Saturday, May 20, 2006

Translators and Ethics

I’m going away for a few days again, so I thought I’d leave you with an important issue to think about – ethics.

What is a translator’s ethical role? Should translators simply translate whatever a customer gives us? Is it our job to simply make all texts available in other languages? Or do we have an obligation to speak up if we disagree with something or if we are concerned about the affect the translation might have on the audience?

Every week, in the New York Times Magazine, a man named Randy Cohen answers questions on ethical issue. I enjoy his column, which is called The Ethicist, and was happy to see
a question on interpretation last Sunday.

Someone asked:

“Some time ago I was working as a court interpreter, translating what is said in court for the defendant and what the defendant says for the court. During a recess, the defendant confided that he did commit the crime and intended to take the stand and lie about it. I sought the advice of a colleague, who then informed the judge. As a result, I was chastised and lost my job. Was I wrong to divulge this information? E.N., Seattle”

Mr. Cohen responded:

“You were. Even if you made no explicit pledge of confidentiality, your role as an interpreter invites the defendant to confide in you, a relationship that does not terminate during a recess, out in the hall by the doughnut cart.

“The connection you've cultivated — emotionally, psychologically — endures. Unless you cautioned the defendant that you might disclose what he said, you abused his trust and your position.

“Robin G. Steinberg, executive director of the Bronx Defenders, a public defenders' organization in the Bronx (well, they would be), says of interpreters: "They become the only bridge between the attorney and the client. Those confidential communications can only occur with the interpreter, and those conversations are, indeed, confidential. There would be absolutely no way for a client to know that communications s/he makes just to the interpreter are subject to disclosure."

“Steinberg is right. A defendant naturally sees you as a quasi member of his legal team, someone to whom he can speak freely. Moreover, his requiring an interpreter indicates that he has limited facility with English and so is isolated in the court setting, making him even more apt to be candid with someone who speaks his language.

“What you could have done was speak to the defendant's lawyer. Generally, in the United States, if a client baldly announces an intention to lie on the stand, his lawyer is ethically bound to prevent him. Here in New York State, if a lawyer is unable to do that, he or she may, but is not required to, speak to the judge.

“While you acted badly, your colleague acted worse, imperiling the defendant and betraying your trust. I'm surprised that the judge spared him a sound thrashing, if that remedy is available under Seattle law.”

What do other translators and interpreters think of Mr. Cohen’s opinion? Do you agree with his view?

Have there been translation assignments you have refused to take or are there jobs you can imagine turning down for ethical reasons? I’d be very interested to hear other translators’ opinions on and experiences with ethical issues.


ms-marzipan said...

Isn't there a published code of conduct (or at least recommended practices) for such instances which make some of the extensions and limitations of a translator's role (in terms of "duty of care" and what would qualify as exploitation and/or harm) more explicit? I'm at times frustrated by the at times hazy ethical guidelines relating to academia, so it's difficult for me to draw parallels between the two. Anyway, a fascinating question, Brett-- thanks for posting it.

In connection with the theme of ethics and translation, I've heard it termed unethical for someone to translate into a language other than one's native language(s).

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Thanks for your comment!
Well, some translators have contracts with their clients, stating specifically who is responsible for what (often, especially if the client is an agency, it seems that translators are made responsible for nearly everything!), and of course some translation associations have ethical codes or guidelines as well. This is a hazy area, and some more explicit rules could be useful.
I wouldn't go so far as to say it is unethical to translate to another language, but of course the situation depends on the translator and the text. I do know a few translators whose knowledge of another language is so good that they can translate to that language, though I know some of them still have a native speaker check over the text.

Best wishes,