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Moral Issues in Translation Business

Just as professionals such as doctors and lawyers occasionally grapple with ethics, translators and interpreters will likely face a range of ethical dilemmas in the practice of their profession. Certain countries have established codes of conduct that set out guidelines for issues such as quality standards, impartiality, and confidentiality; however, the truly difficult decisions arise when linguists are asked to translate a text that clashes with their personal ethical standards.

The professional ethics of translation have traditionally been defined very narrowly: it is unethical for the translator to distort the meaning of the source text. As we have seen, this conception of translator ethics is far too narrow even from the user's point of view: there are many cases when the translator is explicitly asked to "distort" the meaning of the source text in specific ways, as when adapting a text for television, a children's book, or an advertising campaign.Professional ethics is an integral part of any interpreter/translator. He is not an ordinary clerk, his profession is connected with the translation of information and he must do it with full responsibility. Our age is the age of HI-tech information and a person who possesses this information is a mighty one. He can use it in different ways. There are some rules that the interpreter should follow.

From the translator's internal point of view, the ethics of translation is more complicated still. What is the translator to do, for example, when asked to translate a text that s/he finds offensive? Or, to put that differently, how does the translator proceed when professional ethics (loyalty to the person paying for the translation) clash with personal ethics (one's own political and moral beliefs)? What does the feminist translator do when asked to translate a blatantly sexist text? What does the liberal translator do when asked to translate a neo-Nazi text? What does the environmentalist translator do when asked to translate an advertising campaign for an environmentally irresponsible chemical company?

As long as thinking about translation has been entirely dominated by an external (nontranslator) point of view, these have been nonquestions — questions that have not been asked, indeed that have been unaskable. The translator translates whatever texts s/he is asked to translate, and does so in a way that satisfies the translation user's needs. The translator has no personal point of view that has any relevance at all to the act of translation.

From an internal point of view, however, these questions must be asked. Trans­lators are human beings, with opinions, attitudes, beliefs, and feelings. Translators who are regularly required to translate texts that they find abhorrent may be able to suppress their revulsion for a few weeks, or months, possibly even years; but they will not be able to continue suppressing those negative feelings forever. Translators, like all professionals, want to take pride in what they do; if a serious clash between their personal ethics and an externally defined professional ethics makes it difficult or impossible to feel that pride, they will eventually be forced to make dramatic decisions about where and under what conditions they want to work.

if($.cookie("show_edit") == 'yes') { $('div.moderate_box_open').css('display', 'block'); } google_ad_channel = AB_cat_channel + AB_unit_channel; google_language = "en"; google_ad_region = 'test'; Translators, like the members of any other professional group, are likely to encounter a variety of ethical issues in the practice of their profession. In some countries, codes of conduct exist that set out guidelines on issues such as quality guarantees, impartiality, independence and secrecy.
Clients rely on the translator to provide a translation that does full justice to the source text. This means that the translation should cover every aspect and connotation in the source, and should not add any material or connotations extraneous to that source, nor hints of the translator’s personal opinion with respect to the subject-matter. Clients that are particularly keen on ensuring that this practice is adhered to will ask for a sworn translation, but most professionals would agree that the general principles underlying sworn translations also apply to translation in general, and should be used accordingly. This is easier said than done, however. While it is true that translations should be reliable and undistorted reflections of the source in a different language, clients will also expect an attractive text that is pleasant to read and effective in achieving its purpose. It is impossible to simply convert the content of the source text into the target language: the requirements of register, stylistic authenticity and readability inevitably entail some degree of modification of the original.
Having said that, there is general consensus that clients can rightfully expect a translator to possess professional skills, which entails that the translator should not accept a translation job if he feels incapable of providing a high-quality text, for instance because the subject-matter is not within his field of expertise. google_ad_channel = "7940249670, " + AB_cat_channel + AB_unit_channel; google_language = "en"; google_ad_region = 'test';
Another interesting issue is that of errors in the source text. The requirement of faithfulness dictates that any errors found should simply be copied into the translation, but this obviously clashes with every serious translator’s common sense and desire to produce a text that is free from error and, if at all possible, even better than the original. Sometimes a translator might even feel the urge to protect the author’s reputation if he suspects that the content or tone of voice of the source text would open its author to ridicule. One example is that of a CEO whose deputy speechwriter had come up with a New Year’s speech in a raving populist style. The translator in this case had decided to somewhat neutralize the invective, while of course pointing out to the client that he had taken liberties with the text in order to adapt it to the tastes of the target audience.
The obvious strategy in these cases is to highlight errors or problems and ask the client to reconsider his text, and while many clients will indeed appreciate such perspicacity, others will condemn the translator for being pedantic. Clearly there is no ideal remedy.

Unethical behaviour in translation business

When most people think of ethics and professionals, they tend to focus on people like accountants, doctors, lawyers, or other high profile jobs. However, everyone that deals with other people in their business has the duty and responsibility to be ethical. Translators are no exception.
It is easy for people to point out unethical behaviour in certain professions, but what about translators? It might not be as apparent. However, unethical activities do occur and it's important to know what some of these are and ways to keep them from being a temptation to you.
Unethical behaviour in the translation profession can take many forms. For example, translators are usually on deadlines with clients and it's important to be truthful to your clients in terms of what you can accomplish in a given timeframe. If you come to terms with a client and agree to finish a job by a certain deadline, it is unethical to decide not to do that job or not finish it on time without informing the client. They usually have deadlines as well, and not respecting those is not only bad for business, but is also unethical.
Another major way that translators can be unethical is by not keeping their clients' information confidential. Translators are privy to all sorts of information, and some of this information is private and confidential to the client that requested the translation. It is definitely unethical for a translator to disclose this information to anybody.
Another way that translators can be unethical is by purposely overcharging a client when a price has already been quoted. Many translators' clients are first-time clients and might not know or understand how translators calculate their fees. Translators must not give into the temptation to overcharge a client when they know that the client is a little in the dark. Taking advantage of this ignorance is unethical. Earning a few more dollars off of a client is no way to increase your translation business, and in fact is the perfect way to ruin your translation career.
Ethical issues and situations can appear in any profession, and the translation profession is no exception. Translators should be aware of the ethical issues that can come up so that they know how to avoid them as well. Being ethical is a responsibility that every translator has.

There is also a category of texts which, at first sight, appear to be positively illegal. If a translator agreed to translate bomb-making instructions, would he be responsible for attacks committed with the bombs produced with the help of such instructions? He certainly would, in our view, if he did not take the trouble of finding out who needed the translation, and for what purpose it was required. If the nature of the client were sufficiently obscure to raise even the slightest concern, no translator in his right mind would accept such an order. However, if the translation was commissioned by a government authority as part of efforts to study terrorists’ practices, the translator might actually contribute to a good cause by translating even the most reprehensible texts.

To sum up, it is clear that translators in addition to grappling with the technical content of source texts may be up to some morally challenging tasks as well. While guidelines and codes of conduct exist to help translators formulate their stance in general ethical issues, in many cases the approach to practical moral dilemmas in translation will be a matter of personal consideration and assessment, aided by the translator’s knowledge of the client.




1. The Ancient Chinese Schools

2. The Academy of Jundishapur

3. The Passage to India

4. The House of Wisdom

5. The School of Toledo

6. The International Translation Day


1. The Ancient Chinese Schools

The earliest historical records show sporadic translation activities in China in the eleventh century B.C. Documents from that time indicate that translation was carried out by government clerks, who were concerned primarily with the transmission of ideologies. In a written document from the late Zhou dynasty, Jia Gongyan, an imperial scholar, wrote: “Translation is to replace one written language with another without changing the meaning for mutual understanding.” This definition of translation, although primitive, proves the existence of translation theory in ancient China. Serious discussions on translation, however, did not
begin until the introduction of Buddhism into the country during the Six Dynasties (222-589), when Buddhist monks began translating classics of Buddhism into Chinese. By the end of the fourth century, translation was officially organized on a large scale in China. A State School of Translation was founded for this purpose and Dao An, an imperial officer, was appointed its director. In 379 Dao An was abducted to Chang’an (Xi’an) where he started the famous Chang’an School. It was at this time that monks from Kashmir began to enter China in large numbers, bringing with them many texts from their homeland, which they translated into Chinese and making the school one of the most important translation centers of the time. Three of the most accomplished translators of the Chang’an school adopted different theories regarding translation. Dao An insisted on a strict literal translation i.e., the source text translation word by word. The Indian scholar Kumarajiva, on the other hand, took up an opposite view and advocated a completely free translation method for the sake of elegance and intelligibility in the target language. In his own translation practice, Chinese Buddhist scholar Xuan Zang combined the advantages of both Dao An's respect for the form of the source text, and Kumarajiva's free style of translation. Xuan Zang aimed to achieve an intelligibility of the translation for the target language readers, and developed his criteria that translation "must be truthful and intelligible to the populace." It might be during this period of time that there was the first discussion on literal translation vs. free translation - a core issue of translation theory.

Eventually, the translation of sutras lost importance in China and rulers directed their attention westward. Arabs began to settle in China, with some even becoming mandarins or merchants. Having learned the Chinese language, some of these erudite high officials began translating scientific works from Arabic or European languages. By the eighth century, conversion to Islam had already started in Central Asia.


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