I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the ethics of translation and my role and responsibilities as a professional translator, and thanks to the reactions on this blog, I think that I’m clearer now. Incidentally, it has shown me again the value of a blog, where thoughts and ideas can be developed fully and in one place, compared to Twitter, where immediacy and spontaneity go hand in hand with fragmentation and oversimplification.
I realised that there was an internal conflict between Céline, the peace-lover and Céline, the French translator. As a translator, my loyalty goes to my profession: I am here to facilitate the intercultural communications of my clients, without judgment, and as a translator, I have strictly no professional grounds to decide that a text, however controversial its content and provided it doesn’t break any law, should not be translated. I also feel a duty towards both my potential clients, the recipients of my translations, and for keeping Céline the peace-lover fed and clothed. As an individual, however, I have morals and independent opinions, which can make me very uncomfortable with a particular subject and lead to a schizophrenic conflict with my alter ego, the professional translator.
The act of translation, with the help of tools such as computers, glossaries and reference material, creates a distance between the translator and the content of a document: the arms manual becomes a useful tool for its user. Like every other document to translate, it is words on a page, that my client needs
analysed and transferred into French. Added to this the fact that I’m familiar with rifles, cartridges and the like, as hunting is a way to put food on the table for my parents’ generations, it didn’t instantly repulse me, and my first reaction was to treat it like any other job.
Had the subject matter been dealing with issues I’ve already reflected on and have a clear moral position on, the individual might have been stirred from her work time slumber and barged the translator aside. For example, if I ever received a translation request from a racist organisation, I wouldn’t even look at the document before sending a polite and firm “No, thank you”. I don’t need to think about it to know that I don’t want to be associated with these people and ideas.
To go back to the original dilemma, what decision would I have made if it hadn’t been taken away from me? As a professional translator, I can see that these manuals need to be translated, and that more harm than good might come of them not being available in French, but I cannot be sure of that. As an individual, I can imagine that spending two or three months translating weapon manuals might drive me insane with guilt. In the fight between the professional translator and the moral individual, I think the latter should always win.