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Ethical Question
Thread poster: Nepali_English
Nepali_English
Nepal
Local time: 17:00
English to Nepali
Jul 8, 2016

I recently took an assignment of translating a book. But, as I started the translation I found the content was very inappropriate politically in many instances. As a translator, mostly I don't bother about whether I agree or not on the text and simply do my job of translation. But, this particular assignment (although I haven't stopped doing it) is disturbingly different from what I strongly believe and also has a lot of factual errors.

I request my fellow translators and seniors from across the world to give their views on what would be the most ethical way to go about it. Should I stop bothering about the views/matter expressed in the text, and just continue translating whatever is written, or should I raise this concern with the author ?

Many thanks in advance for the advises.

-Thakur (Nepal)


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Kelly S
Ireland
Local time: 11:15
Member (2012)
Italian to English
+ ...
Translator Jul 8, 2016

Hi Thakur,

As you are the translator and not the editor or critic of the work, you should simply translate the text and leave aside your personal opinions.
If you struggle with this, you may have to advise the client and abandon the work.

SK


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KirstenL
Norway
Spanish to Danish
+ ...
Nobody can answer that question..... Jul 8, 2016

It is so personally YOURS. It all depends on YOUR feelings about the whole thing. There is no user manual on this subject.

Kirsten


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Kelly Neudorfer  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 12:15
German to English
Depends Jul 8, 2016

If it included ideas that I absolutely could not morally support, especially knowing that my translation would make the ideas accessible to so many other readers, then I would politely inform the client that I would not be able to finish the translation but would help them find a replacement.

If it was just a different political position than I would typically support, but I didn't have a moral problem with it per se, then I would finish the job.

You have to decide which category it falls in for you.


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John Fossey  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 06:15
Member (2008)
French to English
Your choice Jul 8, 2016

I have on one occasion, if I recall correctly (must have been five years ago), rejected a job when I discovered after getting the document that it was entirely incompatible with my ethics. I could not in good conscience associate myself with the document.

But it's rare.


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bohy  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 12:15
English to French
+ ...
Will your name be on the book? Jul 8, 2016

Apart from the decision to continue this translation or not, you have to consider what may mean to have your name associated with such contents, as the translator's name usually appears on the book.
Although you may choose to have your name appear or not, errors happen, and you may discover that eventually the book has been printed with your name on it, although you asked to suppress it.


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Kalyanasundar subramaniam
India
Local time: 16:45
Tamil to English
+ ...
Ethical question Jul 9, 2016

Very recently I also faced a similar situation. Though I did not subscribe to many of the ideas and views expressed in the article,I know pretty well,as a translator, I have no say on the content. But when I started noticing lot of factual errors and many controversial statements, that would receive flak if published in the public domain,I stopped translation and informed the agency which assigned the job to me.

Fortunately,the agency concurred with my views and informed the client. Thereafter the client agreed to correct all factual errors and remove controversial statements. After few days, a corrected version of the article was sent to me to redo the job.

In this case the Agency respected my sentiments. If it had been otherwise, I would not have continued with the translation.


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Jenny Forbes  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:15
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
Factual errors? Jul 9, 2016

The ethical side of your question is one only you yourself can answer but you say there are many factual errors in the book which also worry you.
In that case, you can (and perhaps should) point them out to the author or publisher, either in translator's notes or in a separate communication.


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Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 16:45
Member (2006)
English to Hindi
+ ...
Professionalism Jul 9, 2016

I have always held that, as professionals, it is not our job to pass moral judgements on what we translate. Our brief is very clearly defined and it is to transfer ideas in one language into another language, and leave the "being God Almighty" part to others.

The reason is, if we refuse to translate things with which we don't agree, then there can be several unpleasant consequences, some which are ethical:

1. We would contribute to keeping under wraps what should be brought into the light of the world so that appropriate authorities can become aware of what is happening and stamp it out if possible.

2. There is no guarantee that our position on something is ethically right, as to some one else, it might seem wrong and the original position as right. In other words, we being human, are as much prone to be biased and wrong in our opinions and judgements about the rightness or wrongness of things as others.

3. If we refuse to translate it, someone else would do it anyway, and our backing out wouldn't serve any purpose.

4. By refusing to translate things with which we don't agree, we are merely hiding our heads in sand and refusing to recognize that the world is not all milk and honey and hunky-dory. We need to get practical and professional and accept that there are a lot of things going on in the world with which we can't or won't agree, and that is how our world is.

5. And lastly, we would be going counter to our profession, which is not to take moral positions but to provide a technical service of transferring information from one language to another.

In such matters, I always give the analogy of a doctor who cannot and should not refuse to treat a critically injured terrorist or a rapist or a murderer, just because he is evil, anti-social, or immoral. The doctor's job is just to save lives to the best of his abilities; passing moral judgements is the job of the courts and priests.

We are merely mediums through which thoughts and ideas pass. All that we do is change the linguistic code of the source to the linguistic code of the target.

To use a chemical analogy, we are just catalysts, which remain unchanged in a chemical reaction, and merely contribute to either making the reaction happen or to speed it up.

This is not to say of course that you cannot hold personal opinions on somethings, just that when we don the translator hat, we cease to be ourselves and become an impersonal medium who is acting proxy to the original author in our target language and we need to erase our own personality.

[Edited at 2016-07-09 05:16 GMT]


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Jan Truper
Germany
Local time: 12:15
Member (2016)
English to German
+ ...
Conscience beats Professionalism Jul 9, 2016

Nepali_English wrote:

I request my fellow translators and seniors from across the world to give their views on what would be the most ethical way to go about it. Should I stop bothering about the views/matter expressed in the text, and just continue translating whatever is written, or should I raise this concern with the author ?

Many thanks in advance for the advises.

-Thakur (Nepal)



Your question shows that you feel very uncomfortable. I find this sign of a conscience both beautiful and commendable. If I was in your position, I would likely act on the apparent uneasiness and stop working on the job.
I have done so before, when it turned out that a supposed business/marketing text I was translating was actually trying to lure people into a pyramid scheme.
Generally, you should always check the text before taking on a job, but I know that is not always possible.

Being a translator doesn't mean you have to be a tool for "evil" of any sort. If you feel such a high degree of uneasiness, it will likely not go away just because you make a few dollars.
I think conscience beats "professionalism" any day.


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Kelly Neudorfer  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 12:15
German to English
Failed analogy Jul 9, 2016

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:

I have always held that, as professionals, it is not our job to pass moral judgements on what we translate. Our brief is very clearly defined and it is to transfer ideas in one language into another language, and leave the "being God Almighty" part to others.

The reason is, if we refuse to translate things with which we don't agree, then there can be several unpleasant consequences, some which are ethical:

1. We would contribute to keeping under wraps what should be brought into the light of the world so that appropriate authorities can become aware of what is happening and stamp it out if possible.



Your first point deals with illegal activities we discover through our translation. That I would point out to the authorities - in my opinion, it's not an ethical issue. I'm not going to translate instructions on how to lure victims for human trafficking. I'm going to inform the authorities that client X gave me this to translate, assuming of course that the client is not an international human rights organization just looking to gain information on the methods of the traffickers.

The rest of your arguments have a degree of amoralism I find rather... let's say surprising.

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:
2. There is no guarantee that our position on something is ethically right, as to some one else, it might seem wrong and the original position as right. In other words, we being human, are as much prone to be biased and wrong in our opinions and judgements about the rightness or wrongness of things as others.


In this post-whathaveyou world I understand that there are some who say there is no objective right and wrong. It seems you have that opinion. So you wouldn't mind translating propaganda posters for neo-Nazis to deport all the refugees? Or the cards distributed in some Polish neighborhoods post-Brexit saying "Leave the EU/No more Polish vermin"? Those had a convenient Polish translation on the back side. You would be ok with translating that knowing what it would be used for, saying "Oh, well, I may think it's wrong but someone else obviously thinks it's ok, so there's no reason for me not to translate it."

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:

3. If we refuse to translate it, someone else would do it anyway, and our backing out wouldn't serve any purpose.



I honestly don't know where to start with this point. You have no certainty that someone else will take the translation. Maybe they would also have ethical qualms and refuse, as would the next and the next translator. Maybe the client would end up having to dig to the bottom of the barrel to find a translator without ethics and the translation would end up being so poor that it wouldn't really be understandable anyway. But as long as you, who I'm assuming are a good translator, are willing to just snatch up the job and work away without any misgivings, there's no need for them to do that. Ethics is not saying "Well, if I don't translate this white supremicist propaganda about putting the black man in his place in the US then someone else will, so I might as well go ahead." The very least of ethics is saying no, I will not be complicit in this.

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:
4. By refusing to translate things with which we don't agree, we are merely hiding our heads in sand and refusing to recognize that the world is not all milk and honey and hunky-dory. We need to get practical and professional and accept that there are a lot of things going on in the world with which we can't or won't agree, and that is how our world is.


So let me get this straight: If I say no, I'm not going to translate white supremicist propaganda, then I'm just sticking my head in the sand? I should just shrug my shoulders and say "Oh well, some people are like that. I guess I just have to go with the flow." No. Ethics is recognizing that something is wrong and saying, "I will have no part in that." And it can even go a step further and say "I will actively work against it" and joining up with activist groups, for example.


Balasubramaniam L. wrote:

5. And lastly, we would be going counter to our profession, which is not to take moral positions but to provide a technical service of transferring information from one language to another.


You and I have different ideas of what our profession entails, apparently. As a matter of fact, in the German Translators Association code of ethics (and I am a member and thus beholden to this code), it says that we are obligated to turn down a job offer if it can be assumed that the offer serves illegal or harmful/unethical purposes ("Sie sind grundsätzlich gehalten, Aufträge abzulehnen, wenn sich aus der Auftragsübernahme ein Interessenkonflikt ergibt, wenn zu vermuten ist, dass der Auftrag rechtswidrigen oder unlauteren Zwecken dient [...]."). Not just that we *can* turn down the offer, but that we are *obligated* to turn it down.


Balasubramaniam L. wrote:

In such matters, I always give the analogy of a doctor who cannot and should not refuse to treat a critically injured terrorist or a rapist or a murderer, just because he is evil, anti-social, or immoral. The doctor's job is just to save lives to the best of his abilities; passing moral judgements is the job of the courts and priests.


A doctor is saving a life, something that has an intrinsic value in and of itself (according to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other similar documents). When we translate illegal or harmful material, we are doing nothing that has an intrinsic positive value - the act of translating in itself is not ethically right or wrong. That act of saving a life is.


Balasubramaniam L. wrote:
We are merely mediums through which thoughts and ideas pass. All that we do is change the linguistic code of the source to the linguistic code of the target.

To use a chemical analogy, we are just catalysts, which remain unchanged in a chemical reaction, and merely contribute to either making the reaction happen or to speed it up.


To keep up with the chemistry analogy, a chemist asked to produce sarin for a terrorist organization should just go ahead and do it? After all, 1) someone else will if they won't, 2) it's not their job to pass ethical judgment, 3) a doctor would save a terrorist's life, so why shouldn't a chemist help them out?, 4) your terrorist is my freedom fighter, so it's all relative anyway, right?, and 5) at this point the chemist is just a person putting a few chemicals into a beaker and stirring - they're really no more than a machine filling out a formula - ethics have no place here?

Please tell me you see the problem with this ethical code (or lack thereof).


Balasubramaniam L. wrote:
This is not to say of course that you cannot hold personal opinions on somethings, just that when we don the translator hat, we cease to be ourselves and become an impersonal medium who is acting proxy to the original author in our target language and we need to erase our own personality.

[Edited at 2016-07-09 05:16 GMT]


I will continue to hold to my code of ethics, both while I work and when I've stopped for the day.



[Edited at 2016-07-09 10:31 GMT]


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inesec  Identity Verified
Latvia
Member (2014)
German to English
+ ...
Let's assume that Jul 9, 2016

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:

I have always held that, as professionals, it is not our job to pass moral judgements on what we translate. Our brief is very clearly defined and it is to transfer ideas in one language into another language, and leave the "being God Almighty" part to others.

The reason is, if we refuse to translate things with which we don't agree, then there can be several unpleasant consequences, some which are ethical:

1. We would contribute to keeping under wraps what should be brought into the light of the world so that appropriate authorities can become aware of what is happening and stamp it out if possible.

2. There is no guarantee that our position on something is ethically right, as to some one else, it might seem wrong and the original position as right. In other words, we being human, are as much prone to be biased and wrong in our opinions and judgements about the rightness or wrongness of things as others.

3. If we refuse to translate it, someone else would do it anyway, and our backing out wouldn't serve any purpose.

4. By refusing to translate things with which we don't agree, we are merely hiding our heads in sand and refusing to recognize that the world is not all milk and honey and hunky-dory. We need to get practical and professional and accept that there are a lot of things going on in the world with which we can't or won't agree, and that is how our world is.

5. And lastly, we would be going counter to our profession, which is not to take moral positions but to provide a technical service of transferring information from one language to another.

In such matters, I always give the analogy of a doctor who cannot and should not refuse to treat a critically injured terrorist or a rapist or a murderer, just because he is evil, anti-social, or immoral. The doctor's job is just to save lives to the best of his abilities; passing moral judgements is the job of the courts and priests.

We are merely mediums through which thoughts and ideas pass. All that we do is change the linguistic code of the source to the linguistic code of the target.

To use a chemical analogy, we are just catalysts, which remain unchanged in a chemical reaction, and merely contribute to either making the reaction happen or to speed it up.

This is not to say of course that you cannot hold personal opinions on somethings, just that when we don the translator hat, we cease to be ourselves and become an impersonal medium who is acting proxy to the original author in our target language and we need to erase our own personality.

[Edited at 2016-07-09 05:16 GMT]


an international phedophile ring offers you an "amazing opportunity" to translate a phedophil's manual specifying how to lure minors, what actions to perform with them, how to murder a used child and how to get rid of the corpse. Some 500 000 words must be translated from English to Hindu and they offer to pay 0.7 USD per source word... You'll be over the moon???

[Edited at 2016-07-09 15:16 GMT]


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Teresa Borges
Portugal
Local time: 11:15
Member (2007)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
My take on the subject Jul 9, 2016

As a professional translator, I try to leave my causes, my biases, my likes and dislikes and my morality at a good distance from my translation desk, but for me it is a question of comfort level — if you are not comfortable working on a project, you are certainly not going to be able to turn out your best work. If something feels wrong to me, I am willing to walk away from the money. Deciding which projects are ethical to take on, though, can be very subjective. I would refuse jobs, and I have in the past, on gambling, obscene or pornographic material, military weapons, racism, hatred, intolerance, etc.

Anyway, I always check very carefully the text to be translated before taking an assignment, it’s far better to waste time at the beginning than to be confronted with “nasty” surprises later on…


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Christophe Delaunay  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 12:15
Member (2011)
Spanish to French
+ ...
Strange points of views Jul 9, 2016

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:

I have always held that, as professionals, it is not our job to pass moral judgements on what we translate. Our brief is very clearly defined and it is to transfer ideas in one language into another language, and leave the "being God Almighty" part to others.

The reason is, if we refuse to translate things with which we don't agree, then there can be several unpleasant consequences, some which are ethical:

1. We would contribute to keeping under wraps what should be brought into the light of the world so that appropriate authorities can become aware of what is happening and stamp it out if possible.

2. There is no guarantee that our position on something is ethically right, as to some one else, it might seem wrong and the original position as right. In other words, we being human, are as much prone to be biased and wrong in our opinions and judgements about the rightness or wrongness of things as others.

3. If we refuse to translate it, someone else would do it anyway, and our backing out wouldn't serve any purpose.

4. By refusing to translate things with which we don't agree, we are merely hiding our heads in sand and refusing to recognize that the world is not all milk and honey and hunky-dory. We need to get practical and professional and accept that there are a lot of things going on in the world with which we can't or won't agree, and that is how our world is.

5. And lastly, we would be going counter to our profession, which is not to take moral positions but to provide a technical service of transferring information from one language to another.

In such matters, I always give the analogy of a doctor who cannot and should not refuse to treat a critically injured terrorist or a rapist or a murderer, just because he is evil, anti-social, or immoral. The doctor's job is just to save lives to the best of his abilities; passing moral judgements is the job of the courts and priests.

We are merely mediums through which thoughts and ideas pass. All that we do is change the linguistic code of the source to the linguistic code of the target.

To use a chemical analogy, we are just catalysts, which remain unchanged in a chemical reaction, and merely contribute to either making the reaction happen or to speed it up.

This is not to say of course that you cannot hold personal opinions on somethings, just that when we don the translator hat, we cease to be ourselves and become an impersonal medium who is acting proxy to the original author in our target language and we need to erase our own personality.

[Edited at 2016-07-09 05:16 GMT]



3) That's what I call "to stick to one's guns"!

4) By refusing to abide by british laws, Gandhi was "just hiding his head in the sand and refusing to to recognize that the world is not all milk and honey and hunky-dory". Gosh! that sure is an interesting point of view... I wonder what your fellow citizen - 1.252 billion (2013) according to Wikipedia/World Bank - would think about that.

As a translator, I do provide a technical service. But I will always be a human being first. It is true that I was born in a country that allowed me to be one (human being). I don't feel like I am just one pair of arms and one pair of legs stuck to a body. Nor a catalyst, incidentally.
Just like an actor/actress. Although they are "known" to don the actor/actress hat and "cease to be [themselves] and become an impersonal medium", some do refuse a role if they don't at ease with it.

And what about those soldiers who decide not to kill anymore? Are they catalyst as well?

As Jan Truper (allow me to add something to your statement) put it perfectly, "conscience beats (some sort of) professionalism any day. "


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Kalyanasundar subramaniam
India
Local time: 16:45
Tamil to English
+ ...
Ethical questions Jul 9, 2016

I agree to Mr. Balasubramanian's view. I am always a dispassionate translator and very well aware of my role as a translator. But I could not come to terms and be a party to factual errors, blatantly wrong assertions and incorrect facts. ( I am not talking about translator's bias or prejudice).

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