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Ethics & Role:

Situational Studies:


Examining the Code of Ethics
by Damon Timm
November 27, 2000

It has often been said that hindsight is always twenty-twenty; it is easier to critique, evaluate and examine what has happened than what is happening. It is important to remember that each version of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf's (RID) Code of Ethics has served a purpose during their times of existence. All three efforts have been effective to a certain extent and have had an effect on the decision making processes of the interpreters during that time period. Of course, none of the ethical codes thus far has been perfect and it is a feasible postulation that a perfect code may never be achieved. Each model, including our current model, has served as a stepping stone to the next. Each step, be it in the right or wrong direction, is a step that has earned its place in history and has served its purpose by bringing us where we are today. By examining the changes in the Code of Ethics over time one will see that each revised code focuses less and less on an interpreter's specific behavior and more upon the principles and values that underlie the collective morals behind the interpreting profession. These changes within the Code of Ethics are also reflected within the various interpreting models [1] that have been assigned to particular time periods and mindsets. It is my prediction that subsequent ethical codes will continue to move farther away from an interpreter's behavior, and more towards the underlying principals and morals that we share.

When examining the Code of Ethics, past and present, it is helpful to consider the context of the time period in which each of the ethical models reside. Interestingly enough, the changes that occur among the various interpreting models presented by Anna Witter-Merithew are similar to the changes that happen within RID's Code of Ethics. As with the Code of Ethics, these four models of interpreting have become less and less specific about an interpreter's behavior as they have progressed throughout time. The first model is the "helper" model; interestingly enough, one is very aware of the meaning behind "helper" and the eleemosynary behavior the word suggests. "Help" is a specific action/behavior that is performed by the interpreter. The next model is the "Conduit/Machine" model--another example of how a behavior is implied within the very title of the model itself. Most people can easily relate specific human behavior to machine-like actions. By examining the titles of the first two models, one is able to grasp how behavior-oriented the approaches are, each offering fairly concrete recommendations for how an interpreter should act within the title alone. The next step made by the interpreting community, and the next model, is one that focuses less on behavior: the "Communication Facilitator." It is much more difficult to tag a specific behavior to the word "facilitate" than it is to imagine or behave like a "helper" or a "machine." The behavior of facilitation is ambiguous and less specific, and may lend itself to interpretation. Finally, we have the Bicultural and Bilingual approach, which is a much broader, less behavior specific definition. This is the first model that one cannot understand its meaning by its name alone, whereas we know what it means to be a "helper", a "machine" and maybe even a "facilitator", one is unable to determine behavior from the Bicultural and Bilingual model's name.

The changes within the Code of Ethics and the various models of interpreting may be compared to the use of a manually operated camera. The picture taken by the camera may represent a Code of Ethics (which is a snapshot of how an interpreter should approach decision making), and the camera's shutter speed, aperture, and use may be compared to how we examine, formulate, and create our current code. In order to take a picture, one needs a certain amount of light, which is controlled by the aperture. In low light situations, which we may compare to the past models and ethical codes which were written and used under poor conditions (in that there had not been much past experience to draw upon), one must use a very low aperture in order to capture the picture. Using a lower aperture causes only certain portions of the picture to be in focus--which we may compare to focusing on only an interpreter's behavior, as exemplified by the first two ethical codes and the first two models of interpretation. When the photographer is fortunate to have enough light, or even a tripod on which to rest her camera, she is able to take a photo with a slower shutter speed and a higher aperture. This allows for the picture to become more saturated and all aspects to be in focus. This kind of image is only possible after time has been taken to test and reflect on past pictures, and make the proper adjustments necessary to ensure proper exposure. We may compare the latter photograph to an end, and more desirable result in regards to an interpreter's Code of Ethics. Interestingly enough, when the aperture becomes greater, the amount of light, or the opening, is at its smallest point; so while the picture is clear, saturated and in focus, the area that has let in the light is very tiny. Likewise, the Code of Ethics can become more refined and focused by using a more precise and exact examination of what values are at stake; this should result in a simpler explanation of the interpreter's values while covering all of the bases, keeping all aspects of the image in focus. Over time, as the interpreters and the Registry of interpreters for the Deaf, continue to take more pictures of the interpreter and interpreting process, the ability to take better pictures with a wider focus than that of simply behaviors will be achieved by simplifying and limiting future codes to reflect the underlying values that interpreters share and not the behaviors we display.

As mentioned in the beginning of this essay, each model of interpretation or change in the Code of Ethics has moved us farther along in what could be considered a better direction. That is, while each subsequent model and Code has had its place and may be helpful to consider at times, the current model and Code are the most appropriate for the current time period. Furthermore, we can see that each model and Code has moved farther away from prescribed behavior and more towards, possibly, the underlying principles that the behaviors tried to represent. While it may seem to many people that by moving farther away from an interpreter's behavior within the Code of Ethics is perhaps leading to a more ambiguous and less obvious Code, the fact will remain that even if it may be less specific, it will cover a wider range of questions and consideration that an interpreter faces. More of the picture will come into focus as we slowly narrow and refine the how we look at our underlying beliefs and morals. When this happens, we will no long see the need to make "exceptions" to the Code, find scenarios in which it is necessary to "bend" the tenants of the Code, or feel the need to develop "new" Codes to handle specific situations. Instead, we will all be able to fall back upon one image, one Code of Ethics, whenever we face ethical decisions during the course of our professional careers and beyond.



[1] These models were first put into print by Anna Witter-Merithew, and are, in chronological order: [1] Helper Model, [2] Machine/Conduit Model, [3] Communication Facilitator Model and finally, [4] Bilingual/Bicultural Mediation Model.


Proper Citation of this Document

Timm, Damon. "Examing the Code of Ethics." American Sign Language Interpreting Resources, 27 November 2000.