Ethics in translation – A few thoughts

  • Greater than 2 minutes, my friend!

    Traditional translation studies have always had the source text as the focal point, glorifying its fidelity and purpose. Target text was only seen as a derivative of the source and not expected to take on a role by itself. This has changed over the years as translators raised questions, argued and challenged this methodology. Like any truly living and growing profession, translation also had its upheaval and fair share of changes to be where it is today. Translators are in a position where they can debate the question of ethics explicitly, and also in a position where they will be heard.

    Even though the focal point has shifted from source text to the nature of the target text and the target audience, source text still is important, well, because it is source text and that is the basis for any translation.

    But what does a translator do when she is accosted with an ethical issue that arises from the source text?

    For example, when a translator is pro-choice but has to translate an NGO’s pro-life text? Or a religious text bordering on offensive? Or political speeches with racist undertone? Or an illegal text about how to build bombs at home aimed at teenagers?

    Can translators be held responsible for how they translate the content that don’t match their ideology? Can a translator let her personal choice affect the tone of the translation? How does one make ethically informed decision?

    Crowdsourcing is huge now. There are volunteer and humanitarian organizations soliciting volunteers to translate like Translation without Borders, Red Cross and NGOs working with refugees who are dealing with vulnerable peoples.

    How does one put aside one’s political / religious / personal leanings and just translate?

    How can a translator further analyze the ethical issues and arrive at a decision?

    Translators are professionals. Just like a doctor, engineer, lawyer. Professional detachment to the text helps at times. Just like surgeons who look at the disease and the diseased body separately, a translator just focuses on translating without imposing her views on the translated text. Absence of the individual called translator between the source and the target texts gets rid of the subjectivity from the equation. But what happens when the text is outright illegal or immoral?

    Following the general ethical guidelines that every translator is expected to follow is an answer to the dilemma of choosing one over the other. The general guidelines established by the translation associations give us a framework for professionalism. The purpose is for a translator to be cognizant of her responsibilities. Broadly speaking, the guidelines are – respecting client’s privacy and confidentiality, relaying information accurately and impartially, delivering the translation on time, not misusing the information for personal gain, declining work when the translator is not qualified or certified etc. Not all of the translation associations have introduced clauses about not accepting immoral or illegal texts.

    Every aspiring, dipping-their-toe-in-the-translation-industry-waters or seasoned translator has to question the ethical aspect of one’s work.

    Keeping the dialog on ethics ongoing and discussing the issues with other translators should be key in handling ethical issues.

    Ultimately, all rests on the discretion of a translator.

    Subhashree Beeman

    About Subhashree Beeman

    I am Subhashree Beeman - Spanish and French to English freelance translator - 7+ years experience - Pharma/Medical/General domains.

    3 thoughts on “Ethics in translation – A few thoughts

    1. Great, thought-provoking article, Subhashree! I think the best way to tackle those issues i by referring to the guidelines and ethical standards of your local association of translators and interpreters.

      Every translator has the right to refuse work if they find it offensive, immoral or illegal. Questions is: is this something that every translator must do by default?

    2. It is a multi-layered question. It depends on the translator as well as the text. If the text is an ideological difference, I would say to put aside the difference and translate. Like any professional would do. Drawing from the post itself, if it is a pro-life vs pro-choice kind of text, to some extent, the translator has to see the purpose of the document and translate it at, if I may call it so, the face value. A doctor doesn’t look at the patient’s ideologies, only the disease.

      On the other hand, if the text is immoral or illegal, the translator has to refuse to work on it. It is an ethical issue. Even if the said translator is a newbie or strapped for cash. Certain texts are just no-no.

    3. Thank you for this article on ethics, Subhashree, you don’t see those around often enough 🙂
      I agree that plain immoral/illegal texts should not be divulged, let alone translated.
      But what if a translator refuses to translate a text because of an ideological difference, like a conscientious objector in medicine or in the military system? The problem arises where lines are blurred.
      Should that translator be considered unethical and failing in their (ideal) duty, or do you think it would be still appropriate of them and justified based on free will?

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