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Communicative Autonomy—The Interpreter’s North Star

A lesson in Latin.

Primum non nocere (Latin)

Translation: First, do no harm.

This famous aphorism might sound familiar. It serves as an oath and a pivotal guiding principle for healthcare professionals, emphasizing the paramount importance of safeguarding patient autonomy and well-being. Imagine a world where this principle was overlooked. It’s almost too unsettling to consider.

Now, let’s shift gears and think about our realm – the world of language services. Shouldn’t we too have a foundational principle that underpins our ethics and standards? While we may not have a succinct and memorable oath like ‘first, do no harm’, the importance of our commitment remains paramount. We must honor the communicative autonomy of all parties. Neglecting this commitment would undermine the very essence of our work.

Communicative autonomy is our North Star. It’s the reason our profession exists, what we tirelessly strive for, and the guiding blueprint for our success.

If you delve into “The Community Interpreter” textbook you’ll find communicative autonomy defined as “the capacity of each party in an encounter to be responsible for and in control of his or her own communication.”* It further posits that our unique gift to society unfolds when we foster this autonomy.

Who among us wants their voice stifled or their autonomy usurped? Just as a compassionate physician respects a patient’s right to make medical decisions, a skilled interpreter bridges language divides, ensuring everyone’s right to make their own choices remains intact.

But let’s face the uncomfortable truth. Many of us have either witnessed or been part of a situation where this core value was breached, even if unintentionally.

To prevent this from happening, it’s paramount that seasoned professionals revisit the basics: ethics, standards, and protocols. I recall attending conferences and being somewhat dismissive of sessions I deemed “basic.” But with time and experience, my perspective shifted. Reconnecting with foundational principles brings fresh insights and richer understandings.

The word “fundamental” always brings to my mind basketball legend Tim Duncan, aptly nicknamed “The Big Fundamental.” His hallmark? A steadfast commitment to mastering the basics. Duncan’s consistency, epitomized by his iconic bank shot, might not have been the flashiest on the court, but it was undeniably effective. His dedication bore fruit, as evidenced by his illustrious career.

The lesson for us is this: Greatness in interpreting or translating isn’t about grand gestures but rather a dedication to the essentials. This encompasses a commitment to upholding communicative autonomy and a relentless pursuit of improvement.

To succeed, we must adhere strictly to our professional roles and standards. Deviations can lead to unintended ramifications, not just for us, but for the very fabric of our profession. Numerous fields rely on their practitioners to maintain standards, ensuring trust and predictability. In language services, it’s no different. We’re charged with being professional, maintaining confidentiality, and ensuring accuracy. Our communities, patients, and clients depend on us to bridge the linguistic divide, benefiting society at large.

So, as we navigate the complexities of language and culture in our work, let’s continually remind ourselves: our truest purpose lies in upholding the integrity of every communication, ensuring every voice is heard and understood.


*Sofía García-Beyaert, Marjory A. Bancroft, Katharine Allen, Giovanna Carriero-Contreras, and Denis Socarrás-Estrada, Ethics and Standards for The Community Interpreter®: An International Training Tool (Columbia, MD: Culture & Language Press, 2015), 5. Online access: