Saturday, May 27, 2006

Codes of Ethics

To continue the discussion on ethics, let’s look at translators’ associations’ codes of ethics.

Many translators’ associations do have codes of ethics or recommendations for professional conduct, but often such rules are rather basic. Such codes might say that translators should only translate to their native languages, or that they should be certain that they possess the necessary knowledge (such as specific terminology) before they accept an assignment, or that they should protect the customer by not using the text to be translated, the client’s personal information, or any other details in any way that does not strictly have to do with the job. But these kinds of codes or rules, which deal mainly with practical issues and are thus helpful in that regard, generally leave out two important topics.

First, they give no advice or suggestions on what translators should do if they face ethically risky situations. For example, what should a translator do if asked to translate a text that is specifically supposed to show the client’s language skills? Maybe a client is applying for a job in France and has to be fluent in French but instead writes his application essay in English and asks a translator to translate it to French. Is that ethical? Some translators might argue that such a client is only hurting himself by misrepresenting his language skills and that it is not up to them to point this out to him, whereas others might feel that they have a responsibility to turn down the job. To take a more serious example, what should a translator do with a racist text? Some translators might say they have a duty to make all texts available in other languages while others might refuse to translate a racist document, claiming that it incites people to hatred and possibly violence. Codes of ethics are, unfortunately, basically silent about these very important issues.

The second major topic left out of codes of ethics is the role of the client. If translators are expected to follow rules, why shouldn’t their clients? Too often I hear stories – or experience such things myself – about customers who try to cheat translators by not paying the correct amount, or not paying on time, or who expect translators to do more than is actually the job of a translator. Some codes do have recommendations for employers of translators, but these recommendations are generally rather basic as well, and they're not that common anyway. Many translators’ associations have corporate members and it would make sense to have ethical rules that these agencies and companies need to uphold. Then, if they do not follow the rules, they can be fined, or removed from the association, or translators can be warned about them (there should be similar consequences for translators who do not follow their ethical codes, too). Too often, corporate clients take advantage of translators and this must change. I suspect that some clients simply don’t understand translation and therefore don’t know how to work with translators, so having regulations or advice for them would educate them and help both them and the translators who work for them.

While I think it is great that translators’ associations have some advice on ethics and other information on professional conduct, I also think these codes are too limited and need to be further developed.

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