Monday, February 12, 2007

More on the Ethics of Translation

I always find the ethics of translation to be a fascinating topic, so it was interesting to see it come up for the second time within a year in Randy Cohen’s Ethicist column in the New York Times Magazine.

In Sunday’s column, a woman writes that her father, a translator, was hired to translate pages from a diary of a woman whose husband suspected she was cheating on him. Was it ethical to translate the diary pages? Mr. Cohen says that the translation was legal, but not moral.

I agree with his assessment and I hope I would have turned down the assignment, but the fact is that translators don’t always get to see (or know much about) the work before they accept it, although certainly a translator could turn down the job once she or he sees the document in question. Also, some freelancers might truly be desperate for money and unable to say no to any work.

What do you think? Would you have accepted this job? When does something cross the line for you from being an acceptable job to one you feel obligated to refuse?


Anonymous said...

I would've accepted this translation and wouldn't consider it unethical at all. Cheating on your spouse is definitely unethical. Sneaking photocopies of someone else's diary is definitely unethical. But if the man had been able to read the language his wife's diary was in, he could just read it. If he asks his best friend (who speaks that language) what it says, is the best friend being unethical to tell him? I don't think so.
I as the translator am not bound by the wife's marital vows. I am not bound by any understanding that her diary is just for her (if she didn't want anyone to know about the affair she wouldn't have written about it in a book she left in the home she shares with her husband). As the translator, I am bound only to my client and the law. A doctor would treat a patient for an STD they contracted through unethical or immoral or extramarital activity. A translator should be no less professional. As long as there is no legal reason not to translate it.

Anonymous said...

I really don't see anything unethical about accepting a translation like this--not at *all.*

Assuming that divorce procedings might later ensue anyway, the diary could well be subpoenaed as discovery material and then translated. What is different about this husband's choice to translate it sooner?

It's also a bit strange to impose somewhat arbitrary personal values on the *victim* in this case, by declining to accept the job. It smacks very much of the simmering controversy in the United States where some pharmacists think they shouldn't have to dispense drugs when they have personal values objections to their purpose, e.g. birth control drugs or the like. I'm not sure I like the idea of pharmacists or translators imposing their personal values on others in these ways. I definitely don't like the condescending tone of the NYT article's author, who sees the issue as black and white.

Professional services in fields as varied as law, pharmacy, medicine, teaching, and, yes, translating sometimes delve into the darker sides of life, but doing so is not unethical. Imposing personal values on others might well be, by contrast, particularly when doing so impedes the kinds of medical, legal, or textual resources one might otherwise have available.

pennifer said...

The wife's actions are unethical, and the husband's snooping in her diary is also unethical, but I'm inclined to agree with other commenters that that translating the material isn't all that unethical. As a professional, I think it's okay. If the translator knew the parties in question personally, then I'd be uncomfortable with the translation.

Inarticulate this morning, but you get the gist.

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Thank you all for your comments!
I see your points, but I think I would still turn down the assignment. I wouldn't want to read someone else's diary myself (well, I might *want* to, but I'd hope I wouldn't!), so I wouldn't want to help a customer read someone else's diary, either. For me, it just goes too far over the line in terms of respectful treatment of others.

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

There are people throughout history who have published their diaries (many blogs are essentially diaries) and I myself have invited other people to read my diary. Certainly if I were married I would invite my husband to read it. So, I don't think that the text being a diary per se necessarily makes it unethical for someone to read it. I translate people's private medical records just about everyday in my professional work as a translator. I translate personal emails (usuall as discovery material in law suits) quite often as well. I just don't think the line between ethical and unethical is so clear cut.

What if the wife were slowly poisoning the husband with arsenic? Could the diary be translated then? What if she'd died suddenly in a traffic accident and the diary were full of pages and pages on how much she loved her children? I believe in that case it would be unethical not to translate it.

What if the husband wanted receipts translated because the wife was paying for things for her lover out of their joint marital account? Would that be unethical?

Honestly I would probably turn this job down too, but not for ethical reasons. Simply because private individuals are less willing to pay for a translator's services than entities having medical or legal translations done. And there's plenty of paying work out there.

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Well, I just can't agree with you. There is a big difference between keeping a private diary and choosing to publish it. I myself keep a diary, and it is for no one's eyes but my own. When I die, I hope no one will get the idea to read my many journals. Also, I certainly do not consider my blog my diary. However, I recognize that other people see it differently -- the point is, though, that they choose to use public space as their diary, or that they choose to make their private diaries public by publishing them. Again, choice is the defining factor.
And yes, I recognize that there are some situations that don't fit in here, such as Anne Frank's diary, which was published without her permission because it was an historical document. I see such situations as exceptions to the rule, and the rule for me is to not read something that someone else has not chosen to make public.

Best wishes,