Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Ethics and Translation

I think ethics is a huge issue when it comes to translation. As translators (or editor/publishers/readers of translations), we have a lot of different responsibilities, and many ethical issues to consider.

As many of you know, I teach in UEA’s MA program in literary translation. We tend to talk about ethics in class because, you know, it’s rather relevant to what the students want to do with their lives. One of the students (who shall, of course, not be named) in the past few years complained to me that we talked too much about ethics and that it actually had nothing to do with translation.

This student made this comment at the end of the academic year, when the cohort had spent quite a bit of time discussing issues such as translating for readers without much power or control (such as children or a minority group) or what to do when faced with potentially challenging situations (such as whether to take a job translating a porn film, or whether to agree to interpret for someone on trial, or how to handle the translation of a racist/anti-Semitic/otherwise prejudiced text, or even how to deal with a client who wasn’t paying).

I was genuinely shocked that a student who had spent a year in an intense MA program was arguing that ethics had nothing to do with their chosen career, and I was left feeling as though this person couldn’t have gotten much out of their studies.

What do you think about ethics and translation? Is it an important topic to discuss? What ethically sticky/challenging situations have you come across in your time as a translator?


Hakan Karadeniz said...

The greatest ethical problem about translation today is that it has become a task that is performed almost solely to earn money. Our principal 'skopos' as translators is merely getting paid for whatever we do. And we do a lot of things that we need to account for

Anonymous said...

I bet that student will change his/her mind after a few real-world jobs. So many ethics-related decisions, daily!

For example: How to make your new-grad résumé appealing without actually lying. Whether you can say you specialize in a field vs. are simply familiar/have experience with it. And, related to what Hakan says, when to stick to your set rates and when to offer reduced/no fees for projects you think are important to have "out there."

B.J. Epstein said...

I agree that money is a concern for many practicing translators. But of course there are also lots of other ethical issues.

Do you translate a text you fundamentally disagree with if you need the money? Do you argue with your client/editor/publisher about word choices? Who do you aim to please with your work and why? Etc.

Best wishes,

Unknown said...

For me, ethics is THE issue in translation, the #1 paramount thing to think about. Like you said in your comment, "Who do you aim to please with your work and why?" - this is indeed an ethical question, because it's about where your loyalties lie in a situation where there will quite likely be multiple stakeholders with competing interests (including but not limited to yourself, your client, the author, and the text itself). Equally important is the question of what jobs to accept--and I don't mean just based on whether you agree with the content. As translators, we are often offered jobs we are not qualified for or for which our qualifications are questionable. Whether we accept such jobs is an ethical issue. There are so many ethical implications to accepting a translation job you know or suspect that you cannot do well.

Honestly, I really worry about your student and how suited he is for this career... Is he alone, or does this happen a lot?

(This is Alys by the way, in case when I click "publish" my name goes away like last time...)

María G. said...

I am a student of English to Spanish translation and so far have not been faced with an ethical problem, however, I consider ethics to be a very important factor in our work as translators. Personally it bothers me when the text contains obscene language which I wouldn't normally use. I know I would feel uncomfortable having my name associated with an offensive text.
I wonder if, like people say in the comments, money would play an important role in my decision to take the translating job or not, even if it goes against my principles.
For now, I think not (hope not).

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