911 Interpreter Violated Protocol: An Ethics & Professional Commentary for Medical Interpreters

A few days ago, Fox 8 published an article reporting that an interpreter had committed a severe protocol violation that questioned the legitimacy of a caller who had been severely injured by a gunshot during a 911 emergency call.

Arquimedes Diaz’s Story

A Spanish speaker called 911 for assistance after being shot in his car. The 911 dispatcher struggled to understand him at first, but a couple of seconds later, they connected the call to a Spanish interpreter. Pedro was bleeding profusely from his gunshot wound and passing out at different points during the call. So much so, that the 911 Dispatcher had to reconnect the call several times. As the dispatcher tried to get Pedro’s address to send help, the interpreter told the dispatcher that Pedro was faking his injury and that he was not in a real emergency. It turns out that Pedro was actually shot and severely injured. Luckily, the paramedics did arrive and help him, but he’s now paralyzed and on physical therapy. 

This is a very unfortunate situation for Pedro, and it’s made even worse by the interpreter stepping out of their role and misjudging the situation, which could have prevented Pedro from receiving the help he urgently needed.  

Pedro’s interpreter was certainly fluent in English and Spanish, yet it’s fair to say that her behavior was highly unprofessional. This goes to show that just because a person speaks two or more languages, it doesn’t mean that person is a professional interpreter!  

What makes a professional interpreter?

Aside from having excellent language and communication skills, a professional interpreter adheres to the expected standards of practice in their field, including principles for ethical behavior.

Although these standards may vary slightly according to the field of interpretation and the country they’re practicing in, there’s a consensus that all interpreters must:

  1. Have clear role boundaries and do not take on the roles or tasks of other professionals. 

The main role of an interpreter is to facilitate communication. For example, an interpreter can render a doctor’s explanation of a patient’s test results from one language to another, but they can’t diagnose the patient nor explain the test results using their own words as they aren’t equipped with the clinical skills to give that information accurately. That would be like putting a square peg in a round hole! In a similar way, Pedro’s interpreter determining the legitimacy of a 911 call is outside of the interpreter’s scope of practice of facilitating communication. Determining whether it’s a real or a fake call, would actually be one of the tasks assigned to 911 dispatchers. 

  1. Be a neutral party during the encounter. Interpreters remain impartial and unbiased in their work. They refrain from taking sides, offering advice, or expressing their personal opinions. Moreover, they ensure that their beliefs do not interfere with their attitude or interpreting performance. 

This principle of impartiality, along with role boundaries, is embodied in the U.S. Codes of Ethics and Standards by NCIHC, IMIA, and CHIA.

Interpreter AssociationImpartialityRole Boundaries
Interpreters strive to maintain impartiality and refrain from counseling, advising, or projecting personal biases or beliefs. 
The interpreter maintains the boundaries of the professional role, refraining from personal involvement.
CHIA Interpreters are aware of the need to identify any potential or actual conflicts of interest, as well as any personal judgments, values, beliefs, or opinions that may lead to preferential behavior or bias affecting the quality and accuracy of the interpreting performance.Interpreters demonstrate professionalism and integrity by acting to respect the boundaries of the professional role and to avoid becoming personally involved to the extent of compromising the provider-patient therapeutic relationship.
IMIA Interpreters will not interject personal opinions or counsel patients.(In the IMIA Standards of Practice. Under Duty C: Ethical Behavior C-6 Maintain professional integrity)
Refrains from fulfilling any
functions or services that are not
part of the interpreter role

Impartiality is critical for maintaining people’s trust and respecting their message.  Take, for example, an interpreter who adds or removes words from a message to match their own beliefs and opinions. You couldn’t trust that you’re getting your message across, nor that you’re getting the full picture of what other people are saying. And it would be even harder to trust an interpreter who 

Interpreters are in a critical position where certain comments and behaviors can significantly influence the outcome of an encounter. What’s more, interpreters should act with the goal of supporting the health and well-being of the person with LEP. What if the 911 dispatcher had hung up as a result of the interpreter’s misjudgment? Pedro probably wouldn’t have survived. 

The principles of impartiality and role boundaries are introduced in any basic medical interpretation training, and professional interpreters are well-acquainted with the Codes of Ethics and Standards of Practice for Medical Interpretation, so how come this interpreter ended up servicing this call? 

The Problem of the Race to the Bottom in the Translation & Interpretation Industry

It’s well known in the interpreting community that there’s pressure to reduce interpreting costs, which materializes into lower rates for professional interpreters and the hiring of unqualified interpreters for a cheaper rate. This has been nicknamed ‘’the race to the bottom,’’ and it has been a huge problem for interpreters both in the U.S. and outside the U.S. 

When high-quality services are not a priority for clients, professional interpreters are pushed out of the profession and replaced by an unqualified workforce. 

Though I wouldn’t put blame on individual interpreters, but on the system that allows these interpreters to be servicing patients in critical situations. 

Especially the companies and clients who hire them without any regard for patient safety or interpreting quality, which ultimately hurts the community with LEP and interpreters’ livelihood. 

And this is quite a contrast with the constant revenue growth the translation and interpretation industry has every year. I think we need to put quality and professionalism at the forefront, and for that, you need to pay interpreters what they’re worth; for their years of experience, training, knowledge, and skills.

It also seems like many people outside the interpretation world don’t really understand the importance of language access until we have news of the dire consequences of poor language access, as we saw just now in the 911 call and many other cases. 

This situation with the 911 interpreter can also potentially have a negative impact on the image people have about interpreters; unfortunately, this interpreter’s behavior makes us look bad and untrained as a professional community, even if most or many of us are very well-trained and skilled. This is especially true for phone interpreters who have gained a bad reputation due to many companies hiring untrained, unqualified people to act as interpreters.

We do need more stringent requirements for interpreters entering the workforce, whether that is interpreting certification, licensure, or training requirements so that every person with LEP doesn’t have to suffer the consequences of a poor interpretation.

It’s important for you as an interpretation student or professional to be acquainted with the challenges the profession is facing so that you understand the context of your professional community and think about ways to make big or small contributions, towards the improvement of the profession either by getting involved in the community, joining a professional interpreting association and helping them in their mission, staying up to date with language access policies and educating those around you about the importance of interpretation and their language access rights. I’m sure you will find a way of contributing that makes you tick!

We have a long way to go, but as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step, and we can go further when we go together. That’s part of the reason I’ve been working on something called ‘’Remote Interpreters of the Americas’’ which you can become part of too!

If you’re interested in analyzing more ethical scenarios and dilemmas like this, you can also join our Ethics Club to help you develop ethical decision-making skills for medical interpreters.

Until the next time,


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