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Refusing translations on moral grounds
Thread poster: xxxIanW

Local time: 06:32
German to English
+ ...
Jul 25, 2005

Dear all,

Quite recently, I was asked to translate a rather unpleasant text about the joys of hunting. The article itself wasn't particularly graphic, but I find the notion of shooting furry animals for sport rather sickening and was in two minds as to whether I should refuse the job on moral grounds. Normally I would have, but this would have meant leaving one of my best customers in the lurch, so I did it.

Looking back on that, it got me thinking about the kind of jobs which my colleagues would refuse on moral grounds. Extreme right-wing texts would be quite high on the list, I imagine (although someone must translate them) as would pornography and arms 'brochures'.

If anyone else has had experience of this sort of thing or has any comments to make, I'd be very interested to hear them.

All the best



Victor Dewsbery  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:32
Clear cut or "close to the wind"? Jul 25, 2005

The line is not always so easy to draw.
I have refused 2 jobs on moral/religious grounds.
One was texts for a homosexual calendar - a subject which I am not happy with for religious, moral and personal reasons, and would have probably done very badly anyway. (I do not wish to judge anyone here - I realise and accept that some colleagues would have had no problem accepting this job).
The other was for a religious group which I considered to be extremist (I agreed with many aspects of their general Christian standpoint, but I was unhappy about some of their methods).

That is the first category (personal moral/religious opinions), and for some your hunting text would also fit in this category, as would texts about military subjects, nuclear power, religion in general etc.
For texts in such areas, I believe we should feel free to draw our own personal line without looking down on those who take a different view.

A second area is the sort of subject which is generally regarded as immoral/unacceptable/anti-social (e.g. obvious crime, child pornography, pro-terrorist texts etc.). I hope nobody here would accept jobs in these areas.

There is also a massive grey area. I have translated "general terms of trade" for some companies with the feeling that they were imposing unfair terms on their buyers/suppliers.
Some texts on network marketing also make me suspicious (as I suspect they are often just a fancy form of pyramid money collection from new recruits).
I recently translated a bank brochure and suspected that the main area of profit for the bank in question is circumvention of tax laws (sort of "offshore banking").
I once translated a lengthy contract and discovered (unfortunately after I had firmly accepted the job) that it was for a line of publishing that I am not happy about (the contract itself was just formal stuff and did not contain any "shady" content, but I would have preferred not to be involved with the company in question).

The bottom line for such texts is that the author of the text is responsible for the moral/legal content. If we do not have a full knowledge of the circumstances, we can't make a final judgement, nor can we be made responsible for anything objectionable in the content.
There is also the question of honouring contracts (verbal or formal) that we have made. If I have accepted a job (either over the phone or by some formal written agreement), I need very good reasons to cancel it (in your example: the hunting text with just general praise would probably not go beyond the line, but a hunting text with lots of explicit and graphic descriptions would probably be too much).

So yes, I would definitely feel free to refuse texts on moral/religious/personal grounds, but it is difficult to draw the line on what is a clear cut case and what is just "sailing close to the wind".


Olav Rixen
Local time: 21:32
English to German
+ ...
Similar experience Jul 25, 2005

Hi Ian,

I had a similar experience recently, where I was asked to translate several pronographic books. It isn't always easy to decide where to draw the line. I decided to accept the job, because basically I think what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their home is none of my business, and even though some of the books dealt with S/M practices, the texts were littered with warnings and insistence on consent.

In the end everyone will have to decide for themselves, everyone's moral standards will be different. I think you have a right to refuse to translate anything that will make you feel very uncomfortable, and if you explain that to your client, even if it's your best client, I'm sure they won't hold it against you.


Local time: 06:32
English to German
+ ...
Homework Jul 25, 2005

A colleague once asked me whether I would be willing to read some books and write a summary/essay about them. To me this sounded very much like somebody was looking to get his homework done - especially because I knew that a person in contact with that colleague was taking a correspondence course at an institute in the US or UK to obtain an MBA. This person had already required lots of help from the colleague just to compose his application for the course although he claimed to have spent some time at a university in the USA.

I refused this job because I think somebody who wants to get a degree should work for it himself.

My colleague so highly praised my "moral standards" when I turned the job down, it was pretty obvious she really meant I was a fool not to accept the job - and the money or any future work from this source. Strangely, friends I told about this incident shared her opinion.

By the way, the subject of the summary/essay was to be "Ethics in Marketing".


Stephanie Wloch  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:32
Member (2003)
Dutch to German
I have refused translating a manual on moral grounds Jul 25, 2005

Lately I have refused a text on moral grounds in the field military engineering (weapons).
If I am a pacifist as a private individual, it would be kind of hypocritical translating texts about weapons.
I would also refuse the joys of hunting for the same reason.

Do you you really leave your client in the lurch if you refuse?
I can't imagine that your client accept ALL kinds of texts too.

I told my client (agency) very politely that I couldn't accept the job on moral grounds and their reaction was very positive,
stressing that they understand my point of view.icon_smile.gif

In the past I once did a text about weapons and I regret that very much.:-(

[Edited at 2005-07-25 11:51]


Ken Cox  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:32
German to English
+ ...
why not? Jul 25, 2005

I agree with the general tenor of Victor's posting. As a freelancer, you are a free agent, and you can refuse any job for any reason (the situation is different if you do translation as an employee; then you are formally bound by the terms of your employment contract). Your relationship with your client is naturally a consideration, but I think most clients would understand that you can't or won't necessarily accept all potential jobs (and if the client is an agency, it has alternatives).
I turn down jobs when I don't have time for them (fully booked with other work), when I consider that I'm not competent to translate the subject matter, and (in principle) on moral grounds. The latter has only happened once so far, with the text for a soft-porn teletext site of the more sleazy variety. The decision was made easier by the fact that the end client asked for a reduced rate, which to my mind just showed that their business model was based entirely on exploitation. The agency was very understanding (they even apologised for possibly having offended me), and I imagine that the client ultimately found someone else to do the translation.


Jeremy Smith  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:32
French to English
+ ...
Context is everything Jul 25, 2005

While the subject matter of some texts might be apparently offensive/criminal etc, before turning it down, I would want some more information as to its end use. It could easily be that the end client might want extreme right wing political texts (for example) to be used in sociological studies. The subject area itself might be pretty unsavoury, but I would be happy to do such a translation if it was for research purposes.


Denis Kazakov
Russian Federation
Local time: 07:32
English to Russian
+ ...
Didn't have so many objectionable texts but agree that you can turn them down Jul 25, 2005

I think, only a very weak person would grab anything and everything that comes their way. If you are strong enough, you are free to accept or reject.
I vaguely remember that I turned down an offer to work for a virtual brothel (i.e. a web-site where customers could place orders for real sex with prostitutes). And I quitted working with one customer who started publishing psychiatric books because I object to psych drugs. Otherwise, I don't think I received anything objectionable in my career.
On the other hand, I turn down about 50% of orders I receive because I don't have time to do them.


Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:32
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Feel free to refuse any work Jul 25, 2005

Ian Winick wrote:
Quite recently, I was asked to translate a rather unpleasant text about the joys of hunting. The article itself wasn't particularly graphic, but I find the notion of shooting furry animals for sport rather sickening and was in two minds as to whether I should refuse the job on moral grounds.

If you feel strongly about something, then feel free to refuse to do it. You have to decide how loud does the money talk. Clients should respect you for your decisions, and many of them will if you tell them tactfully, but of course if you lose a client because of such a decision, then that's the price of having high moral values.icon_smile.gif


Clarisa Moraña  Identity Verified
Local time: 01:32
Member (2002)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Never been asked, but I will refuse a job if it's against my believes Jul 25, 2005

Hi, all

I'm absolutely sure that I will refuse a translation project if I consider it's against my most important moral values. I've no problems with some touchy subjects that have been above mentioned. Nevertheless, as a pacifist, I'll never translate a document expressly calling for a war or justifying it.


Clarisa Moraña


Parrot  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:32
Spanish to English
+ ...
Use of information may actually be more objectionable than topic Jul 25, 2005

And in interpreting, you learn that one of the things you live with is having strange topics jumping at you from the woodwork where you never expected them to be. (Note that once you've signed the contract, there's no honourable way out on short notice).

Translation is another ball game, although a renaming error (or someone's failure to rename a file) once opened my eyes to the kind of information trade-off I wouldn't be caught dead in. It involved a long-term arrangement which I had initially felt honoured to undertake for the entire term, but which seemed to confirm my worst suspicions every day. I was depressed for several months, not feeling guilty, but impotent.


Alison Schwitzgebel
Local time: 06:32
Member (2002)
German to English
+ ...
The wonders of GM Jul 25, 2005

I've only ever turned down one job for moral reasons, and that was a presentation extolling the virtues of genetically modified crops.

Being a financial translator I don't really get faced with too much Godlessness. Saying that, some of the accounting practices I've seen have been a little dubious, but not so far out of line that I've been forced to throw in the towelicon_smile.gif


[Edited at 2005-07-25 20:33]


Omar Ali  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:32
Member (2006)
English to Arabic
+ ...
Ethics come first! Jul 26, 2005

I met the situation two times. One of them was a big project (50,000 words) but I refused it because it contradicts with my beliefs as a Muslim. Money temptation is always there, but your personal judgment and conscience must be your guide at all times!


Spanish to English
+ ...
Sexist ads Jul 26, 2005

I can think of only one similar experience. A few years ago, I was asked to translate a car advert, which to my mind was extremely sexist. I didn't turn it down, but I did tell the ad agency that, in the English-speaking world at least, it would be considered highly offensive and wouldn't exactly go down well at the international festival they were planning to show it at. It was subsequently released (in the original, in Spain), received thousands of complaints and was rapidly pulled.
I hate to say I told you so, but...


Monika Coulson  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:32
Member (2001)
English to Albanian
+ ...
If you do not enjoy it Jul 26, 2005

then, no reason to accept it. I only accept materials that I really enjoy, or are interesting to me, or at least I know the field well. If I do not know the field well, it most likely because I do not enjoy it or I do not find it interestingicon_wink.gif.


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