Translation Ethics: A Different Perspective

This post represents a long-overdue contribution as the question of ethics within translation is both a topic I find fascinating and one to which I have devoted considerable research. In fact, with it being the topic that was at the heart of my MA dissertation, I’d probably go as far as saying that it is my ‘specialist subject’ within translation studies – if such a thing exists.

I must also note that this post is merely an introduction to this vast area and I hope to write further posts on the topic in the future to expand upon the basic ideas set out here.

Although it has been widely acknowledged for some time that ethical considerations are an area of key importance for translation studies research and translation as a whole, relatively few scholars have sought to tackle the issue and even fewer bloggers or professionals writing upon translation have looked into this area.

One notable problem is that the very definition of ethics varies greatly between texts and people can find themselves addressing wildly differing concepts while still contending with the same umbrella subject. Furthermore, traditional concepts of ethics do not apply to translation in an adequate manner; sticking to ideas such as utilitarianism (used in the sense of the most happiness for the greatest number of people) or intellectualism (which dictates that the best action is the one that best fosters and promotes knowledge) can be viewed as a limitation of conceptions of ethics in this context.

Ultimately, ethics remains a challenging subject in any field and its breadth of applications ensures that no discussion of the subject will prove to be clear-cut. Indeed, as Sherry Simon puts it in her 1999 review of Lawrence Venuti’s The Scandals of Translation: ‘[w]hat more difficult notion is there in translation studies than that of the ethics of translation?’

However, whether or not that is the case, many of the posts I have read on the subject are particularly out of line with what I see as the key issues and I believe that some ground can be gained by looking into precisely what it is we are aiming for.

More specifically, the majority of posts I have read addressing the area are concerned with individual convictions and value judgements. One perfect example is this post from Jensen Localization entitled ‘Ethics in Translation’ that questions how differing views on topics such as religion or politics, or texts that may cause offence to the translator can lead to ethical problems. This is undoubtedly an important aspect of the profession and questioning the impact that these issues have on your output is extremely interesting, yet I don’t feel that this is a part of ethics proper.

Similarly, while an issue such as translators’ rights and drawing up a professional code of conduct for translators are both undoubtedly important, they place focus solely on a deontology, or professional ethics, while separating a personal ethics from the discussion.

For me, professional codes of conduct represent a different area of study while considerations such as whether or not a translator is willing to accept a text based on grounds such as religion or politics are individual decisions that lie within the distinct category of morality.

It is important that ethics contends with the question of how to translate; previously mentioned issues are not ethics of translating or translation, but of the translator.

As Anthony Pym puts it (a leading voice on the topic who himself continually refuses this distinction between deontology and ethics and seeks to address the profession and the act together in an attempt to develop one all-encompassing ethical code):

‘If any decision includes moral aspects, it follows that any act of translation, and any theoretical treatise on it, can be read from the point of view of ethics.’

In this statement he equates the act of translation as a whole with an ethics of translation and as a result implies that the ethics of translation is inextricably linked to a methodology of translation – the individual choices in the translation process, or that question of ‘How to translate?’

An ethics of translation lies in deciding upon the right course of action within the act itself, deciding what is the right or wrong treatment of the text we are translating and knowing how to implement those decisions. It implies an acute awareness of your own role in the translation process and a keen awareness of the impact of your decisions on the world around you.

One example which serves to demonstrate the distinction I have attempted to make is this provocative post that is currently causing some heated discussion among professional translators. Within the post, the author details and glorifies their method of ‘faking it’ in translation – getting work in the profession despite being wholly unqualified.

In terms of a professional or translator ethics, this is highly questionable as the client is not given an honest reflection of the translator’s capability to complete the work (the line ‘managed to convince some poor fool to pay me to translate Japanese for them’ really drives this home), while in terms of a translation ethics the translator is in no position to fully appreciate the significance of their choices or the subtle shades of meaning that are being erased, mangled or mistreated and is thus acting in an unethical manner.

Overall this is an extremely difficult area to address and I hope that this introduction has served to shed some light on what I believe is the true heart of a translation ethics.

6 thoughts on “Translation Ethics: A Different Perspective

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