Should an interpreter translate a lie?

On 13th January, The Times published the ethical dilemma of a public service interpreter:

bq. I am a self-employed as a public-service interpreter and occasionally I
have to translate a statement that both the speaker and I know is a lie. I
know that I am employed as a machine into which you pour one language and
out of which you get another, but I am uncomfortable with this situation. I
could, of course, cover myself by reporting the lie to a superior officer,
but I may then find that very little work is coming my way. Any

The Ethicist’s answer is only available to paying subscribers. You can have a one-week subscription, but I haven’t.

He says she has to tell the truth, even if she is just hired as a kind of machine.
If she is not certain it is a lie, she can translate it. Lawyers may doubt a client’s innocence but still argue that the client is not guilty, but lawyers are not allowed to lie. This may cost her some work.

It’s easy to answer questions if you know you have to be ethical! I would have said she can lie if it’s a trivial matter. I also wonder if ‘lying’ is really a problem in practice. Normally the interpreter will have no idea about a lie. Interpreters probably have more qualms about opinions and manners. It looks like a query invented for the ‘ethicist’ to me.

4 thoughts on “Should an interpreter translate a lie?

  1. The answer seems to depend on the situation.

    If the “lie” in question is part of a large-scale scheme to defraud investors, the interpreter might be guilty of a crime by translating it.

    In that case, the law would require at least to immediately stop working for that particular client, even in mid-sentence.

    If the “lie” is only supposed to cover up some behaviour which would be perceived as illicit by the person addressed but has no relation to a criminal offense, the interpreter would not be required by law to stop translating.

    She could only be required to do so by a more strict moral code. In that case, she would also be probably better off to stop working for that particular client, but another interpreter with less morals might do the job without feeling bad about it.

  2. I take your point about the danger of committing a crime oneself. I think a public services interpreter would not be translating for a big company, though, but for courts and authorities. It’s also inconceivable to me that an interpreter could know something was a lie unless it was blatantly obvious. (Logically, this is irrelevant to the question, which presupposes the interpreter knows it is a lie.) Interpreters have enough difficulty even seeing the file in advance to prepare the vocabulary, let alone knowing the ins and outs (an in-company interpreter is a different matter, but I think the question assumes the interpreter need only have a conscience if working for public services!)

    A PSI I know can only imagine a client confessing to his solicitor that he’s guilty. The PSI would be under an ethical duty to say nothing about this, as it would be a breach of confidence.

    If the police lied to someone about the legal situation, then I could imagine the interpreter might stop, or alternatively might inform others about what has happened.

  3. The interpreter has to render everything, without changing, adding or omitting anything. It is not up to the interpreter to determine the veracity of a witness or defendant’s statement – this is left up to judges, lawyers and juries.

    The interpreter, just like a translator, can only work with what’s in front of him/her, so to speak.

    As translators/interpreters, we are merely “mouthpieces”, that’s all.

  4. I agree with K-FL’s opener, except for stopping in mid-sentence.

    My main problem would be in court.

    Those of us who wear court interpreter-cum-qualified lawyer hats know the score in the UK. As lawyers, we must not mislead the/any court (anywhere). The dilemma could be sorted out by advising instructing lawyers at the earliest opportunity and waiting for a convenient adjournment for a quiet word with the judge. If that can’t wait, pass a note to the judge asking for guidance as to whether to continue or not.

    At any rate, it would have to be made clear that we, in this instance, are wearing our ‘interpreter hats’ and acting in a non-lawyer capacity only.

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