Calling all translators! Tell me about ethics.

Hi everyone, just a quick one today.

As many of you will already know, I’m currently about halfway through writing my PhD thesis on the ethics of translation and I was hoping that you might be able to offer me a little help.

I’ve attempted to retain a sense of practical, professional relevance within my thesis, using real-life translation examples from my own work where possible and always keeping that act of translation in mind, but I’d also greatly appreciate some input from my fellow professionals to get a better sense of what ethics really means to other translators.

Have there been times in your translation practice or your translation career when the question of ethics has come up or when you yourself have had to make ethical choices?

What is your take on a translator’s need to be faithful, accurate or impartial and how do you approach a text with this in mind?

Feel free to discuss anything that you feel is relevant.

I’d love to hear from as many people as possible so don’t be afraid to share this post.

Leave a comment on here, tweet me, email me (joseph@jaltranslation.com), send out a message in a bottle, whatever you want!

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Thanks!

A few thoughts on research in translation

I hope you’re all well out there and enjoying a productive February. Today I thought I’d offer a bit of an insight into what I’ve been up to recently.

As some of you will already know, I started a PhD in Translation Studies in September 2014 and am currently about halfway through my research journey. While I initially continued working for a few translation clients alongside my research, I’ve more or less phased out my freelance translation work for the time being (aside from a few projects here and there) to prioritise working on my thesis.

So what am I actually writing about? As I’ve mentioned in a few previous blog posts, I’m really interested in the ethics of translation and my research represents an attempt to bring together and develop upon the wide range of conceptions of ethics put forward within Translation Studies. I’m doing this by using ethical theory as an underlying framework allowing me to highlight the key areas of focus to date and to uncover blindspots that represent potential future lines of enquiry.

But enough of that, I don’t really want to go into my research itself here. Instead, I want to discuss translation research more generally as a potential path, offering a frank take on my experience so far and a few thoughts off the top of my head on the kind of attributes that are key to PhD research (in my experience at least), some of which are closely linked to the skills required to be a successful freelance translator.

Quite a few of my readers are current or former translation MA students and I know that (in the UK at least) a number of universities are now taking on PhD students in Translation Studies, so maybe I’ll be able to convince some of you that a PhD is (or, perhaps more likely, isn’t) for you..


 

Passion and focus

An absolute must when contemplating a PhD is a passion for your subject and a clear idea of your specific areas of interest within that field. It’s important to identify a void within your particular area of research that not only has enough scope to fill a thesis but is also focused enough to avoid getting out of hand and spilling beyond the word limit before you’ve even scratched the surface.

The ethics of translation, for instance, has been explored at length without reaching any consensus over what it requires of us and this means there are a number of avenues yet to be explored. The downside to these huge voids is that the subject is so massive that a specific issue can easily slip out of focus. It’s extremely important to keep your research goals in mind and make sure you haven’t gone off track completely, something I have to keep reminding myself!

Discipline and perseverance

A PhD thesis is a big old project, there’s no doubt about that.The idea of being left on your own with a blank canvas and three years to create a polished 80-100,000 word document is a daunting prospect to say the least.

Of course, there is support out there in various forms (supervisors, online groups, other PhD students…) but you still need plenty of self-discipline and motivation to keep those creative juices flowing!

For me, this is one area where freelancing has been pretty useful. Working at home surrounded by all the potential distractions that come with the territory was nothing new to me, making the transition to research a fairly smooth one.

However, when you’re translating, it tends to be with a tight deadline in mind and a paying client who wants their end product ASAP! With a PhD thesis, although there are supervisory meetings and reviews with mini “deadlines” of sorts, I find it helpful to set regular personal targets and goals to break the project down into manageable chunks.

Flexibility and open-mindedness

So far in my research journey, I’ve already been in the rather unfortunate position of having to change my primary or secondary supervisor on three occasions due to retirements and lecturers taking on new roles.

While on the one hand this has allowed me to gain several different perspectives on my work – I’ve received valuable input from a range of vastly-experienced experts who all (unsurprisingly) have a different take on my subject area – it has been undeniably disruptive at times.

Yet the main thing I’ve taken from these changes is how important it is to be flexible in developing a PhD project. Working on a thesis, you have to adapt your intellectual focus based on feedback, your developing interests and your ongoing research.

Linked to this is an openness to criticism, which is again something that I’ve experienced working as a translator. As is the case with translated texts, your ideas will not always be met with universal appreciation and it’s important to use advice and criticism as an opportunity to learn and improve, accepting when you’re heading down a blind alley and when you need to explore new ideas.

Ultimately, it is also important to remember that you are the driving force behind your project and are in a position to choose which path you eventually follow.


 

Eighteen months in, I still love my research topic and feel I am making good progress. It can sometimes be overwhelming working in such a huge, complex area and there have certainly been setbacks along the way (supervisor changes, paper rejections, ideas that simply don’t work out etc.).

However, even though I still have lots of ground to cover in the thesis and am fully expecting the next 18 months to be extremely challenging, it’s a challenge that I’m looking forward to.

P.S. If you’ve enjoyed studying translation in the past and think a PhD might be for you, feel free to send me an email for any further advice and I’ll try my best to help out! 🙂

An Agency Perspective on Ethics

In a way, today’s post picks up from where we left off last time out with a review of Anthony Pym’s On Translator Ethics. However, while Pym offered an academic take on what a translation ethics demands of us, today’s discussion from Adam Earl provides an interesting agency perspective on ethical matters. Let’s get to it.


The Importance of Integrity Throughout the Translation Process

Maintaining your personal integrity is a priority for professional translators; have you ever considered how integrity plays a vital role throughout the translation process? A translation agency should ensure that their translators show integrity in three key areas, and in this post I’d like to share these with you.

Integrity towards the author

By showing integrity to the author of the document that sits before you, you ensure that you respect their vision for what they want to communicate. It’s not a translator’s place to say that you disagree with some of the author’s key assertions, or that their main argument is completely unfounded — even if it does seem ludicrous to you!

By showing integrity to the author, you’ll keep the accurate translation of their document at the forefront of your aims and goals. And if you really do disagree with the author’s content, then it’s probably best not to accept the contract at all.

Integrity towards the contract

Next, an agency expects their translators to display integrity to the translation contract that they’ve taken on. Displaying integrity to a contract entails more than simply abiding by the terms and conditions of your arrangement: it entails treating a particular contract with the same level of professionalism as any other.

For example, an agency like Tomedes often receives requests for very short translation assignments — sometimes the source text only consists of a single sentence! They require their translators to treat these smaller jobs with the same level of care and professionalism as they would technical, multi-document projects. They’ve found that by treating all contracts equally, they’ve managed to build a loyal clientele who respect their integrity to making and fulfilling contracts.

Integrity towards the text

Finally, a translation agency requires translators to maintain integrity to the text. Translators need to remember that they’re not an editor! Whilst providing a localized translation requires the use of editorial skills, the translator’s primary aim should be to provide a faithful translation of the source text rather than a more readable one.

Bear in mind that some clients may actually want you to perform more detailed editorial duties, but make sure you include that as an extra service in addition to translating the text, and clearly outline what each service you provide entails in your terms and conditions. On the other hand, some clients may be angry if you deviate from the source text without permission, so make sure you provide as direct a translation as possible unless you agree otherwise beforehand.

Final thoughts

By showing integrity towards the author, the contract and the text, you’ll come across as a professional translator who should be valued by their clients. How do you maintain integrity throughout the translation process? Feel free to share your thoughts with us below.

Author Bio

Adam Earl works as a freelance writer and communicator, and writes for the Tomedes Translators’ Hub blog as well as other technology-related blogs.

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.

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.