Interview – Robyn Dean on Ethics: Metaphors or Values?

[Robyn Dean]

Robyn Dean

In preparation for the ATA conference, Marsel de Souza interviewed Robyn Dean, the Interpreters Division’s guest speaker at the ATA 57th Annual Conference in San Francisco. This interview focuses on the following sessions and much more:

  • Returning to Ethics: A Meta-Ethical Analysis of Community Interpreters’ Codes and Standards of Practice
  • Critiquing and Deconstructing Metaphors: A Normative Ethical Framework for Community Interpreters

She will also be participating in a panel on interpreting ethics:

  • You Did What? Making Sense of Conflicting Codes of Ethics, Part I and II.

The details on these sessions can be found at this link.

Read about the interview’s key concepts in the following abstract. Read the full transcript below

Robyn does not see a conflict between the ethical codes in interpreting. Instead, she believes that the diverse sources of information interpreters use to make decisions on ethical issues can cause confusion.

Sociolinguistic perspectiveEthicist perspective
Explains behaviors with metaphors.
Interpreters are:
• bridges
• conduits
• members of teams
Metaphors describe behavior without judgment and evaluation.
This perspective uses:
• values
• principles
• consequences of an action
• rules
These constructs are used to evaluate that behavior in light of the values that the setting and our profession offer as important.

Metaphors are really limited in their helpfulness. We should be asking “what are community interpreters responsible for?”

For years, our field has held to the value of “allowing service users to interact with each other in the most natural form that they can, without interruption or interference.”

The team member metaphor seems to be advancing the idea that the values of the setting matter to interpreters in light of their decision making. We have to consider the consequences of forfeiting one value that is important to us as a professional for another value that is also important to us. This is part of what Robyn will explore at greater length in San Francisco.

One thing Robyn found as she did her PhD research is that interpreters can’t speak the ethical language of the people they’re often collaborating with. Poorly constructed ethical thought (such as through the devices of metaphor) stunted interpreters’ ability to think critically about, reason through, and evaluate decisions.

The ethical decision making framework Robyn will discuss in San Francisco includes the concepts of conflicting values and professional principles as well as how to include the values of the setting in our decision-making. This framework also incorporates questions about responsibility for professional values and consequences of behavior.

Robyn has written about observation-supervision, a technique based on what medical professionals call problem-based learning. She can refer readers to articles on observation-supervision, which she has developed with a team. Scenarios are certainly helpful in some regards, but they’re also very static, they fail to present sufficient information for discussion, and people make assumptions about things that may or may not be true.

Robyn would argue that our profession should consider modifying the certification process, borrowing from what many other practice professions do. Performance tests can be coupled with other evaluation opportunities, such as portfolios, for certification. Performance tests that are just one-off tests only do so much to measure a person’s effectiveness. Portfolios are another way of getting access to the effectiveness of an individual’s skill set. Going back to the idea of supervision, if a new practitioner passes their minimum competencies, then the interpreter would be allowed to practice under the supervision of a certified practitioner. If we adopted such a design, then  interpreters who have passed a proficiency exam would work under the supervision of others and would have to regularly engage in supervision or reflective practice sessions. Then, after a certain number of hours of work under supervision, the interpreter would be able to apply for certification, which would allow them to work independently.


Robyn Dean has been a nationally certified American Sign Language interpreter for over 25 years specializing in health care. She has over 20 publications, all of which focus on the theoretical and pedagogical frameworks used to advance the practice of community interpreters. She is currently an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she is the lead instructor for the Institute’s postgraduate degree in health care interpreting. She also teaches courses for postgraduate degrees designed for sign language interpreters in Europe.

Interviewer: Marsel de Souza, Interpreters Division Assistant Administrator

Abstract editor: Helen Eby, Interpreters Division Leadership Council member


Robyn Dean on Ethics: Metaphors or Values?

 

Marsel de Souza: You will be delivering a number of talks at the ATA Conference San Francisco. You will be discussing conflicting codes of ethics in a two-part presentation. What can interpreters do to navigate this multitude of codes successfully?

Robyn Dean: Thanks for allowing me the time to talk with you – I am happy that we are having the opportunity to expand on some of these topics in advance of the conference.

What I would characterize as the conflict of ethical codes is not so much that ethical codes themselves conflict. Rather, I think it is that where interpreters get ethical material – that is, guidance or information about what they should or should not be doing in a given setting or context in Community Interpreting (CI) – can be confusing. And this material can come in different formats. The main goal for my two presentations is really to help interpreters understand material on ethics that’s coming from different places and formats. The people who have contributed to CI and ethical thought have been sociologists and sociolinguists; it’s important to note that the devices sociologists use are different than what ethicists use. What can be confusing is that when sociolinguists write about CI, they tend to use devices in their field, such as metaphors, to explain behaviors – “interpreters are like bridges,” “interpreters are like conduits,” “interpreters are like members of the team.” People start using metaphors as a way of describing in a very broad sense what an interpreter’s behavior has appeared to be when it was observed. Ethicists, however, would not suggest that metaphors be used as a way of guiding and evaluating the right action or the ethical behavior. You use constructs such as values, principles, consequences of action, and even rules. These are the devices used for evaluating a behavior, not just describing behavior. In other words, metaphors describe behavior without judgment and evaluation but these other constructs are used to evaluate that behavior in light of the values that the setting and our profession offer as important.

What I think interpreters find confusing, whether it is material from ethical codes, standards of practice, commonly used books in the field, is the mixing up of terminology and devices between these two different approaches. Describing behavior and evaluating behavior require the use of very different devices. So what my talk will hopefully do is help interpreters make that translation – pun intended – between the ethical material that perhaps sociologists and sociolinguists have been deriving and talking about over the years (usually through metaphors) and try and put it within the context of ethical thought – how you evaluate decisions, not just how you describe decisions. In my talk, I am going to set forth the framework about how to begin to do that within our profession.

MdS: You described the evolution of metaphors to refer to interpreters. In the beginning, there was the “helper” and “conduit” metaphor, and it seems to me that the current term is the “team member.” Is this the current state of play?

RD: I would argue that this has a lot of power in the sign language interpreting world and in the spoken language interpreting world as well, yes.

MdS: Do you think that this is a satisfactory metaphor right now? Or do you think that we will be eventually shifting to a more appropriate metaphor? What is the next step in this evolution?

RD: Metaphors are really limited in their helpfulness. I don’t think metaphors should be used – though they have been used – as a way of documenting the history and development of CI. But of course, I’m coming specifically from the sign language interpreting (SLI) field. A series of metaphors has been used to document the change in ethical thought within the field over several decades. I would say is that in order to go forward we have to stop that – [laughs] – and instead begin to articulate these thoughts through ethical constructs. We should be asking, “What are community interpreters responsible for?” If indeed interpreters are working like members of the team when they work in community settings, then they seem to be saying that interpreters have some responsibility to the values of the setting they walk into. In essence, I think this is what this team member metaphor is trying to convey.

“[It] is not so much that ethical codes themselves conflict. Rather… where interpreters get ethical material …can be confusing.

What do people really mean when they say, “the interpreter was acting as a member of the team”? It’s hard to identify the actual behavior, because metaphors are intended to be “meta” of above. Did it mean that the interpreter reached in and helped the surgeon remove the cancerous tumor? Probably not! It probably meant that the interpreter was behaving in a way that revealed the values of the setting, perhaps in ways that might have conflicted with the values traditionally associated with interpreting.

For example, if an interpreter has the value in one hand from interpreting that says to us “allow service users to interact with each other in the most natural form that they can, without interruption or interference” – that’s been one of the values in our field for years. The metaphor we have used to refer to that concept has been “interpreters are conduits”, “we’re merely bridges”, “we’re the voice box of others” – that’s the way people come to talk about that. But if we translate that from a sociological realm into a values-based realm it’s referred to – I would argue – as allowing people to engage with each other in a natural way that discourages interference from the interpreter. That’s a typical value we have as community interpreters. But sometimes that value can come into conflict with other values of the setting. I’ll use sign language as an example: it is not unusual for deaf people when they are ‘listening’ or watching the interpreter to nod their head. IN this instance, nodding their head does not mean ‘yes’, it means ‘I’m with you’ or ‘I understand what you’re saying.’

If a doctor were engaging that deaf individual in a conversation about informed consent – “do you want this treatment?,” “this is what this treatment’s going to look like,” “here’s what this alternative treatment would look like,” etc. – and if the deaf person were nodding their head, the doctor might reasonably assume that the deaf person was agreeing to whatever treatment was being proposed. So one very well known value in the medical setting is informed consent. If I, as the interpreter, don’t have the sense that this deaf individual is necessarily agreeing with the doctor but merely understanding the doctor, and at the same time the doctor is assuming agreement, then the value to allow people to behave as they naturally would without interference is forfeited. Another value, the value of informed consent trumps this value in terms of immediate importance. Now, in light of the team member metaphor, one could argue that I am responding to the values of the setting, in this case medicine.

This becomes generalizable to the values inherent in community settings. The team member metaphor and its use in the field seems to be advancing the idea that the values of the setting matter to interpreters in light of their decision-making. That is a quick example of the ways in which we can understand the ‘team member’ metaphor, which I will go into greater detail during my presentations. I will also expand beyond this metaphor to talk more generally about how practitioners of CI can adapt these devices from the field of sociolinguists to the field of ethics. In the field of professional ethics, it is very common to explore value conflict or what Aristotle referred to as ‘Incommensurable Values’; it is a natural component of decision-making. We have to consider the consequences of forfeiting one value that is important to us as a professional for another value that is also important to us. This is part what I will explore at greater length in San Francisco.

As a direct response to your question of “where we go from here?” I will suggest that we stop using metaphors as a way of talking about professional ethics and instead we identify as practice professionals. In other words, as practice professionals, we understand the unique contextual factors that are necessary for being able to make good and effective and ethical practice decisions.

MdS: It seems to me that as we evolve through the metaphor spectrum we don’t really have a clear-cut distinction between one metaphor and the previous one. It seems to me that in many situations without any culturally critical aspects involved, you can have the interpreter as a conduit, but they may need to put on the team member cap depending on what comes up, so you would have a kind of combination of metaphors.

RD: Yes. I agree with that, it’s confusing. But in part, it is confusing because of the way you have explained it – through metaphor – putting on one cap versus another. Imagine if we were talking to a clinician and we were describing our behaviors to them in these ways. They would have no clue as to what we were saying, “Sometimes I’m a conduit and sometimes I’m a member of the team.” However, what they would understand is value conflict. For example, “Sometimes I prioritize values such as this, and sometimes I have to prioritize values that come from the setting such as informed consent, patient safety, patient education, etc.” So I don’t disagree with your characterization of constantly changing caps in the spirit of describing behaviors. That’s what we’re doing from a sociolinguist’s standpoint. How do we begin to talk about those things differently – as they do in the field of professional ethics? One thing I found in my PhD research is that interpreters can’t speak the ethical language of the people they’re often collaborating with, and that’s a problem. And the other problem I found is that poorly constructed ethical thought (such as through the devices of metaphor) stunted interpreters ability to think critically about, reason through, and evaluate decisions. If I am talking about values that are forfeited versus values that are prioritized, then that makes me both aware of and responsible for one of the values in a given decision that is forfeited. That sets me up to now wonder if there is anything I can do to mitigate those negative consequences. But if I talk in terms of ‘Which cap am I going to wear? The conduit hat or the team member hat?’ There’s no opportunity for me to ask ‘Was that a good decision or what were the negative consequences of that decision?’ If I am merely understanding my behaviors as moving between caps, when is there an opportunity to say ‘I shouldn’t have done that’ or ‘Maybe I should have done that’, whereas value conflict automatically forces you to move into the place of ‘So what are the consequences of forfeiting that value?’

MdS: You mentioned the word ‘ethics’ a few times. You said that community interpreters and sign language interpreters are constantly faced with decisions they have to make based on values and this involves ethics. In one of your sessions in SF you will be discussing an ethical framework. Can you give us an overview of this framework?

RD: What I’ve said thus far is an introduction to that framework; this idea of value conflict and professional values as well as the values of the setting being included in our decision-making. The other part of the framework are questions about consequences of behavior and responsibility for professional values. One important aspect of decision-making noted by ethicist James Rest was that it’s not that practitioners make poor decisions; it’s that they fail to understand the situation accurately to be able to find a fitting response. He referred to this as a professional’s ‘moral sensitivity’. What he suggested practitioners often lack is a developed sense of ‘moral sensitivity.’ I would agree with him and argue that interpreters are to be blamed per se, but it is the nature of community interpreting – we are called in to be a guest in everybody else’s home – to use a metaphor [laughs].

As a result, there are lots of things that are true about that setting and that we should be able to consider as important to our work without even knowing they exist because we’re not as familiar with them. Obviously, interpreter training would advance interpreters’ ability to identify those salient factors. So part of the ethical framework I’ll be talking about refers to the importance of understanding those contextual factors, being able to talk about them in theoretically-based ways, but then to be able to move into this idea of ‘How do we understand the consequences of our decisions in light of this context and how do we follow through on our responsibility to the values?’

An additional important aspect that I will talk about in terms of this ethical framework is the importance of interpreters to be willing to quickly respond to resulting demands that emerge out of values that get forfeited.

MdS: Let’s talk about education. Last year the ID conducted a survey of members covering multiple topics. One of the questions was about ways of helping our members develop. A significant number of respondents mentioned education and certification programs. Given the dilemmas and challenges you described, what advice would you give if you were to assist in the design of an effective CI training program?

“The test is designed as most tests are – as a performance-based test passing interpreters at minimum competencies.

RD: I’ve already done this to some degree and I have written about a technique based on what medical professionals call ‘problem-based learning,’ and the technique that we’ve developed – and we can refer readers to articles on this topic – is referred to as ‘observation-supervision.’ In addition to all the important lectures and didactic materials that are made available to interpreting students, I would argue that experiential learning, getting direct access to community settings they will eventually work in. By observation, I do not necessarily mean observing interpreters but actually just listening to the native language of the country – in our case, English – listening to two English speakers in that particular service setting and getting access to that. We’ve done that in both medical and mental health – these are my two areas of expertise. As an educational approach, we send interpreters to follow clinicians in psychiatry in with their English-speaking patients. What the interpreter observers are expected to do is collect material through completing a form that identified the important factors about that practice setting, about the interaction, about the individuals, etc. Then with that completed form, with that information, they join group meetings of maybe 8 to 10 other practicing interpreters who are also doing observations. All have the chance to present the material that they have observed, while maintaining confidentiality. Then, as the instructor leading these sessions, we use this practice material in a hypothetical nature, like ‘What if that patient or defendant or employee had been deaf…how would you handle this? What kinds of decisions did you make, and where in this situation would you have taken action?’ This way, we begin to develop interpreters’ abilities in essence to be better at ethical sensitivity and ethical judgment, — to be better able to know what typical service settings look like and how to begin to behave effectively in those before they start working in them. I would argue that more experiential learning opportunities would be very helpful for interpreters in that regard. This type of educational approach we write about repeatedly is called different things, such as case conferencing…

MdS: …reflective practice.

RD: Exactly. And all those techniques are intended to allow the interpreter to use the practice setting material – whether it’s because they’ve interpreted or because they’ve observed it – as a way of starting from the conversation. One of the problems with using ethical dilemmas and scenarios is that they don’t allow the interpreter to pick up on – by way of experiencing it – the really good nuance that you only get by being there. Scenarios are certainly helpful in some regards, but they are also very static, they fail to present sufficient information for discussion, and people make assumptions about things that may or may not be true. I’ve written about this problem with using ethical dilemmas as a tool in another article that I’m happy to share with readers.

MdS: You are a Certified American Sign Language Interpreter. Again, one thing that many respondents to the survey mentioned was certification opportunities. Can you speak a few words about this Certification?

RD: Sure. Our national organization in the U.S. is the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). RID has been certifying interpreters since the 1960s and 1970s. We’ve had several iterations of our certification test. The test is designed as most tests are – as a performance-based test passing interpreters at minimum competencies. That is, if you pass, RID is not necessarily saying that you are therefore able to work in any service setting or you’re necessarily going to be good in a particular setting – they’re merely saying that you meet the level of minimum competencies expected from a certified interpreter. If readers are interested in how we conceive of a certification, I think it is important to recognize this idea of minimum competencies.

The other thing I would argue that our profession does not do well and I would encourage other professionals to consider, again, borrowing from many other practice professions, is that performance tests can also be coupled with other evaluation opportunities, such as portfolios. Performance tests that are just one-off tests only do so much to measure a person’s effectiveness. Portfolios are another way of getting access to the effectiveness of an individual’s skill set.

The other component that I would like to see happen in certification is related to this idea of supervision. That is, if a new practitioner passes their minimum competencies, then the interpreter would be allowed to practice under the supervision of a certified practitioner. If we adopted such a design, then newly certified interpreters would work under the supervision of others and would have to regularly engage in supervision or reflective practice sessions. Then, after a certain number of hours of work under supervision the interpreter would be able to apply to be certified, which just means to work independently. What can help to assure quality is not just through a performance test, which, of course has value, but it doesn’t answer whether or not interpreters are good at dealing with and navigating – especially in community settings – the social and setting-specific practices within that setting.

Our national organization is one of the very first in the world to have established an ethical code and certification for CI. The problem with being the first is that you don’t always do it the best, so I would suggest that people learn from that. Right now, we have the competency performance test and we also have a component where you’re given a series of three, four, or five scenarios and are asked to say what’s the ethical thing to do. Again, I find that not to be very reflective of people’s good critical thinking skills and therefore should not be used as a component of the test, but instead, looking to other professions, use this idea of supervised practice as a hurdle a practitioner would have to get over in order to practice independently. So it would be good as a quality assurance process.

MdS: I think we’ve come to the end of this very instructive and insightful conversation. Thank you very much, Robyn.

Photo courtesy of Robyn Dean.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.ata-divisions.org/ID/interview-robyn-dean-on-ethics-metaphors-or-values/

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