Codes of Ethics

What can a code of ethics do for you, and how can it help you in your interpreting work?

These were questions that were asked of a panel gathered by Multilingual Corporation, on April 10th, and Julia was asked to be part of that panel!

Julia was the only speaker who was not a representative of an interpreter’s association or an LSP, and spoke as an individual freelance interpreter.

Here is the link to the entire panel discussion; Julia’s portion starts at 1:14:05.

Here is the transcript to what she said:

Thank you for having me!

And it’s a great honor to be a member of this panel.  I would have attended this entire event, even without being a panel member, it’s been so interesting!  I seem to be one of the only ones here representing myself, and freelancers in general I guess, and those who also came through my hads and KYW as well, because I did turn to my Know Your Worth community  to get a few tips on what I might tell you today. 

So what I’ll talk about is the very practical side of codes of ethics.  And in my view, a code of ethics – especially among freelancers – is what separates the professionals from the amateurs.  It shows that you actually take your profession seriously.

For example, for me, of course since I’m a member of AIIC, I abide by the AIIC Code of Ethics, and I use that quite a bit in my work.  But I even pointed to it when I wasn’t a member of AIIC, for a couple of reasons: 

  • First of all, I truly believe in what AIIC stood for, and this was a practical way of showing it.  And I was pretty much the only one among my colleagues who had ever heard that there was a code of ethics for interpreters.
  • Having a code of ethics – and recommended working conditions – from a larger association is something you can point to as an individual freelancer.  So if your client is trying to ask you to do something that you feel is unethical or that you feel is just completely wrong, you can point to these codes of ethics that belong to these larger associations and say, “Look, it’s not just me.  It’s a large group of people that says that this is wrong.” 
  • And really, codes of ethics – as we just heard from Janis – is a good way of familiarizing yourself with a new-to-you area of work.  When I first started working as a court interpreter back when I lived in Washington, DC, really we didn’t have a lot of criteria there, and with Russian there wasn’t even a test other than the one I used to get into the State Department.  So what I did was look at the codes of ethics for legal interpreting, for court interpreting, and for the various associations, so that I could find out how to behave professionally. 

So, in my case, what I have is a personal code of ethics.  And I think that that personal code of ethics helps you to stand out among your colleagues.  Let me give you an example:

If I commit to doing a one-day job for a client who knows, likes and trusts me, and then another of my clients who also knows, likes and trusts me comes and offers me 5 days, I will stick with that 1-day job because I made that commitment.  And to the second client I’ll say, “Look, let’s work around it, if you wish to, or I can recommend somebody to you.  But the way that I’m sticking with what I obligated myself to with this first client is exactly what I would do for you if you came along firstand somebody offered me a longer job.”  So it’s one way of making sure your clients know, like and trust you.

So I turned to my Know Your Worth community and asked them if they had personal codes of ethics, things that they followed that were not written down by associations that they might belong to.  And they broke down into 2 categories:

  • The first category is the behavior “on the job” or “in the booth.”
    • Be on time, or really, early.
    • Stick around to help your partner (and don’t zone out)
    • Stick around to listen, and to incorporate your partner’s vocabulary, so you are presenting a united front.
    • Prepare well so you know what is going on and can help your colleague
    • Don’t steal clients
    • Don’t head out shopping for an hour or so, and then come back saying “It’s your turn now!”
  • Whom to work for.
    • Many of my colleagues emphasized that they wouldn’t work for people or organizations whose values don’t align with their own.
      • So no working for far right wing parties for example, or for businesses that promote unhealthy behaviors or animal testing.
        • Obviously, this doesn’t mean that if an unannounced speaker from a far right party, for example, ends up taking the floor at a meeting you have agreed to interpret at

Another area where a universal code of ethics would come in handy is in remote interpreting.  Since practitioners are so scattered around the world, and are not all members of a single association.  Which means that you can find people ready to:

  • Work overlapping jobs,
  • Work alone for ages
  • Working for fees that are not a living wage, just to get the job

But we are all so happy to have work, or so scattered so there is no centralized information available, that we end up taking things online that we would never do in person.

And even if we were to extend a code of ethics, like for example AIIC’s code of ethics, to remote work, the other interpreters won’t necessarily be following it, so you end up with a situation where the person behaving ethically ends up bearing the burden of most of the work because the interpreter who is not behaving ethically, who is taking overlapping jobs or simultaneous jobs, obviously can’t show up on time for either of the jobs…

So remote interpreting seems to be a fertile ground to promote a good code of ethics to!

There are a couple of things on the negative side about having and working to a code of ethics.

  • You can’t really police them.  As Christiane said.  And even more so if you are an individual with a personal code.  You can only see consequences in how your colleagues and your clients treat you afterwards.
  • Having a code of ethics can hit your bottom line.  You won’t be the one taking overlapping jobs, thus earning more.  You won’t work alone, so may lose that job. Etc. etc. etc.

On the other hand, your clients will know you, like you and trust you, rehire you, and refer you.  And I can ask for what I consider to be an appropriate fee, so I don’t have to work overlapping jobs.

That’s it for me!  Thank you again for having me.

If you are interested in this topic, Julia has been invited to give a webinar on Ethics in Remote Simultaneous Interpreting for the American Translators Association, on 10 May 2023. Keep an eye out for the announcements!