Sign Language Interpreters: Are Acts of Omission a Failure of Duty?

February 15, 2012


The consequences of inaction can be high for sign language interpreters. Anna Witter-Merithew contextualizes our reluctance to intervene appropriately with thoughts on a history of opting for “invisibility” instead of action.

Often, when discussing breaches of ethical conduct, the focus is on a sign language interpreter’s commission of some act.  Examples might include a breach of confidentiality, accepting assignments beyond one’s capacity, demonstrating a lack of respect for consumers and/or colleagues.  Equally concerning, although discussed less often, are acts of omission.  Acts of omission refer to instances where a practitioner doesn’t follow expected or best practice in performing their duties.

Examples might include failing to advise consumers when there are barriers to an effective interpretation, failure to clarify information the interpreter does not understand or misinterprets, or failure to use consecutive interpreting when the circumstances necessitate, among many others. Both acts of commission and omission can cause harm to consumers, practitioners and the profession.  However, the focus of this article is on acts of omission and their potential relationship to the persona of invisibility that is deeply rooted in our field.  If you haven’t read my previous post, Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadows of Invisibility, consider it a prequel to this article.

Why Do We Fail to Intervene?

Granted, there may be many reasons that a sign language interpreter fails to act when some type of intervention is needed and within their realm of responsibility. After all, interpreting is a complex process. We all come to the work at different levels of readiness for all that is required of us, as eluded by Dennis Cokely in his article, Vanquished Native Voices—A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis. However, it is worth exploring the degree to which lingering shadows of invisibility impact our inaction.   Is it possible that our long history of encouraging practitioners to behave “as if not really there” and allowing things to proceed “as if the consumers were communicating directly” has created a diffusion of responsibility?  As a result, do interpreters perceive themselves as less responsible for the outcome of the exchange, even when it is the interpreting process or the interpreter’s presence that is creating the need for an intervention?

This concept of diffusion of responsibility has been discussed by sociologists studying examples of bystanders who do nothing in an emergency situation. Findings show that the larger the bystander group, the less likely one of the bystanders will intervene. According to social experiments, an individuals’ failure to assist others in emergencies is not due to apathy or indifference, but rather to the presence of other people. Bystanders perceive that their individual responsibility is diffused because it is unclear who is responsible in a group situation.  When responsibility is not specifically assigned, bystanders respond with ambiguity.

Is it possible a similar phenomenon occurs with sign language interpreters?  Do we think of ourselves as bystanders—present from a distance, and therefore, not involved?  Have we internalized the neutrality we are to bring to our task as non-involvement and disinterest [versus objectivity and emotional maturity]?  Are we unconsciously promoting the tendency to diffuse our responsibility to act when action is warranted?  Do we believe that if we are to behave as invisible, then any kind of intervention is inappropriate? Do we experience feelings of ambivalence when confronted with the need for an interpreter-related intervention? If so, there may be serious implications for our ability to fulfill our professional duty and there is merit in exploring this concept of intervention further.

Practicing Due Diligence

Like all practice professionals, sign language interpreters have the obligation to engage in due diligence when carrying out their duties.  Due diligence refers to the level of attention and care that a competent professional exercises to avoid harm to consumers of their services. It is a customary process applied by professionals to assess the risks and consequences associated with professional acts and behaviors.  Applying due diligence during our work as interpreters can help us to anticipate potential issues that may arise and/or validate concerns that we are sensing during our work.  Here are some steps that can guide us in the process.

1.  Recognize that there may be a need for an intervention.  There are many potential instances where such a need could arise.  This step requires us to assess the cues within the situation that signal that something is not working and taking the time to examine such cues more fully.  For example, the interpreter may not know what is meant by what a speaker is saying.  Or, it may become clear that consecutive interpreting will produce a more accurate interpretation and/or allow for fuller understanding and participation by one or more consumers.  Or, perhaps a cultural misunderstanding has arisen that was not addressed within the interpretation. By paying attention to the cues that signal the potential need for an intervention, we begin the process of applying due diligence.

2.  Take responsibility.  The next step in the due diligence cycle involves assessing whether we have a professional responsibility to act.  Part of this step requires the sign language interpreter to quickly assess who ultimately holds the duty to resolve whatever risk or potential consequence exists.  For example, consider instances where an interpreter doesn’t understand the source language message.  Since the interpreter holds the duty to accurately interpret the message, it is the interpreter who holds the responsibility to intervene and seek understanding. Passing on the lack of understanding to the consumer (by glossing or fingerspelling for example), expecting that they ask for the clarification, is avoidance that is reminiscent of  that period in our history where we promoted the view of the interpreter as a conduit or machine.  It is an example of diffused responsibility.  As well, expecting consumers to seek understanding when we do not understand may be unrealistic.  If the interpreter does not feel comfortable intervening, it stands to reason the consumer may not either.  This doesn’t mean that the need doesn’t exist, just that there is a reluctance to acknowledge it in a transparent manner.  So, the test is to assess who holds the duty to generate the accurate interpretation. Clearly, it is the sign language interpreter, not the consumer.

3.  Plan a course of action. Deciding how to intervene is as important as deciding that an intervention is necessary.  There are certainly ways of intervening that are disruptive and can alienate consumers.  So, thinking the process through (even practicing and role playing possible approaches) with colleagues can help to identify specific and successful strategies for intervening. It is important to learn to intervene in a way that builds trust and confidence.  Practitioners who are diligent in taking responsibility for the quality and accuracy of their work comment that when they are proactive in creating effective working conditions, or address errors and misunderstandings in an open and authentic manner, it promotes trust and confidence by consumers.  Diminished trust and confidence seems to arise when sign language interpreters attempt to act as if all is well, when it may not be or simply isn’t.

4.  Take action.  Initiating the intervention is the next step in the due diligence cycle.  This is the step that requires the courage and confidence to act. Again, given our historic roots, many of us find ourselves fearful of taking action perceiving it will be viewed as interjecting of ourselves into the situation.  In reality, we are already part of the interaction, and offering an intervention when it is warranted is not interjection of self, but rather carrying out our professional duty.  This difference is significant.  One is about potentially crossing professional boundaries and the other about maintaining the integrity of our work and profession.

The consequence of failing to act when it is our duty to act can be very serious.  In the case of a police interrogation, failure to apply best practices can lead to challenges being raised as to the admissibility of a deaf suspect’s statements.  In the case of an IEP team meeting, failure to articulate observations in a professional manner can lead to an IEP that doesn’t address the real needs of the deaf child.  In the case of a job interview, failure to accurately convey details can mean the difference between a person getting a job or not.

Stepping Out of the Shadows

Part of our process of stepping out of the shadows of invisibility is acknowledging that it feels safer and easier if we just remain conduits.  We then do not have to address the on-going and complex ethical issues associated with role definition and conflicts.  But without grappling with these very issues, we remain merely technicians, not professionals. We cannot insist on professional standing when we do not perform in the customary ways that professionals perform. As well, we cannot achieve a collective discretion without tackling the hard questions and finding ways to make our work more transparent.

Likewise, as sign language interpreters, we must always assess whether the consequence of intervention outweighs the contribution it makes.  Timing and manner of an intervention are critical considerations.  Sometimes we can’t assess this piece until we can reflect on the assignment afterwards.  Thus, learning to be reflective practitioners is an essential part of the due diligence cycle.  A future post will address this topic.

The Hard Question

What do we believe about ourselves, our work and our contribution to the good of the Deaf society? As we explore the answer to this and other hard questions, we must consider the implications of our history of behaving as if invisible and its potential contribution to the diffusion of responsibility.  In determining our answer, let’s hold fast to that which we value—communication access, equality, integrity and our relationship to the Deaf Community and one another.  It is these values that help us continue our journey of career-long growth and development…and are the source of the courage we need to continue our commitment to keep asking ourselves the hard questions.

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23 Comments on "Sign Language Interpreters: Are Acts of Omission a Failure of Duty?"

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This is a compelling article highlighting our roles as sign language interpreters and what we do in the face of ethical ‘crisis’ that challenge our own sense of normalcy. This article is really so vital to the interpreting field since it overlaps cognitive sciences with our interpreting process. It sparks a different way to think about how to anticipate and aclimate ourselves to new interpreting situations. Also, it allows us to conisder how to respond in ways that allow for interpreters to realize and act on decisions that fully support equality in the communication process. Thank you for sharing such… Read more »
Hi Sarah Nice to connect with you here in this environment. Thanks for sharing the McRaney resource. I agree, it seems he has some great insight into this issue of why we might not respond when there is a need for action. His theory of a normalcy bias is an interesting addition to the discussion. I agree with you that to avoid the pattern of inaction, we need to rehearse and think through what we will do in case an ethical quandary arises. This is one of the aspect of the work of Dean and Pollard that I so appreciate–Demand-Control… Read more »
I find this article intriguing. I think one needs to be careful on “due diligence”. There have been instances where interpreter does not understand the contents being interpreted, but the sophisticated deaf/hh understands. I think the “due diligence” should be focused on interpreting and conveying the contents to the deaf/hh in a sign language mode they understands. This is not action of a machine, but a thoughtful and analytical way to interpret in a such way that deaf/hh understands even if the interpreter may not necessarily understand the contents being interpreted/translated. Also, there is danger of patronizing if interpreter assumes… Read more »
Hi Ed! Thanks for adding to this conversation. It is so important to hear from deaf consumers like yourself. Thanks for reminding us that each consumer brings unique experiences to an assignment. You are right, we must make our decisions as to whether to intervene or not based on many factors…including who is the deaf consumer, what is their knowledge of the content being addressed, etc. In my own experience as an interpreter, I have learned that as you indicate, sometimes the deaf consumer knows as much as the hearing consumer about the subject being discussed. In those instances, the… Read more »
Milie Stansfield

Again, Anna , a profound and well thought out discourse. Look forward to more!


Hi Millie. Great to connect with you here again! Does this article fit with your own experiences? Any thoughts about Sarah’s great post introducing this theory of normalcy bias?
Warm Wishes,

This rich discussion hits us right in the practice of every day… Yes, we have been taught and internalized at a young age those ‘professional’ lines that supposedly cannot be crossed. As we age, we realize that the decisions of a true professional, as Theresa Smith says, are much more complex, which is why we actually deserve the title ‘professional’. “Normalcy bias”, as a way to avoid intervention in the face of complexity when one doesn’t know how to be helpful and prefers to play it safe, will, in the thoughtful evolving professional, eventually give way to the true human… Read more »
Hi Bill! So great to connect with you here. Hope all is well in your world. I appreciate your remarks and would like to explore a couple of your statements further. You mention that this ability to move toward a more human and humane normalcy is the territory of the seasoned professional. I certainly agree that the seasoned professional has a broad base of experience from which to draw when making critical decisions. At the same time, this ability to act when action is required cannot be restricted to the more experienced interpreter. It is a way of thinking and… Read more »

Absolutely agree…we do need to train for it. And, yes, spoken language interpreters, and even CART service providers, have brought the invisibility issue up with me several times. I didn’t realize that CART providers are also struggling with the issue, especially outside of the courtroom. Warm wishes back!

Jeffrey Kirkwood
Thank you for this article and thank you to the responders who added to and expanded upon the topic. As a 30-plus year practitioner of ASL-English interpretation (and so-called transliteration) I have seen my practice evolve as I gained experience and exposure to a vast array of interpreting-contexts and a diverse and broad cross section of consumers of my services. My practice is consciously different if I’m working with social workers and a deaf client with limited language access in any of the three languages he was exposed to and we are dealing with possible abuse; as compared to a… Read more »
Hi Jeffrey! Thanks for these great remarks. You have offered us insight into the experiences that led you to your current understanding of your work and our role and responsibility as interpreters. Thank you for your candor and openness. I hope others will share their experiences as well. Absolutely, interpreting is contextual. Discussion and research around the contextual nature of our work continue to grow. I appreciate that in addition to understanding the contextual nature of our work, you are advoacating for that knowledge to guide and inform our decision-making. That is what I want as well–for us to not… Read more »
Hi Anna, thank you for your articles I enjoy reading. I am wondering why you have not mentioned the Ally Model of interpreting so far. I am from Germany and as for “to intervene or not to intervene, that is the question” I feel that we are, for once, ahead of our U. S. colleagues. And I know, as a matter of fact, for once, we Sign Language Interpreters are ahead of the spoken language interpreter colleagues. We have been practicing the ally model established in acceptance of the postcolonial power dysbalances among stakeholders with differing cultural backgrounds of different… Read more »
Hi Oya Thanks for sharing the prevailing approach used in Germany and for providing us with the citation for Graham Turner’s article. I enjoyed exploring the topic of the ally model with German sign language interpreters during your first conference held at the University of Magdeburg some years ago. The ally model is part of the interpreting tapestry here in the United States and our exploration of roles and responsibilities continues to evolve. And, here in the states, the application of the ally model goes beyond how we act and respond while interpreting. It also informs our behavior as members… Read more »
Yet another excellent discussion at – thanks to all involved for this resource, and to Anna for opening up this topic. I think the ally model helped the field to look again at some important issues, but I certainly wouldn’t advocate blanket adoption of that approach, as Anna’s comments indicate. I like Oya’s term ‘transparency model’, because that very much captures the key notion I’ve been trying to develop in recent years – some indication can be seen in my paper (presented in 2004 and published in 2007) in the volume from John Benjamins called ‘The Critical Link 4’.… Read more »
Graham Thanks for elaborating further on your work! One of the things that will help in continuing this paradigm shift is for us to speak in practical terms of how our work will look different in the moment. So, what does it look like when the interpreter is performing as the “enabler of a collaborative search for meaning”? Many practitioners are looking for scripts…not to memorize, but to hear and/or see as a reference point for how to respond differently in the moment that an intervention is needed. This is one of the levels at which we need to “nudge… Read more »
I was advocating that an experienced interpreter who is looking for the most honest human interaction will find the balance, depending on the consumer and the situation, between advocating, actively intervening for fairness’ sake, and leaving the automony to the any savvy consumer (hearing or deaf) who can take responsibility for their understanding of what is being said, including their knowledge the systems involved, and how they should respond to accomplish their own personal goals in any interaction. That said, I think Anna is right that we need to train young interpreters to have the scripts and strategies needed to… Read more »
Hi Bill, could you tell me where to find Molly’s text please? And Anna yes, the link between theory and practice is missing in our everyday work. Its a little easier in English-speaking countries but in Germany, for example, you can’t expect the interpreters to plough trough Truner’s writing with their high-school English. Wouldn’t it be nice to have sort of a SLI’s multilingual Wikipedia where we collaborate to bring together concepts and models, summarize books or texts, maybe even in Signs? Would that not be a step towards Open Process? How are our deaf clients going to know about… Read more »

[…] it the expectation that h/she be “invisible” as discussed by Anna Witter-Merithew in, Sign Language Interpreters: Are Acts of Omission a Failure of Duty?  Is this “invisibility” what h/she was taught in the ITP attended?  Related might be […]


[…] Is it the expectation that h/she be “invisible” as discussed by Anna Witter-Merithew in, Sign Language Interpreters: Are Acts of Omission a Failure of Duty?  Is this “invisibility” what h/she was taught in the ITP attended?  Related might be a […]


Hi Ana, you have this article in pdf?


[…] she has created interpreter education programs, and more recently we note her work in the area of ethics and decision-making.  She is nothing short of an amazing leader and an amazing […]

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