Responding to Subpoenas: An Interpreter’s Growing Concern

by Whitney Gissell

Professional interpreters have long been skilled at navigating difficult ethical dilemmas. When facing these ethical dilemmas a swift, yet well thought-out decision must be made and is guided by the code of ethics. For example, in a true dilemma when one tenet of the code is in conflict with another, the interpreter must decide which tenet to sacrifice and which to uphold.  However, what is an interpreter to do when the code of ethics is in conflict with the law?

It has been a growing trend that interpreters are being subpoenaed to testify about something they may have witnessed or interpreted while on assignment.  This clearly puts the interpreter in violation of a tenet found in all interpreter codes of ethics; the tenet of confidentiality.  Protecting confidentiality is fundamental to the work of the interpreter.  Without absolute trust in this practice, the patient or consumer of services is less likely to be fully engaged in the encounter.  Nonetheless, it has been established that a subpoena for interpreters to testify as to the content of an assignment they interpreted supersedes the code of ethics.

If an interpreter is subpoenaed and asked to testify, the interpreter should appear before the court.  While the law trumps the code of ethics, there are a few things the interpreter can make the court aware of.  Since interpreters interpret for numerous assignments of varying subject matter and many consumers on a daily basis, it may be unlikely that the interpreter will be able to recall any specifics about the content of the interpretation of any specific assignment.  Additionally, according to one lawyer, the interpreter can educate the court on the interpreter’s code of ethics which requires confidentiality and that by testifying the court will be requiring him or her to break this tenet, which could in turn result in the revocation of his certification. Also, it can be made known that the interpreter may be jeopardizing his chances of obtaining future assignments and work opportunities by breaking this confidentiality tenet.

Finally, the interpreter should notify his interpreter certification body that he has been subpoenaed, and that this will require him to break confidentiality.  Doing so will give them preemptive time to handle the situation, should they receive a formal complaint.

Though still a rare occurrence for most interpreters, courts are increasingly issuing subpoenas to interpreters.  This is a reminder to the profession that we have great opportunity to educate ourselves on our legal requirements and limitations.

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