Ethical Development: A Sign of the Times for Sign Language Interpreters?

April 3, 2012

How may our profession break out of rule-based approaches to our work and instead embrace models of reflection and supervision? Robyn Dean uses the lens of prophetic literature to ask how the future of interpreting is being shaped today.

Prophetic words do not solely come from scriptural texts and prophetic messages do not only come from spiritual leaders.  A prophetic message can be found in the profane moments of our daily lives: a song on the radio that brings comfort, an overheard remark of a child that is innocent yet profound, or an advertisement on a billboard that supplies a sought-after confirmation. Prophetic messages often act like breadcrumbs to children lost in the woods – “it’s okay; you’re on the right track.”

Yes, I am well aware that Street Leverage is a site about sign language interpreting issues and perhaps readers are wondering how prophecy applies to our work. Please, bear with me.

The definition of the word prophetic is multi-layered. In it’s most common form, prophetic describes the prediction of events in a future time. However, during my graduate studies in theology, I came to appreciate the nuanced meanings of prophetic.  Prophetic can also convey an appreciation that messages – regardless of their origin – can be timely or that prophetic messages have a quality of timelessness (e.g., “this too shall pass”). With these thoughts in mind, allow me to highlight some prophetic markers that appear to be breadcrumbs to the profession, albeit placed across a quarter of a century.

Prophetic Literature

In 1986, Fritsch-Rudser published an article in RID’s Journal of Interpretation, The RID Code of Ethics, Confidentiality and Supervision[1]. The author proposed a set of problems associated with the Code and a possible solution – a professional development tool called supervision. At the time of the article, Fritsch-Rudser was responding to concerns that the mere seven-year old Code was in need of revision. Fritsch-Rudser defended the Code by stating that the problem was not with the document but in how interpreters understood and applied it. No code can relieve professionals from the responsibility of thinking, deliberating and deciding (Cottone & Claus, 2000; Fritsch-Rudser, 1986[2]).

As an example of how the Code is often misunderstood, the author cites an example of a sign language interpreter who ignored the request of a speaker, asking him to introduce himself to the audience – the interpreter claimed that he did not respond because the Code left him no choice.  According to Fritsch-Rudser, this is an example of how commonly we misattribute ideas that do not exist in our Code of Ethics. In reality, they are more generated by popular notions emerging out of a conduit-based conceptualization of interpreting.

Fritsch-Rudser (1986) points to a then current study by Heller, et al (as cited in Fritsch-Rudser 1986) on interpreter occupational stress where sign language interpreters reported strain due to role conflict, isolation, and frequent exposure to emotionally charged situations and dynamics. As a result, interpreters sought out other colleagues to talk about their work, “to get feedback and to lessen the impact of emotional experiences” (Fritsch-Rudser 1986, pp. 50). Given the Code of 1979, this was perceived of as a breach.Illustration of the Benefits of Reflective Practice

As an answer to this dilemma (the interpreters’ need to seek guidance/support and the Code’s prohibition), Fritsch-Rudser proposed that the profession adopt formal supervision, modelled after mental health professionals’ use of confidential supervision[3]. Through a trained supervisor, interpreting practitioners’ ethical development is intentional and foregrounded. They are provided with a structured system in the delivery of cases, which maintains confidentiality; and through a careful process, practitioners are provided with the needed validation and guidance.

After proposing supervision as a potential tool of professional development, Fritsch-Rudser concludes his article with, “RID would have to approve formal supervision of interpreters for it to become a reality. I hope this paper will provide the impetus for discussion within our organization and profession to make that possible” (Fritsch-Rudser 1986, pp. 51).

It’s been twenty-five years since this publication and yet, with some minor changes to the titles, the names and the dates, indeed, this article could be published today. The message is timely and undoubtedly prophetic: Do sign language interpreters still point to a rule as adequate justification for a decision? Do sign language interpreters still maintain their conduit nature, merely there to facilitate communication? Do sign language interpreters report that their work has a negative impact and takes an emotional toll? Do sign language interpreters still (mis)perceive aspects of the Code and quietly work at what they imagine are cross-purposes[4]?

While each to varying degrees, all can be answered in the affirmative. However, we must be careful in placing blame. Prophetic texts are to be read in their entirety. It clearly reads that in order for these to change, formal supervision needs to be approved and adopted by RID.

Perhaps we can interpret this message in today’s context as: No one learns to make good decisions because they are handed a list of rules or even a step-by-step decision-making model to follow.  No one appreciates the complexities of interpreting decisions through a series of ethical dilemmas that are plucked from their contexts, devoid of human relationships, and under-appreciative of the co-constructed nature of human dynamics. And lastly, no one becomes a critical thinker in two or even four years nor when they are left alone to practice independently – in a classroom or in a booth – without the provision for regular reflection amidst those who know and do the work. Let us not blame interpreters; the profession is still in need of formal supervision.

Timeliness: Prophetic Posts

I am grateful to my colleagues, Anna Witter-Merithew and Kendra Keller[5] for recently championing and charging us to consider reflective practice and supervision as not only emotionally necessary and ethically imperative but as the vehicle through which interpreting practitioners develop sound judgment. I was also gratified to see theirs’ and readers’ comments on the helpfulness of demand control schema in this regard. Supervision, case conferencing and reflective practice in interpreting have become increasingly popular topics (citations [6][7][8][9]).

In addition to manuscripts, there are pockets across the US and in other countries where sign language interpreter supervision happens. Decision-making models proffered by sign language interpreting scholars such as Hoza (2003[10]), Humphrey (1999[11]), Mills Stewart & Witter-Merithew (2006 [12]) and Dean & Pollard (2011[13]) provide us with sufficient roadmaps pointing out the worthy landmarks to consider toward a sound decision.  But, let’s be clear, we can have a destination (ethical decisions) and a road map (decision-making models) and a vehicle (formal supervision) but unless we have drivers, people happy for the journey, we’re not going anywhere.

Sign Language Interpreters Participating in a Supervised SessionProphetic Events

We have developed a small band of happy drivers and passengers.  As just one example, in Rochester, NY, we’ve been offering formal supervision to practitioners and students through the case analysis tool of demand control schema for several years. We’ve had many successes: a trained cohort of practitioner supervisors who offered supervision sessions to hearing and deaf interpreters; we were awarded the RID mentoring grant which allowed us to introduce new interpreters and deaf interpreters to group supervision; we ran joint hearing and deaf interpreter groups led by both hearing and Deaf practitioners; we provided supervision to groups remotely through videoconferencing equipment; our trained cohort found themselves in institutions – educational, post-secondary, medical, and VRS providing supervision to interpreter employees. And as mentioned above, some pockets outside of Rochester and the US[14] are also trudging along in their commitment to supervision, even if informally.

We have also met obstacles along the way: The current structure of RID’s certification maintenance program does not easily facilitate sponsors to support it nor for members to easily get CEUs; no infrastructure exists to support supervision after graduation, that is, most institutions do not consider it apart of interpreters’ job duties to attend supervision; and lastly and likely the most influential reason, it’s just plain not what sign language interpreters are used to.

Sign language interpreters are used to answering hypothetical ethical scenarios so pointed that the “right answer” is obvious, they are used to attending one-off workshops that compactly provide them with CEUs, they’re used to venting to their close colleagues about the struggles of work, and they’re used to working in isolation, left to evaluate effectiveness usually by whether or not someone complained about them. And they’re right.  Supervision requires a cultural shift – what Aristotle would deem habituation.

Supervision throughout sign language interpreter education programs and a ready infrastructure upon graduation supporting them to certification would be needed to create an appreciation for the activity and an allegiance to its continuation (Stocker, 1981[15]).  Formal supervision would be a more effective and responsible approach to reaching independent practice than the status quo we are used to. And, mind you, it was proposed twenty-five years ago.

Prophetic Voice: The Times They are A-Changin’

Alas, those of us with twenty plus years of experience will not likely be the drivers of supervision. Many of us have formed bad habits in how we talk about the work, how we frame work problems, and most concerning, in how we talk to each other.  Most of us likely developed our professional skills under the technical profession focus (Dean & Pollard, 2005[16]) and the Master – Apprentice mentality (Feasey, 2002[17]). More than likely, we have taken our place in the hierarchy and learned to talk to others in the way that we’ve been talked to. But, as Bob Dylan the accidental prophet once suggested, we can either “lend a hand or get out of the way.”

I was compelled to write on this topic because of the timeliness of an exciting new phase in sign language interpreter supervision. Within the next few months, interpreters who were supervised for several years, who were intentionally provided with a different way of talking to one another and who had access to a community of practice from the very beginning will take the lead as facilitators. Interpreters with two to five years of experience, who have been in supervision since the start of their programs and/or diligently sought it out after graduation, will facilitate their own supervision sessions.

These groups will include professionals with more than triple the years experience of these young facilitators (A. Smith, personal communication [18]). Leading supervision because you yourself have been supervised is the natural progression for those professions that employ supervision models. While this group is small, it is noteworthy that the habituation process during their education successfully led them to an appreciation and an allegiance that we do not see in interpreters who were introduced to supervision late in their careers[19].

And now, like Mr. Fritsch-Rudser and many other of my colleagues in this endeavor, I hope that once students and young professionals experience effectively run supervision, after they understand what it is like to have collegial support, developmental ethical guidance, and a sense of shared-responsibility for the complex work of interpreting, they too will come to appreciate, expect and require supervision – for themselves, their colleagues and from their institutions. As Jean Rodman, my colleague and friend proposed, “In twenty years, interpreters will turn to us and say, ‘I can’t believe you went out and worked without supervision.’”

Prophetic? Time will tell.

Suggestions on how to move the professional development of supervision forward?



[1] Fritsch-Rudser, S. (1986).  The RID code of ethics, confidentiality and supervision.  Journal of Interpretation, 3, 47-51.

[2] Cottone, R. & Claus, R. (2000). Ethical decision-making models: A review of the literature. Journal of Counseling & Development, 78, 275-283.

[3] For further discussion on an educational model of supervision for interpreters and technical skill development see: Atwood, A.  (1986). Clinical supervision as a method of providing behavioral feedback to sign language interpreters and students of interpreting.  In M. L. McIntire (Ed)., New dimensions in interpreter education:  Curriculum and instruction (pp. 87-93).  (Proceedings of the 6th national Convention of the Conference of Interpreter Trainers.)  Chevy Chase MD.

[4] For further discussion on all these topics please see: a) Tate, G. & Turner, G. H.  (1997).  The code and the culture:  Sign language interpreting – in search of the new breed’s ethics.  Deaf Worlds, 13(3), 27-34. b)Nicodemus, B., Swabey, L., & Witter-Merithew, A. (2011) Presence and role transparency in healthcare interpreting: A pedagogical approach for developing effective practice. Revista Di Linguistica 11(3), 69-83. c) Dean, R. K., Pollard, R. Q & Samar, V. J.  (2011).  Occupational health risks in different interpreting work settings:  Special concerns for VRS and K-12 settings.  Across the Board (quarterly publication of the Australian Sign Language Interpreters Association), 6(3), 4-8. d) Angelelli, C.  (2003).  The visible co-participant:  Interpreter’s role in doctor/patient encounters. In M. Metzger, S. Collins, V. Dively, and R. Shaw (Eds.), From topic boundaries to omission: New Research in interpretation Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press. e) Angelelli, C. (2004).  Revisiting the Interpreter’s Role.  A Study of conference, court and medical interpreters in Canada, Mexico, and the United States.  Amsterdam/Philadelphia:  John Benjamins.

[5] Witter-Merithew, A. StreetLeverage. (2012, March 13). Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice. Retrieved from  Keller, K. StreetLeverage. (2012, February 28). Case Discussion: Sign Language Interpreters Contain Their Inner “What the…!!!?”. Retrieved from

Freakonomics. (2010, October 29). E-ZPass is a life-saver (literally) [Blog post]. Retrieved from

[6] Anderson, A. A. (2011). Peer Support and Consultation Project for Interpreters: A Model for Supporting the Well-Being of Interpreters who Practice in Mental Health Settings. Journal of Interpretation, 21(1), 9-20.

[7] Dean, R. K. & Pollard, R. Q. (2009, Fall). “I don’t think we’re supposed to be talking about this:” Case conferencing and supervision for interpreters. VIEWS, 26, pp. 28-30.

[8] Hetherington, A. (2011). A Magical Profession? Causes and management of occupational stress in sign language interpreting profession. In L. Leeson, S. Wurm, M. Vermeerbergen (Eds.). Signed Language interpreting: Preparation, practice and performance (pp. 138-159). St. Jerome Publishing. Manchester, UK.

[9] Keller, K. (2008). Demand-control schema: Applications for deaf interpreters. In L. Roberson & S. Shaw (Eds.). Proceedings of the 17th National Convention of the Conference of Interpreter Trainers: Putting the pieces together: A collaborative approach to excellence in education. (pp. 3-16). Conference of Interpreter Trainers. San Juan, PR.

[10] Hoza, J. (2003). Toward an interpreter sensibility: Three levels of ethical analysis and a comprehensive models for ethical decision-making for interpreters. Journal of Interpretation, 1-41.

[11] Humphrey, J. (1999). Decisions? Decisions! A practical guide for sign language professionals. Amarillo, TX: H&H Publishers.

[12] Mills-Stewart, K. & Witter-Merithew, A. (2006). The dimensions of ethical decision-making: A guided exploration for interpreters. Burtonsville, MD: Sign Media, Inc.

[13] Dean, R. K. & Pollard, R. Q  (2011).  The importance, challenges, and outcomes of teaching context-based ethics in interpreting:  A demand control schema perspective.  Interpreter and Translator Trainer, 5 (1), 155-182.

[14] As an example:

[15] Stocker, M. (1981). Values and Purposes: the limitations of teleology and the ends of friendship. The Journal of Philosophy, 78 (12), 747-765

[16] Dean, R.K. & Pollard, R. Q (2005).  Consumers and service effectiveness in interpreting work:  A practice profession perspective.  In M. Marschark, R. Peterson, & E. Winston (Eds.), Interpreting and interpreter education: Directions for research and practice.  New York: Oxford University Press.

[17] Feasey, D.  (2002). Good Practice in Supervision with Psychotherapists and Counselors: The Relational Approach. London: Whurr Publishers.

[18] A. Smith, personal communication, March 24, 2012.

[19] Information on this program can be found at:

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10 Comments on "Ethical Development: A Sign of the Times for Sign Language Interpreters?"

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This is indeed timely! Thank you for this article. We have just been talking, in my group of colleagues, about how to implement the mental health profession’s ideas of supervision in our work. I have called RID for resources, and not gotten very far. I think there are some of us, even several or many years into our careers, who would jump at the chance to re-habituate! If you have any recommendations for how we could pursue training, or set up a group to do this, it would be very welcome!

Thanks for your interest and energy, Hilary; I didn’t mean to intimate that all of us with many years of experience are set in our ways – there is the bell curve of normal distribution, after all. 🙂 Before I left Rochester for Edinburgh, I was conducting online trainings for people who were interested in learning to facilitate supervision using DC-S as the case analysis tool (along with additional emphases/ training on managing group dynamics). It was my hope to continue to offer these long distance. I am not aware of other groups who offer training in how to lead… Read more »
First, I have to say a thank you to the author. Her work and subsequent publications on Demand Control Theory have greatly impacted my work as an interpreter as well other areas of my life. Now a comment on this article and others recently posted on StreetLeverage….. Many talk of supervision of interpreters, cohorts, not working in isolation, etc. Over the past thirty years, as a working interpreter, I have often given freely of my time to mentor, informally supervise and educate new interpreters. I love teaching; this is a rewarding experience. However, one aspect which I never foresaw, was… Read more »
Thank you for your question and kind words about our work. Similar to the issue you raise is my problem with mentorship. Mentoring and supervision are not the same thing – mentoring is valuable but it is too informal and ad hoc. For formal, professional supervision to function in the way that it does in other professions would require the involvement of RID – just like Fritsch-Rudser explains. RID (and State QA systems) would indeed have to recognise that technical skills alone do not qualify you for professional practice but as in everything, it is in the decisions you make… Read more »
Robyn, I have been privileged to attend workshops where you have presented in NY and AL and have been irrevocably changed in my professional thinking due to your insights and engaging presentation style. I am thrilled with the idea that supervision could be the norm for our profession in 20 years. I would love to be involved in supervision, but at the moment I am living and working in a fairly isolated area. Are there any distance-participation options for the groups that you mention? Thank you for your article here, and all the hard work you’ve done on this topic.… Read more »

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