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The big concepts – Impartiality

Last autumn, my role as Interpreting Tutor at the University of Surrey had me thinking about certain key aspects of our profession I had not dwelled on since my student years.

Reflecting about these forgotten-over-more-pressing-and-mundane-and-yet-critically-important matters is one of the biggest and unexpected perks I have found in teaching. So, I am very grateful for it.

One of these key aspects is impartiality and how it affects our role as interpreters.

Personally, I consider interpreters’ “impartiality” to be an integral component of the quality of our work. However, impartiality being a situation-based, subjective, and cultural notion, it is not always possible to talk about it or decide how to apply it in binary, always or never terms.

Let’s consider the following situations I have found myself in during my career:

  • The cultural referent situation

Earlier this year, I was interpreting at a conference about international trade when the Secretary of Economy of a Latin American country (not saying which due to confidentiality) said that, while walking around London that day, he had gone into a Waitrose to check how many products from his country they stocked. He was speaking in English and I was interpreting into Spanish for the non-English-speaking delegates in the conference. In my Spanish rendition, I said “while walking around London today, I went into a Waitrose supermarket to check how many [insert country] products they stock”.

In his speech, he did not clarify that Waitrose was a supermarket, I added it to my interpretation for the sake of clarity and to help to breach a cultural gap. Did I break the time-old, sacred 110% impartiality rule? Is it not the role of any translator or interpreter who talks across cultures to breach this type of gaps?

  • The obscure acronym situation

A couple of weeks ago, I was interpreting at a meeting while accompanying a technical mission from another Latin American country (again not saying which due to confidentiality). In their presentation, and then during the discussion portion of the meeting, the British government officials kept using acronyms such as MoD, MoJ, MP, PM, Ofsted, and Ofgem.

These acronyms are completely obscure to anyone not living in or dealing on a daily basis with the UK so, I decided to expand them. In my Spanish rendition, I said “Ministry of Defence” instead of “MoD”, “Ministry of Justice” instead of “MoJ” and so on.

Was my decision unethical? Is it not my job to honour the original message whilst making it understandable to its target audience? Was I, in doing this, adding value to my client’s meeting?

  • The different systems situation

Early last year, I was accompanying a Latin American diplomatic mission to the UK interested in Human Rights. In one of the meetings, a British specialist mentioned the right to be represented by a barrister. As you know, in the UK, a solicitor and a barrister are both lawyers with very different functions and roles, so it was important, given the nature of the mission, to ensure that the Latin American visitors understood the difference.

In this case, I decided to stop the meeting for a moment and mention this to the British party (also, the hiring party, in this case). They replied by asking me to explain it briefly. Impartiality alert! What did I do? I asked the British party whether it would be OK for me to say “this, this, and this” and, with their approval, I repeated the same in Spanish to the Latin American visitors.

Was I out of place? Did I push the boundaries of impartiality too far? Did I helped both parties to communicate? Did my intervention result in better chances for cooperation between the two parties?

  • The misunderstanding situation

Years ago, while working as a remote community interpreter back home in Buenos Aires, I found myself interpreting a conversation where one party was talking about a visa, as in the permit to enter a country, and the other one about a visa, as in the credit card; thus, having two very different conversations on each end. Given my privileged position as an interpreter, I immediately realised what was going on and tried to rephrase my renditions to give both parties strong hints of what the communication problem was. Well, either my hints were not strong enough or they did not speak hint, but the situation was getting worse.

So, I stopped the conversation briefly, asked the English-speaking party (the hiring party, in this case) for permission to speak off-interpreting-mode and explained to him first what I thought the misunderstanding was and then repeated the same to the Spanish-speaking party, with my client’s permission.

Again, I stepped out of the shadows and intervened for the sake of clarity and to aid communication and understanding between the two of them. Was I wrong? Or did I add value?

  • The lack of knowledge situation

Last spring, I had the honour of interpreting for the Minister of International Trade of another Latin American country (again not saying which for confidentiality reasons). As many of my clients, he understood English well and spoke it with a little less confidence, so my role consisted in assisting him with any linguistic gaps while he was listening to the English speakers in the room and then interpret his responses when he felt he needed a little help and asked me to. However, while he chatting with a representative from the UK beverages sector, I realised he was a bit loss, not because of a lack of vocabulary but because he simply was not familiar with the landmark British drink Beefeaters gin.

As I had done before, I approached him politely but, instead of whispering to his ear my interpretation of something that was said to him, I whispered a brief explanation of what Beefeaters gin is. He nodded and continued his conversation with a lot more ease. He also thanked me deeply at the end of the session for my assistance.


This said, when does total impartiality on the part of the interpreter hampers communication and when does it not? How can interpreters then decide when it is right to intervene and when it is not?

Lately, the trend has been to step away from the long-held professional requirement for interpreters to always be 100% impartial and, instead, to see interpreters for what they are: a third party in a conversation of two.

It is also true that interpreting is being used more widely and in a larger range of situations around the world – fortunately! Therefore, hard and fast rules, such as the requirement to be 110% impartial all the time, are becoming more flexible in view of the variety of situations to which they are applied.

Robin Setton, while presenting his book Conference Interpreting, a Complete Course and Trainer’s Guide at UNIGE School of Translation and Interpreting, said that the role of the interpreter and the impartiality requirement change when we move from multilateral situations, such as multilateral conferences, events held within the international organisations framework or court hearings,  where interpretation is organised and provided by an institution, to bilateral situations, such as diplomatic visits, technical missions, business negotiations or medical appointments, where interpreting services are usually contracted by one of the parties.

My take on impartiality

I prefer using a more physical and spatial system to assess the impartiality conundrum.

To me, the closer the interpreter is – physically or spatially – to the participants, the greater the chances – or the need – to break the sacred bow of absolute impartiality.

Conference interpreters (who, coincidentally and rightfully so, introduced the 100% impartiality requirement some decades ago) usually work in enclosed, soundproof environments called booths, often located at the back of the room or, even, on a sort of balcony overseeing the conference room. It is completely possible for a conference interpreter to work at a conference for days and never interact face-to-face with the delegates. Many UN interpreters say that delegates recognise them for their voices and not their faces! They are, in a way, separated from them and, thus, their possible partial interventions are limited to situations such as a) or b) above, where they might need to expand an acronym or provide some brief cultural explanation as part of their simultaneous rendition. A sort of verbal foot note, if you wish.

But think of corporate or diplomatic interpreters working in high-level business meetings or accompanying visiting delegations sometimes for days. These interpreters usually sit around the conference room table together with the parties they are interpreting for. We are there, in the room. We are vital actors in a conversation that does not belong to us, and, most importantly, we are the closest point of reference, both culturally and linguistically, to both parties. This is where boundaries start to get blurry and interpreters need to make super quick judgement calls.

Not to mention the expectation placed on interpreters working at medical consultations where patients are at their most vulnerable state and doctors are striving to help them!

How can we determine what is right and what is wrong?

Anthony Pym, in his presentation On the Ethics of Translator’s Interventions asks why people communicate across cultures. His answer is to find common interests and win-win possibilities. He adds “find an aim that can lead to cooperation and, if you got that one, intervene”.

Fostering cooperation and understanding seems to be the north star guiding interpreters’ decisions.

In Conclusion

To this, I would like to add that interpreters, regardless of the situation they find themselves in, cannot and should not:

  • Give their opinion – ever
  • Make recommendations of any sort
  • Bring to attention any piece of information they may have become acquainted with at a previous assignment
  • Draw conclusions of any sort – and express them
  • Share confidential information of any kind

At this point in time, we cannot pretend we are invisible language conversion machines anymore, because we are not. We are human beings dotted with our own thoughts, experiences, and preferences who do our very best to aid communication by using our skills to help to breach linguistic and cultural gaps.

Anything not conducive to our communication- and cooperation-aiding goal should, at least, be questioned and reflected upon. As for what to do when, it will depend on the situation. Human interactions are unpredictable; yet that is part of the fun!


I am fully aware that I am more of a practice expert than a scholar in translation and interpreting. I take full responsibility for what I have written above and consider it to be my professional opinion and own take on a topic that is still being debated by the theoretical experts in the profession.

I am also fully aware that I do not have the final say in this matter nor do I intend to. Therefore, I would like to encourage anyone reading this post, either interpreter or user of interpreting services, to contribute their two cents.

Dear readers, the comment section below is yours. Let’s have a fruitful and respectful debate!

“Interpreting has little to do with transferring words to another language. It is about accurately capturing messages.” ~Harry Obst, The White House Interpreter

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2 Comments on The big concepts – Impartiality

  1. Daniela

    Thank you for sharing your experiences! It is always a pleasure to learn about the world of interpreting.