I want to start a series on the essential skills involved in interpreting. While I would love to start with something nice and easy, I am choosing to open the series with the most essential skill: maintaining confidentiality.
Much has been written on this topic from the AIIC (conference), NAJIT (judiciary), NCIHC (healthcare), among others. If you take the time to go through these standards, you will see that interpreters are held to the same level of confidentiality as doctors and lawyers. So, we are going to take a different approach here. We are going to discuss how to handle confidentiality when you work in close quarters; in-house.
Let’s take this common example. You are interpreting at a meeting with American and Japanese staff. Things are going smoothly, when one of the Japanese associates says something inflammatory, immediately followed by 「さっきは訳さないで」(don’t translate that). Even if you are working simultaneously, you likely hadn’t caught up to the inflammatory statement yet. So, what do you do now?
This happens all too often, especially when the in-house interpreter is someone who the Japanese staff trust and rely on often. So, first, congratulate yourself that the staff member was willing to say that in front of you. But then what?
Think of it from the Americans’ perspective for a minute. They just heard something. Don’t know what, but it sounded pretty angry. They want to know what was said. They are relying on you to provide that. But then switch perspectives. The Japanese person let his tongue slip because he thought no one (who might be offended by the comment) could hear him. He is trusting you to keep it secret.
So the first thing you must do is:
Manage the Flow of Discourse
You are in control of what happens now. Both parties are looking at your panicked face waiting for your next word. So the best policy is to let the room know what is going on. You can either do that by saying, “The speaker would like the last statement not to be translated” (not my fault guys), “The interpreter would like a minute to clarify” (I can smooth this over), or “Kindly disregard the previous outburst” (he’s just venting guys, don’t worry about it).
But how do you decide which to do?
Who are you accountable to?
You are being paid to translate one language into the other. Both parties are trusting you to conduct your work fairly. They trust that what you are saying accurately reflects the speaker’s intended meaning. If you lose that trust on either side, you are no longer reliable; regardless of how good your language skills may be. Confidentiality is the most important skill for an interpreter.
But you are first and foremost accountable to your own conscience.
If something is said that is unlawful, unethical, or otherwise morally grey and the speaker is asking you not to divulge that information to the other party, that is line you should never cross. Both parties must know that you are reliable but also an ethical human being. If you are ever in the situation where you are asked to give a false statement, interpret something that you know to be illegal, or cover up someones indiscretion, you should immediately recuse yourself from the meeting. You do not have to keep interpreting when you are not morally comfortable with the situation*.
*Note: This is not true of generally uncomfortable situations such as when someone is cursing a lot, talking about a traumatic experience, or yelling at someone. These are all uncomfortable, but you have the responsibility to portray them faithfully and not try to downplay anything that is being said.
Second, you are accountable to your company. They hired you and they expect you to work for them. So if the meeting was between your company and another company, you should keep what was said to yourself.
What I do
When I am faced with this situation, I like to handle it this way. Usually I am working simultaneously so I am close to the offending comment. I pause and then say, “Don’t translate that last part,” just as the person said it. This way the Americans know that something was said and can chose to push back or leave it be. If I cannot do this, I will say “The interpreter has omitted the last statement at the request of the speaker.” This usually makes the Americans perk up and want to know what was said. But then you are back to interpreting, not intervening.
But the most important thing you can do is:
Being in-house, you have the unique ability to haul other associates off into a room and say don’t you ever put me in that situation again. Okay, maybe not that forcefully, but the offending party does need to know that what they did is not acceptable behavior. Anything said in the room will be translated in the room. So if they want to vent in their language, they should stop the meeting, ask for a minute, and then they can say whatever they would like. Little quips when they think no one is listening would be inappropriate in any business setting, even when two languages aren’t involved.
So remember, in the moment it will be tough, but you have the opportunity to clear it up later and help stop it in the future. Above all, please remember to maintain the trust of both parties equally. Once you break on parties’ trust, you are no longer considered reliable, and that’s what confidentiality is all about.