Book Review: On Translator Ethics – Anthony Pym

As many of you will know, for the last year or so I’ve been working on a PhD in translation studies and today I thought I’d use a little of my research material to bring you a book review. Since my research is focused squarely on the ethics of translation, the review rather predictably delves into one of the key texts in this area – On Translator Ethics by Anthony Pym.

Within the context of translation studies, the word ethics conjures up interest and mystery in equal measure. While it is widely recognized as a key area for discussion throughout the discipline, scholars have attempted to grapple with all things ethical in translation for decades and found varying – though generally limited – success.

Originally published in 1997 as Pour une éthique du traducteur, Pym’s work is based on seminars given by the author at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris. As On Translator Ethics, aside from the obvious changes ensuing from the translation from French to English, we are informed that the text has also been revised by the author and updated to include brief, polemical commentaries at the end of each chapter tackling contemporary ethical issues such as non-professional translation.

Chapter 5 also represents an entirely new addition and yet, beneath this veneer, this is essentially the same text as was published back in 1997. Indeed, as Pym explains in his introduction, while technological developments and the professional translation community’s attitudes towards scholarship engendered certain changes in his focus, the crucial ethical thrust behind the work required no alteration.

For Pym, the ethics of translation is twofold: it contains ‘collective, professional aspects as well as the translator’s individual morality’ (15) and ‘[i]f 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’ (16). With these statements, Pym equates the act of translation as a whole with an ethics of translation.

However, rather than seeking to address the question of ethics within the act of translation, as Corinne Wecksteen puts it, Pym proposes to replace the ‘fundamental question ‘how should one translate?’ … by the question ‘should one translate?’’ (Wecksteen 2000: 125), considering that ‘if we know why we translate, then we can deduce how we should translate and perhaps even what we should translate in each situation’ (Pym 2012: 12).

He goes on to depict translation as a cooperative act and sets this notion of cooperation at the very centre of his ethical theory. For him, the benefits of cooperation represent the final measure to evaluate the necessity of translation, implicitly moving from a traditionally deontological to a consequentialist ethics, focusing on ends rather than means.

Aside from these notions of cooperation, meanwhile, Pym’s main postulate is that translators are primarily intercultural agents located in the intersections of cultures rather than within one single culture. In order to initiate this switch, his opening chapter is dedicated to a critical re-reading of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s seminal 1813 paper ‘On the different methods of translating’, concluding that his binary opposition presumes that translators take only one side in their interventions, excluding the middle ground within which Pym believes that the future of translation could lie.

Within this ‘third’ space, translators are dominated by the ethics of cooperation and primarily responsible not to the source text writer, the client or their readers but to their fellow translators. This manoeuvre is carried out in order to argue that translators are by definition detached from national interests, benevolent but impartial helpers and, for Kaisa Koskinen, to create an ‘aura of innocence and moral disinterestedness’ (Koskinen 2000:74) in a tactical move aimed to raise the profile of translation. Overall, this is an innovative rethinking of the traditional binary dichotomies dominating the field yet a notion that leaves fundamental concerns.

As well as problems raised by ideas upholding the existence of mutually discrete cultures, Lieven Tack notes that Pym’s research also fails to consider important covert aspects of human communication such as hidden agendas and unconscious biases. Importantly, ‘[i]nformation does not flow freely, not even in intercultures; it is inevitably anchored, situated, appropriated and inscribed in complex ideological contexts. The mutual benefit, as the guiding principle for the question whether or not to translate, is not always clearly in sight.’ (Tack 2001:301).

Furthermore, despite Pym’s insistence that the answer to ‘why translate’ will solve the issue of ‘how to translate’, it is not an entirely natural connection, and one that potentially undermines his research. Ultimately, what Pym actually means by his ethics of intercultural cooperation remains vague – ideas such as translators using the principle of cooperation to produce ‘socially recognized added value’ (Pym 2012:158) may sound extremely promising but Pym never really gets close to helping the translator sitting in front of their source text.

Most worryingly from an ethical perspective, meanwhile, there are points in the discussion of the principle of cooperation where the process actually seems to align itself with commonly held conceptions of the unethical. Paradoxically, Pym says that if we translate with a view to achieving cooperation then we are ethically valid while also asserting that ‘[w]illful ignorance or reductive misrepresentation of the other is the quickest route to non-cooperation [i.e. the unethical for Pym]’ (ibid. 143), returning us to the labyrinth of fidelity (in this case to abstract ideas of representing the other) and leaving us to question what course of action we are to follow if the client asks us to omit or change something to represent a specific ideology. Is the cooperation ensuing from pleasing the client sufficient to overrule the need for representing the other in a specific manner?

Further questions outlined by Koskinen, such as ‘how does one evaluate the benefits of cooperation?’ and, ‘how does one choose between conflicting interests in cases where an obvious middle ground ensuring long-term cooperation simply does not exist?’, (Koskinen 2000:73) add to a growing list of problems but there remains a great deal of promise in the new directions that Pym has uncovered.

Though concerns remain over the solutions provided, Pym has undoubtedly done a lot more for demystifying ethics than most others, successfully tying the subject to a methodology of translation and hinting at a future beyond binary opposition. While the discussion of practical, commercial insights alongside more traditionally intellectual, philosophical themes often forms a somewhat jarring juxtaposition when reading the text – Pym’s attempt to provide practical contextualisation for his abstract theory is highly commendable, seeking to address a long-standing issue in translation studies by bridging the gap that exists between theory and practice.

Ultimately, Pym remains a key voice in the area and the ongoing relevance of his (largely unchanged) ideas – signaled by this essential republication of his work to a new audience after a fifteen-year gap – provides a strong indication of both the value of his contribution and the need for more work in the area. While his solutions are not always adequate, perhaps suffering from ‘casting the net too wide’ as he attempts to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution for the complex, multi-faceted world of translation, Pym’s contribution opens up a number of new directions at the very least.

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