Off topic: NY Times ethicist on translation
Thread poster: Kevin Schlottmann

Kevin Schlottmann  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 09:10
German to English
Aug 14, 2005

Randy Cohen, author of the NY Times "The Ethicist," fields a question about translation:

Translating Copycat
Published: August 14, 2005

I have been translating some articles from Hungarian into English for publication in a historical encyclopedia by a major American research institution. I accidentally learned that one article was copied in large part from a lexicon published in 1929. I am guessing that copyright issues arise here. Should I report my discovery to my employer? Vera Szabo, Ann Arbor, Mich.

You should report this. If you do not, who will? Who can? Few English speakers will have read the original Hungarian article; few Hungarian speakers will read the English version.

When it comes to ordinary civilians, both law and ethics impose only a limited duty to report wrongdoing. You need not dial 911 every time you see someone going 45 in a 35 m.p.h. zone. But you are not an ordinary civilian; you are part of a scholarly community, and different contexts entail different obligations. Intellectual integrity can be maintained only if members of your community report transgressions. Without this self-policing, the field cannot sustain its own values.

You also have a duty to your employer. Everyone in the publishing process should report a solecism that would otherwise go undetected -- a misspelling, a grammatical error. Similarly, all should report a serious ethical transgression. To keep silent would undermine the project on which you are employed.

The copyright question is a legal one (with a potential pitfall for your boss), and hence beyond my purview. But regardless of its answer, the ethical duty persists.


Victor Dewsbery  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:10
An interesting incident on similar lines Aug 15, 2005

Once I worked on two different books for two different publishers which partly covered the same subject (there were just a few weeks between the two jobs).
One author had written a contribution to both books - on the same subject, and much of the text was identical. He had just changed a couple of details here and there.

I informed the publisher that I was working for at the time (i.e. the second project). They didn't worry a bit about the copyright problem. Their only comment was to ask for a discount (I refused, and they didn't make a fuss about paying in full).


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NY Times ethicist on translation

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