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The ethics of translation
Thread poster: Selkie

Local time: 12:23
German to English
Oct 8, 2007

I accepted work from a private medical institution to translate informational material. Through research for the project, I have come to the conclusion that many of the claims made by the client about the effectiveness of alternative therapies are dubious at best, and deliberately misleading at worst. I am stuck since I have already agreed to take the work, but feel like I am participating in mild fraud and trafficing in the hopes of desperately ill people. In short, I am very uncomfortable with the whole thing.
Can I use the slight leeway that language gives me to make the statements in English less deliberately misleading than the origional text? Or is that even less ethical than simply translating what I have and saying "caveat emptor", since any potential patient has access to the same informational resources as I do and can assess for himself if this form of medicine is worth the money?
How do you all deal with the ethic aspect of our work? Are there topics or organisations where you have or would refuse a job? This is the first time I have been confronted with this kind of thing, and I am struggling to find a solution that makes me feel less "dirty" about my participation.

[Edited at 2007-10-08 07:55]


John Cutler  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:23
Spanish to English
+ ...
Your conscience is more important than $ Oct 8, 2007

If you want to sleep well at night and be at peace with yourself, drop the job and find something you're more comfortable with.

"Doctoring" the text to make yourself feel better is probably as unethical as anything the text might say and is certainly no solution to the root problem.

Do what you need to do to keep your inner peace and whatever you can to not leave your client in the lurch.

This subject has been discussed in other fora but I can't remember exactly when.


Mervyn Henderson  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:23
Spanish to English
+ ...
Want to get paid? Oct 8, 2007

If you do, think that you have done the job you were hired to do, and send them the bill. With any additions you can think of. It's a dirty dirty world, and your agonising won't make one iota of a difference to anyone anywhere. Comfort yourself in the knowledge that before you were hired to do it, those patients thought about you just as much as you thought about them.



Local time: 12:23
Dutch to English
Not a translator's job to impose ethics Oct 8, 2007

Hi. I have come across similar situations in legal texts, where claims are made that are blatently untrue/unfair, but I simply translate them and move on. I don't think it is my job as a translator to critique the text I'm translating or any claims it might contain.


Galina F
United States
Local time: 06:23
English to Russian
+ ...
I do agree with John Oct 8, 2007

Dear Selkie,
I was contacted once by a person offering me a translation of a work concerned with religion; and the money was good, really good.
I agreed to do this job and right before signing a contract I got to know its title, it was about satanic Christianity, something like that. Being a Christian, I felt very disappointed and frustrated. And I really needed the money. I wrote him back with my polite excuses saying I couldn't do this work for him due to some changed circumstances. I didn't want to spread things I think are very harfmul for this world and one life can make a great impact on lives of many people. I am convinced of it. So it is up to you.
Be your best self:)


Karen Stokes  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:23
Member (2003)
French to English
Ethics Oct 8, 2007

Selkie wrote:

Can I use the slight leeway that language gives me to make the statements in English less deliberately misleading than the origional text?

As a translators we have a duty to produce a faithful and accurate rendering of the text we are working on.

In my view it would be completely unethical to do otherwise - and bear in mind that as in medicine as in other areas there are always two different sides to every question.

If it makes you uncomfortable, then I think all you can do is to avoid such areas in the future.



Marie-Hélène Hayles  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:23
Italian to English
+ ...
Essentially agree with John Oct 8, 2007

It would certainly be unethical and indeed morally (and legally) indefensible to "doctor" the text. If you're even thinking about doing so, ask yourself this question: how do you know that your client hasn't asked someone else to revise your translation? Or that they aren't perfectly capable of reading and understanding your translation for themselves (most people working in the medical and scientific fields speak excellent English)? Leaving all ethical questions aside, just to protect your own back you really mustn't make any changes to the text, even if it's only a matter of emphasis.

Having said that, You should be able to get out of the translation if you accepted it "sight unseen". If you already had the text when you accepted the job, you could ask the client to release you if the deadline is sufficient that they'd have no trouble finding another translator to complete the job. Otherwise, in my opinion you should just do a faithful translation of the original, present your bill and never work from them again.


Terence French
Local time: 12:23
English to German
+ ...
Agree with John Oct 8, 2007

I've been translating video games for years, but I draw the line at first-person shooters. I find myself unable to reconcile my conscience with translating a game which glorifies war/violence that I'd never allow my kids to play. The same applies to gambling websites.



Hilde Granlund  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:23
English to Norwegian
+ ...
agree Oct 8, 2007

with most of the others here.
Unless the text is illegal - I think you should do the job you agreed to do, and certainly not "fix" the text in any way. THAT would be unethical.

HOwever, as others also have said - if the deadline is not too strict, you could state your problems with the text and try to get out of the deal.
It is always a good idea to have a look through any text before agreeing to do it.
That is what I (almost) always do, and it saves me from this kond of problem, and also from getting into a translation that is too complicated for me or in some area of expertise that I know nothing about.
That piece of advice is too late for your situation right now, but it might be worth considering for the next job.
Good luck!


Abdellatif Bouhid  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:23
English to French
+ ...
Inner peace Oct 8, 2007

The text will translated, either by you or by somebody else. And nobody is going to reward you nor fault you for your inner struggle. Do whatever will bring you inner peace, inner joy whenever you will remember it.



Local time: 12:23
German to English
Linguistic leeway Oct 8, 2007

Thank you for all your comments.

I did skim the texts before accepting the work, but knew very little about the procedures it offered until I researched them for the translation. Now I have it 2/3s done, and each successive procedure I research calls up numerous "quack warnings", weighing heavily on my conscience.

What I mean by leeway is what we all do every day: choosing between the phrases "shown to be effective" and "proven to be effective", for example. Both acceptable translations of the origional German, but each with a slightly different flavour. I had no intention of "correcting" the text per se, but I do have to choose the nuance I give it. A German text translated into English tends to get a bit more positive and upbeat anyway due to the language. So I am struggling with whether I can choose the more neutral options that still reflect the client's use of langauge, or if I have to give it the good old English enthusiastic "hard sell" that the client would probably prefer since it is all about drumming up business among the desperate terminally ill.

But part of me wonders: who am I to say that these alternative methods don't work? None so far have been rated dangerous, just rather ridiculous, so perhaps I need to suspend my own disbelief and get on with it. A sick person's ability to clutch at medical straws may be the only hope left. And perhaps hope is always a positive thing.


Maciek Drobka  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:23
Member (2006)
English to Polish
+ ...
'Agonising' will make a lot of difference... Oct 8, 2007

Mervyn Henderson wrote:

If you do, think that you have done the job you were hired to do, and send them the bill. With any additions you can think of. It's a dirty dirty world, and your agonising won't make one iota of a difference to anyone anywhere.


It's a sad perspective to think it's a dirty dirty world. It's a wonderful world to me, and the 'agonising' of people such as Selkie makes a lot of difference. To me, that is. This 'agonising' is part of what makes the world a beautiful place.



Charlie Bavington (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:23
French to English
You can't just "drop it" Oct 8, 2007

I really don't think it is at all appropriate or professional to just drop it, especially if you are 2/3 of the way through (rather than, say, 2 or 3 paragraphs into it!).

Unless, perhaps, you plan to deliver what you have done, and say you're sorry but a "change in personal circumstances" or some other flannel means you can't complete it.

Look at it this way - your translation will bring this material to the attention of a wider (i.e. English-speaking) audience. Someone in that audience may be in a position to take the kind of action I'm presuming you want to see, to refute the claims or whatever.
And your second post has also provided some good reasons for just biting the bullet and getting the job done !


Heidi C  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:23
English to Spanish
+ ...
Difference between Translator Ethics and the Ethics of the translator... Oct 8, 2007

Just to clarify,

The answers here are dealing with two different issues:

1. Translator Ethics: The professional code of ethics a translator must follow, which includes not altering the text, delivering work on time, not working on a text you are not qualified to translate, etc.

2. Ethics of the translator: Which refers to the personal code of ethics of the translator, which deals with matters the translator, as a person, cannot accept. This includes topics and themes, misleading information, propaganda, religious or political ideas, etc.

If your personal code of ethics does not allow you to translate a text, you certainly have the right to refuse doing it: and to do so you must follow the code of ethics of the profession.

(Actually, this would be a valid reason supported by the code of ethics of the profession: you are not qualified to translate the text because even unconsciously you could end up modifying the text...)

One thing the code of ethics of the profession would DEFINITELY not allow you to do is to modify the text in any way or translate following your own bias.


Fernando Tognis  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:23
Member (2006)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Just translate! Oct 8, 2007

If you could realize there was something fishy in the text, just try to reflect the same in the target language.
As Karen said, "as a translators we have a duty to produce a faithful and accurate rendering of the text we are working on".

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