Translators and moral dilemmas

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

By |2016-10-18T15:48:42+00:00July 28th, 2011|Freelance Translation|17 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. céline July 28, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    I published a comment on this post, but after thinking about it, I’ve deleted it, as I feel it was unnecessary inflammatory and a terrible start for a discussion.

  2. Helen July 28, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    You raise some really fascinating issues here, Céline, and some I’ve grappled with already in my young translation career. I’ve never been offered texts about weapons, but I even get irritated by certain marketing and aggressive advertising texts, being the anti-consumerist greenie that I am! But ultimately, I can’t afford to turn down that kind of work all the time…
    On the subject of translators and war situations, there is a really interesting book by Mona Baker, “Translation and Conflict: A Narrative Account”, published by Routledge. It’s well worth a read. Bonne fin de journée!

  3. Jill July 28, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    It is indeed a quandary. I have turned down graphically pornographic texts in the past. I simply didn’t feel comfortable translating it. Simple R-rated content in computer games isn’t a problem, but I couldn’t justify translating X-rated content. We all have to make these personal decisions based on our own levels of comfort. I don’t know if I would feel comfortable translating 160,000 words, let alone 160,000 words of weapons manuals. That said, I have a colleague who would be perfect jobs like this (in German-English) and have in the past referred him for jobs like this. The client was happy and so was he – and so was I.

  4. Katherine July 29, 2011 at 4:20 am

    Hmm, so you didn’t come down on either side of the fence… yet, anyways.
    I’m not sure I buy all of your/Judy’s/Luke’s arguments for taking the job, but that’s a personal thing. I thought your point about endangering French soldiers was interesting – I hadn’t thought about that side of it.
    As far as translation goes, I think it might make the job more difficult if someone took on work they felt strongly against, e.g. as to maintaining a good relationship with the client, and translating objectively. So for that reason, it might be preferable to decline the job.
    Maybe you could turn it round and say, as it will be difficult for me (morally) I will charge more, and maybe that would swing it. But personally, I think I would feel worse about it if I was getting paid more on top of everything else!
    I’m having a similar struggle as there is some demand in my area for translating for the oil and gas industry, which I am generally against, and it’s interesting to think about what level of involvement constitutes a violation of someone’s personal values.
    Anyway, what I want to know is how you got landed with this dilemma! I would’ve thought arms manufacturers would be giant companies with their own translators or at least a dedicated agency on call, weird!

  5. céline July 29, 2011 at 9:41 am

    Thanks for your comments, they’re really helping me carry on my internal debate.
    @Helen: You’re right, there are so many areas that are potentially damaging to other people/the world, including things as seemingly innocent as shoes or clothes. So many big corporations use dubious methods of production, including child work, that in the field of marketing translation, we can never be sure what kind of practices we associate ourselves with. What do we do with that?
    @Jill: The porn industry is another example of an iffy area. Some of it, I’m sure, depicts “healthy” situation and involves consenting adults who make a living out of it without being damaged by it, but some of it is reported to be incredibly exploitative. I suppose it would depend on the client and the material. It would upset me too much to have to watch/translate violent scenes, so I’d definitely turn it down in that case. Ironically, considering what it’s built for, it’s difficult to be upset translating a weapon’s user manual, as it focuses on the mechanics of the tool, and not the consequences of its use.
    @Katherine: Just for the record, Judy is very firmly against working for the arms industry, and I think Luke is also pondering the issue. What it boils down to (maybe), is the end user of our translation. Who are they? How important is our translation to them? What would the impact of a bad/non-existent translation be on them? Do we have a responsibility towards them? War is bad, we all agree, but the people that are involved with war on a daily basis are just people, like you and me, who probably hate war just as much as I do. Why punish them further?
    Your point about translating objectively is very interesting. I once turned down a lucrative interpreting job for an inter-faith conference, because as a humanist, I knew that some of the content was likely to anger/upset me, which would make me unable to my job properly. In the case of a user manual, this is less likely to happen, but still.
    “What level of involvement constitutes a violation someone’s personal values”: yes, exactly. I would never buy battery chicken eggs, because I don’t like any form of cruelty against animals, but I wouldn’t turn down, say, the marketing material of a battery chicken farm, because I feel that my personal beliefs are just that – and people have a right to disagree and buy and sell whatever they feel is right for them.
    As to how I got the job, I am as surprised as you are. The client obviously never had translation needs before and just put “French translator” in, and found my website on the first page of the results. 8 years of blogging have paid off 🙂

  6. Katherine July 29, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    Yes, I think you may have hit the nail on the head there, in that it comes down to the end user.
    As for dealing with all the other areas of potentially unethical conduct, I think you just have to draw a line somewhere that’s right for you, and not worry beyond that, because if you tried to avoid it all, you’d struggle to make a living I think!
    I might consider how much my translation is “aiding and abetting” the client in their dubious practices combined with how dubious those practices are, and if it turned out to be relatively minor, I’d go ahead with it. Totally hypothetical though, as I haven’t been in your shoes yet.

  7. Douglas Carnall July 30, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    I admire your courage and honesty for raising the issue, but surely ethical consideration should precede your technical ability to render the text concerned? As the post stands, its message is that you have no objection to translating for the arms industry, but that you are not competent to do so. As I said, I admire your honesty, if not your ethics…
    By definition, translators in the arms industry are enabling arms exports, so there’s hardly a pro patria justification. One might hope that such legitimate international projects as do exist in the domain (between NATO powers?) would be sufficiently resourced to have their own in-house linguists. But even they should ask themselves the likely use of such weapons systems. For “defence,” or for neo-colonial projects? I put it to you that today such work serves rather to oppress, injure and kill poor brown people than the defence of one’s native land.
    There’s a great article by Robert Fisk that describes presenting an arms company’s executives with a fragment of a Hellfire missile they’d made and sold to the Israelis, which, when fired at a fleeing ambulance, had killed two women and four children. And some photographs of the gory results. I don’t know if the pilot had a Hebrew translation of the manual or not, but if s/he did, Mr Fisk would have been as justified in visiting the material upon the translator responsible.
    More generally—those poor chickens!—one is part of the problem or part of the solution. If you agree to translate for an ethically questionable enterprise you are undoubtedly sustaining it. And the sum of everyone’s ethical decisions determines the nature of the world we live in. Try to add, not subtract: there’s plenty of ethical business out there.

  8. céline July 30, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    @Douglas: I didn’t mean that I had no objection to work for the arms industry, far from it: just lots and lots of confusing questions, and this blog post has helped resolve them. I am currently writing a follow-up post summing up the result of my ruminations, which have been greatly helped by my readers’ insightful contributions, including yours of course.

  9. Douglas Carnall July 30, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Yes, I sense you are genuinely reflecting on the issue in order to reach a better position, and I admire that.
    It would have been fairer of me to accuse you of currently holding no *insurmountable* objection to working for the international arms trade, not that you have no objections at all.
    I look forward to reading the outcome of your cogitations, which are most worthy.

  10. @sebdsl July 30, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Hello Céline,
    “Whether I agree with war or not, the gun has been produced and sold”
    Here lies a lie. Fatalism? Depressive reaction in a world without rules where money reigns? Translating weapon manuals like manufacturing and selling weapons is a support to war and violence. That’s a fact.
    It’s then all about responsibility. Can I take the responsibility for the future death of children, mothers and fathers because I supported a weapon company? Or do I think that it is more important to assure an armed protection of our people?
    Can I look into the eyes of my own children saying: “yes I translated a weapon manual”, face their reaction and truly explain my motivation?
    As you said, your lifestyle is also supporting malnutrition, conflicts, nature destruction everywhere in the world… like mine! And the question is: at the moment when I get aware of the consequences of my everyday decisions, can I go on behaving like I always did, repressing what I’ve just learnt?
    Your words and decisions have a much bigger impact on your whole environment than you may think; if you’re really for peace on earth, show it!
    I’ve been thinking about such choices the past months and I just published a post about our responsibilities as human being: everyday choices and inter-actions.
    In addition: I remember some interesting scenarios about choices and (in some of them) jobs: “all the President’s men”, “the Insider”, Blood Diamond”, “Thank you for Smoking” (satiric), “Minority Report”, “the Matrix”.
    Thanks for opening this hidden debate with ourselves

  11. Steve Vitek July 31, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    You are not the only translator who has been facing a similar dilemma. I turned down a similar translation offer a couple of months ago to translate a huge amount of words (more than 100 thousand) of military and weapons manuals into Czech. I told them that my Czech is not that good anymore, which is kind of true.
    But it is probably still good enough for this kind of work and I could have used the money. I could probably still wing it, but the truth is that I did not want to touch the job with a ten foot pole.
    For some reason, translations that stick in my mind as the most memorable ones are those that I know were useful and helpful to “little people who don’t matter”. For example, almost 10 years ago I translated a study by a Japanese ethnographer who lived among extremely poor women in Indonesia in order to study the birthing methods that midwives were using in poor villages where there were no doctors. One of the main conclusions of the study was that many children’s lives could be saved if the midwives could use sterilized metal knives instead of much cheaper bamboo knives that they were using to cut umbilical cord.
    I think that the NGO that I was working for needed the translation to justify the money that they needed to spend on new equipment for midwives, probably just a lot of new, sharp knives, on a godforsaken, dirt poor island somewhere in Indonesia.
    Some translations make me feel good about myself, and some would make me feel dirty.

  12. EP August 3, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    That really is a tough one because you really shouldn’t worry about the things that you can’t change, only the things you can. In this case you can. So, hey, it’s decision time. Nobody can really help you on that one, I find.

  13. Judy Jenner (@language_news) August 13, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    Excellent post, Céline, you beat me to it! 😉 Interesting conversations/discussions as well.
    The way I see it, we are service providers who can choose their clients. It’s the equivalent of posting a “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” sign –I just saw such a sign in my German bakery this morning. What exactly someone would have to do for the bakery NOT to sell him or her a roll is beyond me, but I digress.
    As Steve said, some translations just wouldn’t make me feel good about myself and my work. I am a progressive liberal and as such, I don’t want to translate anything that aims to destroy the planet (dangerous ground, I know), kills people, or gets people to vote Republican (Ha! I said it. I am a political animal). That said, we don’t translate for extremist groups (extreme right, left and anything else) and have turned down projects from questionable get-rich-on-the-internet providers. They weren’t trying to scam us — in fact, they wanted to pay ahead of time and were affiliated with a reputable company — but we wanted to play no part in misleading people.
    That said, deciding who the clients are you don’t want to work with is a very personal decision: there is no right or wrong. Luckily, 99% of the work we get is very straightforward business stuff. Although, hm, this discussion has made me think more about the issues, of course. Many businesses damage something or someone in one way or another (child labor, etc.) Something to ponder. BTW: one of my closest friends is a former Wall Street analyst who focused on the “vice fund” (arms, tobacco). He was forever trying to take me to the gun range, but I politely declined. The solution to our political dilemma: we don’t discuss politics. Or guns.
    To sum it up: let’s not take the “free” out of freelance. You are free to decide what projects you want to take on and which you don’t. The decision is entirely up to you; and I certainly respect everyone’s decisions and thoughts on this fascinating issue.

  14. Ivan August 23, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    What you’ve talked about is actually a universal moral dilemma that everyone has to face in his or her career. What on earth are we working for, for the money, for our interest, or for the peace of the whole world?
    A English to French translation project is, by its nature, quite normal. But when it comes to the content of army and weapon, you may rethink it and struggle in your mind whether to take the job or not, as your conscience may unconsciously affected your decision.
    However, at the end of your article, you also mentioned that you turned down the job because you are not confident with the technical terms. So is it because you hate war that you finally declined the job or are you just taking the morality as an excuse since you are not able to deliver an exact translation?

  15. céline August 23, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    @Judy: “Many businesses damage something or someone in one way or another”: yes, exactly. I was trying to avoid a knee-jerk reaction and explore an issue which is far from straightforward.
    @Ivan: My new entry reveals all…

  16. Geraldine December 10, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    I had a similar experience two years ago, when I was approached by a Japanese religious group who wanted me to translate the book of their leader into French. After a quick look at the material, it was very clear for me that I did not want to help this organisation spread their “faith” accross the World. When I refused, I was told that I would be paid an insane amount of money if I decided to change my mind (which didn’t happen). I guess I was not the first one, and I hope I was not the last one, to say “no”.

  17. ermal December 19, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Every aspect of life has its own ethic/moral rules governing it… translation is just a profession and is ruled by the same ethics. Refusing or accepting a project morally doubtful, is just an indicator of personal ethics, which is the core and the one that truly rules. The rest is just submissive/slave of it, translation included.
    Very useful site. Congratulation! Everywhere I see… freelance translators have poorly designed websites.

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