Peace craneOn Tuesday, an arms manufacturer looking for English to French translation services found this website and contacted me to see if I was interested in a 160,000 word project (minimum). I hesitated. Did I want to be involved in an industry that directly causes the death of fellow human beings? Like most people, I have an aversion to war and its consequences.
This led me to question my own ethical stance in my professional role. Are there clients that I wouldn’t work with? Are there industries or organisations that are so repugnant to me that I would refuse to be associated with them?
Whether I agree with war or not, the gun has been produced and sold, and the client needs its user manual to be translated in French, so the people on the ground can operate their equipment as safely as possible. If all the French translators in the world decided that they want nothing to do with war, war wouldn’t stop, but the French speakers holding these weapons would have to guess how to use and maintain them. What if someone got hurt or died because the manual was not (or badly) translated? Besides, what if the weapon was sold to a state seeking to defend its population against violent extremists? Would it make the job more palatable? Ultimately, this type of issue is so complex that a business decision such as this can’t be made on a knee-jerk, potentially naive reaction alone.
As someone living in a peaceful society, it’s very easy for me to pretend that war is someone else’s problem and to refuse to have anything to do with it. However, it’s not. We live in a globalised society. My mobile contains coltan, which fuels conflict in Congo. My lifestyle produces disproportionate quantities of carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change and death in other parts of the world. However distasteful it is, war has existed ever since humans managed to grab a stick, and if some of the wealth it creates ends up with peace-loving liberals like me (to quote the expression used by Judy in Tuesday’s debate on Twitter), all the better. Or, as Luke puts it very nicely in Translation and ethics, face to face, a blog post he wrote after we briefly debated on the subject:

We also have a responsibility to our businesses, as separate entities, to ensure that they are as profitable as possible. If the price of spreading the ethically questionable text is high enough, we could offset our diminishing ‘integrity footprint’ by planting opposing ideas elsewhere. This way we may soothe our souls and our sales.

So anyway, I decided not to take the job, not on moral grounds ultimately, but because it was far too technical for me and I didn’t feel confident I could deliver an excellent translation, and in my professional life, this criteria takes precedence over everything else. I’m still not exactly sure where I stand on the ethical side of things, and I expect I’ll carry on debating with myself for some time. My (somewhat surprising) next move will be the subject of my next post.
Peace crane by Dominic’s pics