumers. The benefits are clear, but can be difficult to convey to those from particularist cultures who have little experience working with interpreters. The key is putting these professional obligations in a favorable context.

An interpreter willingly gives up his/her own ability to interject, control, or otherwise interfere with the decisions of consumers. This serves to preserve the integrity of consumers’ own in-groups that might otherwise be compromised by introducing a third party — the interpreter — whose presence is required solely to facilitate communication. This is seen clearly when analyzing the standard of confidentiality.

Most particularist cultures are group-oriented. There is a stronger tendency in these societies to ostracize, at least to some degree, members of in-groups who act outside of what are considered the boundaries of correct behavior. While in public, individuals may hide serious illnesses or behaviors they consider shameful. Medical appointments may involve discussions of a patient’s stigmatized illness or private behaviors involving diet, sex, and the use of certain medications. An interpreter who does not keep that information confidential could contribute to a patient facing negative social consequences, including ostracism by the patient’s family or community (Sam, 2014).

Consumers seeing the value of ethical standards

Over time, a community that sees an interpreter who adheres strictly to the standard of confidentiality will develop trust in that person. While information sharing is highly valued in the Deaf community[1], confidentiality has become one of the most valued measures of an interpreter’s trustworthiness.

Having an established set of ethical standards also adds a level of predictability to the profession of interpreting. As a growing number of LEP individuals work with interpreters, and are exposed to and benefit from interpreter ethical standards of conduct, they see interpreters less as extensions of their in-group and more as trustworthy communication mediators. Professional interpreters are trustworthy and provide communication access to services in a way that benefits consumers and the communities they represent. Knowing how an interpreter is going to behave and being able to predict this consistently reduces consumer anxiety.

Even in international business, where ethical decisions typically are influenced by personal obligations to certain relationships, relying on codes to standardize practices is becoming more popular. These codes simply frame standards in the context of their value to business relationships. In Brazil, where jeitinho, defined as the middle ground between following rules and doing what is considered practical, is the dominant cultural norm influencing business, almost half of the country’s top 500 companies have seen the value of adopting official corporate codes of ethics (Ardichvili, 2013).

Interpreters supporting the value of ethical standards

If you are an interpreter, do you see the value that ethical standards represent in protecting the interests of the consumers you serve? What can you do to make this clear to those you encounter on the job and in the community? Here are a few suggestions/recommendations:

  • Talk positively to others about the code of ethics you follow
  • Explain that in North American culture, your trustworthiness as a professional interpreter is tied to how you value these ethical standards
  • Talk about these standards in terms of how they protect the families and communities for which you interpret
  • Show through your actions and in the way you talk about ethical decision-making how loyal you are to the standards of your professional interpreting community

By following these recommendations, you are putting the Universalist-based code of ethics in the context of Particularist values.

When Trompenaars and Turner posed their dilemma to managers in the international community, they were not trying to identify which cultures were more or less ethical. They were examining how culture shapes the process of decision-making. Both particularists and universalists want what is best for those they care about. They both value the trustworthiness of those with whom they must work. Competent interpreters are able to demonstrate trustworthiness by adhering to high professional standards that reflect clearly their loyalty to the communities they serve.


Works cited

Ardichvili, A. P. (2013, March-April). Building ethical business cultures: BRIC by BRIC. The European Business Review, 22-25.

Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions. (n.d.). Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from Illinois Institute of Technology: http://ethics.iit.edu/teaching/language-professional-ethics.

NAD-RID. (2005). Code of Professional Conduct. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from rid.org: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-_HBAap35D1R1MwYk9hTUpuc3M/view.

Sam, L. (2014, June 29). Asian shame and honor: A cultural conundrum and case study. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/minority-report/201406/asian-shame-and-honor.

Trompenaars, F. (1996, Autumn). Resolving international conflict: Culture and business strategy. Business Strategy Review, 7(3), 51-68.


[1] The “D” is capitalized here to indicate deaf individuals who consider themselves members of a community that uses American Sign Language and shares unique cultural traits that are very different to those of the dominant hearing culture in the United States and Canada.