The Issue of Ethics in Translation & Interpreting
By Clara Lorda
Most people focus on doctors, lawyers or judges when they think of ethical choices that professionals must make. But what about translators and interpreters? There are several common ethical standards which are accepted across all professions. For example, finishing a project by a certain deadline, declining to undertake a project for which the professional is not qualified and certified, not overcharging the client when a price has already been quoted or keeping the client’s information confidential. In other words, there is a set of standards that when applied helps to ensure the best results will be achieved for the client. Although ethical issues appear to have little to do with translation and interpreting, most translators and interpreters will in fact face more than one ethical dilemma throughout their career.
While codes of conduct for translators and interpreters do exist in some countries, they mostly set out guidelines on issues related to professional competence. For instance, the American Translators Association (ATA) has a formal code of ethics that all members must adopt and follow. But what about a translators’ or an interpreters’ personal code of ethics?
While writing about this topic, a particular story came to mind: An interpreter I know personally was interpreting for a real estate agency during the purchase of a property. On one occasion, during a meeting between the brokers and buyers, the two real estate brokers for which the interpreter was working suddenly started to make fun of the buyers. An interpreter is obligated by their profession to interpret everything that is being said, so it is easy to guess how conflicted the interpreter must have felt at this point. What was she supposed to do? She decided to let the brokers know that she would interpret every word from that point on, and so they stopped mocking the buyers.
Interpreters are in a slightly different situation than translators in terms of dealing with ethical situations, due to they very fact that their personal morals will (or potentially will not) coincide with the expected professional morals as set out by various institutions – examples include the Ethics and Standards for Interpreting in medical situations, as presented by the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC), or the Code of Ethics for Legal Interpreters, as presented by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Although not all institutions will outline a particular “code of ethics”, most expect interpreters to behave in a similarly professional and impartial way. It is in the best interests of anyone looking to hire an interpreter to check that the agency contracting them vets all linguists in its network to ensure they work according to the these expectations.
Translators also experience ethical dilemmas that are more related to their personal views. For instance, would a translator translate the instructions for an automatic rifle if he knows the target readers are teenagers in Sudan? Would he translate a pamphlet containing neo-Nazi ideology? What about if he is pro-choice, would he interpret for a pro-life group? To translate or not to translate, that is the question. There are several opinions regarding this issue depending on whom you ask. Some professionals think that it is essential to separate your personal convictions from your professional life, but to what extent is this possible? One of the requirements to achieve a good translation is to be faithful and accurate to the source text and this means there is no place for subjectivity.
This begs the question whether a translator is able to provide a quality product if it involves betraying himself or herself? As I mentioned before, it probably will depend on the individual translator. It will also depend to some extent on the individual’s personal circumstances. For example, a junior translator is less likely to be picky about what he is asked to translate, especially if this is his only source of income. To some degree this situation resembles the concept of a fair juror at a trial. Like jurors, translators and interpreters at times must make difficult ethical choices. In most cases, these choices positively affect their professionalism as they ensure dedication to a quality product. Hiring a translator through an agency will likely guarantee some security when it comes to ensuring your project is completed – however, if there are any concerns this should be talked through with a project manager before the launch of the project.