Translation and ethics

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.

By | 2016-10-18T15:48:42+00:00 August 23rd, 2011|Freelance Translation|6 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Elodie August 23, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    Imagine a world, where all translators stop translating oil & gas-related stuff… What would happen then ? Personnaly, I’d like to know.I think we could change things if we stuck together.
    Yes, I’m dreaming out loud…

  2. céline August 23, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Hmm… the oil and gas companies would have to rely on machine translation and there would be lots of accidents? Of course these industries pose a lot of problems, as do many global corporations, but I’m not sure that refusing to translate for them would necessarily help.

  3. Katherine August 23, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    You raised a point I hadn’t thought of when reading your last post, which is that for some people (you mentioned your parents), there’s nothing wrong with using guns per se. A lot of people don’t have a problem with hunting.
    And, not to group them together, but following on from that I would guess that most people involved in the military don’t have a moral issue with war!
    So what it comes down to is your personal ethics, rather than some overarching social morals, e.g. if a soldier was also a translator, presumably they wouldn’t mind translating that arms manual, even though a few of us here were strongly against the idea.
    But having reviewed my local trans association’s Code of Ethics, there may be a professional reason not to take on jobs that contravene your personal ethics; once you’ve decided to do the work, you must do it objectively and impartially, without inserting your own viewpoint into the translation. If you had problems with the text/writer, you’d probably find it hard to do this, and thus would be risking your professional reputation by undertaking the work. (I guess even if you did it objectively, you may still hurt your reputation if other colleagues or clients strongly disagreed with you taking on the translation?)
    But as you say, a lot of industries cause all sorts of problems, and as everyone’s morals are different, it would be pretty much impossible to avoid doing work that didn’t upset someone somewhere. I guess you just have to draw your own line and hope for the best!

  4. céline August 24, 2011 at 9:56 am

    @Katherine: The topic of objectivity is crucial. I once turned down an interpreting job at a faith conference because I thought that my own personal beliefs might stop me from interpreting objectively and efficiently. However, I wouldn’t take into account my colleagues’ views on any job: as long as I can justify my decisions to myself, I would expect other professionals to respect them.

  5. Paula August 24, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    Hello Celine,
    You post totally resonates with me. I left my very comfortable, well paid, stable in-house translation job in the City of London when I could not bear any longer to do work for an industry that was becoming more and more against my personal values and ethics (gambling).
    It took me 4 years, but in the end it was the best thing I did, when I found the courage to just go with my heart. Next, when I was gearing up to become a full time freelancer, I landed a dream job at Global Voices Online, a citizen media organization for which I had volunteered for some years. And I do work from home 🙂
    I think freelance translators are very luck to be able to draw your own lines – surely the time you would spend working for something that doesn’t resonate with you at all, it is less time you are free to get paid translating something that is worthwhile, if not neutral.
    More and more I find myself refusing work on ethical grounds, and there is no money that buys peace of mind!

  6. Sofia September 20, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    I think everyone is entitled to feel strongly and passionately against certain issues, but then, like Celine pointed out, 1) translating is what puts food on your plate everyday and 2)I guess it depends on whether you can afford to loose a potential client or not… This is a cruel world.
    Would I want to do medical translations for a company that I know tortures both animals and humans (although not so openly…)? My answer is, I’d rather go hungry!

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