Translators and Interpreters Working Together to Create a National Code of Ethics for Educational K-12 Settings

After years of borrowing from the ethical codes of other specialized fields, translators and interpreters working in K-12 educational settings are coming together to create their own code of ethics and standards of practice. The code will take into account the reality of this environment and how multiple interpreting and translation specializations converge in this space. Read on to learn how a multi-state team of professionals has taken the lead in a consensus-based approach with the goal of standardizing practice and advancing the recognition of the role of practicing professionals in this field.

The Dilemma

I still remember the first time I interpreted for an individualized education program meeting. As an experienced interpreter with legal and health care certifications who had taken the time to prepare for this job, I walked into a small, crowded conference room with about eight school staff members present, not counting the parent and myself. We were there to work on the preparation of a legal document—the Individualized Education Plan (IEP)—a written plan designed to meet a child’s learning needs. Everyone wanted to provide their input. Teachers, counselors, therapists, and a school administrator were all speaking quickly, often interspersing a hefty dose of educational jargon and medical terminology pertaining to the student’s health condition. My dilemma: as an interpreter, which code of ethics should I apply in this situation?

This was not the typical community interpreting encounter. The session merged education, legal, and health care interactions together in a single meeting, conducted at high-speed to cover all the required content in the limited time allocated for the meeting.

This is just one example of the many types of encounters that professionals working in the field of K-12 education manage on a regular basis, in addition to interpreting for school board meetings, graduation ceremonies, informational events, disciplinary hearings, parent-teacher conferences, and meetings with other school professionals and administrators.

Interpreting/Translation in Education Is Here to Stay

Translation and interpreting in educational settings have become established fields in our industry. Experts in education project that the percentage of the U.S. student population from minority groups will continue to grow. A quick look at available data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in the past 18 years supports this assertion.

According to NCES data released for 20181, 53% of the U.S. student enrollment in public schools came from a minority racial or ethnic group, as compared to 38.8% in 2000. This increase can be partially attributed to the growth experienced by the Hispanic student population (from 16.5% in 2000 to 27.2% in 2018).

Projections regarding immigration show this trend will continue in public schools. For example, in 2021, the U.S. Refugee Admissions and Refugee Resettlement Ceiling increased its cap on refugee admissions to 125,000—up from 62,500 in fiscal year 2021 and 18,000 in fiscal year 2020.2 Furthermore, the expected impact of climate change on patterns of human migration and future refugee and resettlement needs for climate displaced populations will fuel continued and diverse immigration to the U.S.3

A Growing Field of Specialization

During the past decade, U.S. school districts have faced enormous pressure stemming from not only the need to communicate with families who don’t speak English fluently, but from their legal obligations to comply with language access requirements. Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are the two main laws driving these efforts. According to a joint communication from the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, “…Schools must communicate information to limited-English-proficient parents in a language they can understand….”4

Constrained by budgetary restrictions, schools have sought to fulfill these requirements by adding bilingualism and interpreting and translation duties to the job descriptions for existing positions. Although this is a creative solution to provide language access, it lacks understanding of the skill set needed by a bilingual individual to become an interpreter, a translator, or both—a skill set that requires formal and prolonged training.

Some school districts have benefited from serving highly diverse student populations. Ensuring that the needs of this population are met has resulted in many schools taking a different approach to language access—one providing a greater understanding of what interpreting and translation entail. Many schools have created language services departments and full-time positions for interpreters and translators, coupled with contracting language services providers for translation and on-site and remote interpreting services.

For example, in 2017, the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE) in California, under the leadership of Natalia Abarca, who manages the OCDE Multilingual Consortium, organized its first Conference for Interpreting and Translation in Education.5 The 2018 OCDE conference helped build momentum and served as the official launching pad for what is now the American Association of Interpreters and Translators in Education (AAITE).

AAITE’s Ethics and Standards Committee

In 2019, a call for volunteers was issued. Translators and interpreters from across the U.S. received an e-mail from the initial group of organizers of the OCDE conference asking for their participation on multiple committees, each with specific responsibilities. The work formally started in the winter of 2020, when AAITE went by the preliminary name of the Interpreters and Translators in Education Workgroup. Six committees were created: Ethics and Standards, Job Task Analysis, Best Practices, Communications, Bylaws, and Administrative.

As the founding co-chair of the Ethics and Standards Committee, I promoted a consensus-based process and approach among committee members. Together we defined our purpose and created a shared vision of what the product of our work would be. We also determined it was going to be important to analyze the work already completed by other similar organizations. Committee members came from diverse backgrounds and levels of professional experience. We’ve benefited from having members with previous direct knowledge of and participation in similar endeavors by the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care, National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters, International Organization of Standardization, ASTM International, and the Minnesota Department of Education.

Agreeing upon an approach was our committee’s first task. We felt it was important not to reinvent the wheel, but to build a tailored code of ethics reflecting the real-world experiences of translators and interpreters working in education across the entire nation, including those with dual or multidimensional roles.

Figure 1: Process designed to produce the AAITE Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice

To create a starting point for our analysis, we designed an 11-step process to be followed methodically as a map for our work in the upcoming months. This process included building a thorough understanding of the current landscape of existing codes of ethics developed by other highly recognized organizations.

From these existing codes of ethics, our committee, through consensus, conducted a preliminary selection of tenets and their associated standards of practice that we considered should be represented in our code of ethics (e.g., accuracy, confidentiality, and impartiality). (See Figure 1.) The next steps in the process incorporated activities designed to locate areas where additional tenets and standards of practice were needed based on data obtained through a national survey. This survey was sent to practitioners in the field who had presented at conferences and workshops, as well as to hundreds of members of the mailing list of our initial workgroup.

A total of 116 colleagues from 25 states participated in the survey over a period of five months. After analyzing the data, 553 data elements on specific situational experiences were extracted to document the concerns of people performing these jobs.

The data collected provided examples of situations experienced by interpreters and translators in education where a tailored code of ethics would have helped solve the dilemmas presented to them. We also received input about the current concerns of interpreters and translators regarding the application of existing codes of ethics in educational settings. The committee worked to deconstruct the situations documented in the data to identify the various ethical dilemmas encountered by interpreters.

What do I mean when I say “deconstruct”? Some of the situational experiences communicated to us through the survey presented multiple ethical dilemmas within themselves. So, we had to isolate each dilemma as a separate data item. For example, our notes might read:

“An interpreter in a room with multiple participants, speaking fast, not taking turns, and with a two-year-old kicking the interpreter and making noises from under the table. This is happening while the interpreter is trying to keep up with interpreting the conversations to the parent in simultaneous whispering mode. The parent is crying due to the nature of the information being conveyed in the meeting. The parent might also be distraught because, culturally speaking, they are dealing with the stigma associated with the concept of special education.”

Following this step, we attempted to classify each of the dilemmas involved in a particular situation under a specific tenet of the code of ethics to better understand how to address such situations and manage the encounter properly. So, for the example presented above, our deconstruction might read:

  • Is simultaneous whispering the most appropriate mode of interpreting here?
  • Does the lack of pauses and turn-taking require an interpreter to intervene to remind participants to take turns speaking?
  • Are the noises coming from under the table and the kicking distracting the interpreter, or is the interpreter able to manage that possible source of distraction?
  • Unnecessary interventions might prove disruptive, given the critical information being discussed and the emotional component of this encounter.
  • The principles of accuracy, cultural awareness, impartiality, and role boundaries all might come into play at the same time during this encounter.

We also noted which dilemmas did not fall under any of the pre-selected tenets so they could be addressed later.

The data we collected also yielded another example of a situation that occurs frequently in educational settings that presents an ethical dilemma—the number of practitioners who are hired to serve multiple roles (e.g., as both a parent liaison and interpreter). As a parent liaison, a person might act as an advocate, using their knowledge to help parents better navigate a new educational system that’s drastically different from what they knew in other countries. But when the same person is needed as an interpreter, advocacy is out of the question, even though the parents and teachers might expect the person to continue to fulfill that role. The dilemma is that the job of an interpreter is to remain neutral. Because of this, the person who previously acted as a liaison is now unable to assist in the same way to facilitate the communication process during the encounter. There is no room for this type of intervention when serving as an interpreter during Individual Education Program (IEP) meetings or disciplinary hearing, which are legal encounters by nature.

Part of the work of the Ethics and Standards Committee is acknowledging these common realities in educational interpreting encounters and addressing them with clear standards of practice that can guide practitioners in their decision-making process when presented with such dilemmas. This process will facilitate the creation of a code of ethics and standards of practice document tailored to on-the-ground conditions that will be able to meet the needs of professionals working in educational settings.

The committee is now completing a reverse analysis to determine if the pre-selected tenets and standards of practice truly provide the guidance needed to resolve the situations and concerns documented in the data. In case any gaps are identified, these will be addressed with additional tenets and standards to ensure all documented situations are addressed through the code of ethics and standards of practice document.

Stakeholder Participation

As part of our commitment to our consensus approach, our committee’s final step will be to organize separate meetings with representatives of several stakeholder groups and receive their input. Based on the feedback received, we’ll determine if there are additional considerations to be reflected in the work presented, or if these new considerations should be addressed by other committees, such as the Best Practices Committee or Job-Task Analysis Committee. This step will allow for the validation of the work process and build support from critical stakeholders needed to continue advancing the professionalization of interpreting and translation in K-12 education.

Working Toward a National Certification

As we continue our work, we’re also collaborating with AAITE’s Job Task Analysis Committee, which is in charge of a national effort to gather data from school job descriptions that include translation and interpreting as part of either the title of the position or as part of its responsibilities.

Once the committee identifies and reaches an agreement on the practitioner’s role (based on the data obtained) and the code of ethics and standards of practice is published by the Ethics and Standards Committee, our next step will be the creation of a standards for training document. This document will provide guidance to training organizations to equip interpreters and translators working in educational settings with the skill set necessary to succeed.

AAITE is working toward building a strong foundation to create a national certification through the completion of a scientifically driven and accepted approach, designed to meet the requirements necessary for a national accreditation organization that will be viable in the long run.

Our entire committee of volunteers is working toward achieving AAITE’s mission: “To promote the recognition and professionalization of the interpreter and translator in educational settings through communicating timely, relevant information to all stakeholders, and the continued development and implementation of nationally recognized best practices, codes of ethics, standards of practice; professional development and training opportunities for practitioners in the fields; and a national certification program.”

The process is in its infancy, but we’re excited. Our dedicated team is capable, resilient, and committed to bringing a national certification as soon as it can be responsibly done. For more information about the Ethics and Standards Committee and AAITE in general, please contact info@aaite.org.

Useful Links

American Association of Interpreters and Translators in Education
ASTM International
International Organization of Standardization
National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters
National Council on Interpreting in Health Care
Orange County Department of Education

Notes
  1. Digest of Educational Statistics (National Center for Educational Statistics).
  2. Shear, Michael D. “The Biden Administration Will Raise the Cap on Refugee Admissions to 125,000,” The New York Times (September 20, 2021).
  3. Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, October 2021).
  4. “Information for Limited-English-Proficient (LEP) Parents and Guardians and for Schools and School Districts that Communicate with Them” (Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education).
  5. Abarca, Natalia. “The Orange County Department of Education Multilingual Consortium: A Clearinghouse for Educational Interpreters,” The ATA Chronicle (January/February 2022), 22.

Loana A. Denis is certified as a court interpreter in Georgia and California and is also a certified health care interpreter. She is vice president of LATN Language Solutions and serves on the board of directors of the American Association of Interpreters and Translators in Education and the Atlanta Association of Interpreters and Translators, an ATA chapter. She is also a licensed trainer with the Community Interpreter International program and a trainer in the fields of educational and legal interpreting. She dedicates part of her time to mentoring interpreters and promoting interpreting and translation as a career. ldenis@latn.com

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