Ethics in the Translation Industry

Date
Mar
8
20170308

Ethics in the Translation Industry

How often do we stop to think how ethical considerations impact upon where and how we work. We like to think that in the public sector ‘ethics’ always count. The private sector, however, can sometimes be different. Here what matters most is financial success, and ‘means’ can sometimes become subservient to ‘ends’.

The December issue of leading translation industry magazine Multi-Lingual focuses almost entirely on ethics. It features articles on ethics as related to e-learning courses, localisation, training for translators and interpreters and ‘personal ethics and language services’. This is an indication that ethics is a subject our industry is concerned about, on a personal level for translators and others working in the industry, and for the translation firms who employ them.

Multi-Lingual’s editorial by Katie Botkin provides an interesting and perhaps familiar introduction to the subject –

Business ethics may be tidy on paper until your own humanity hits the page. Capital vices flit through our business psyche daily, until your own humanity hits the page – be they in the form of gluttony (if I take these delicious free cookies, does that obligate me to actually care about this product?), pride (my talents are better than that guy’s, right?), greed (can’t I pad my bonus a little?), sloth (will anyone notice if I call in sick?), wrath (do my colleagues have any idea how frustrating it is when they act like idiots?), envy (why did he get promoted when I didn’t?), or possibly the most delicate of all, lust (just how interested can I act before this crosses the line into potential harassment or weirdness?).

Many of the ethical questions faced by translation firms are common to all businesses, and occur in such areas as treatment of employees and sub-contractors, financial management including pricing, payments, and debt management, and relationships with clients, suppliers and competitors. Particular to our industry however, is the level and complexity of team effort required to make everything happen. Marketing specialists, project managers, translators, editors, artists/designers, technical experts and finance managers must work and ‘partner’ together to successfully produce what clients ask of us. There is little room for promoting me, me, me instead of we, we, we. As one columnist puts it in his Multi-lingual article ‘Business ethics and the language industry’ – “Our industry depends on people working together in our complex eco-system, and ethics unquestionably has a role in maintaining its balance and overall health.”

Of course translators also face potential ethical issues in their own practice. Their work sometimes entails a challenge to their own personal values, such as a non-smoker being asked to translate material promoting cigarettes, a person who is against war being asked to translate documents for the military, or someone with strong views about so-called ‘adult entertainment’ being asked to translate pornography. But then, translators choosing to only translate material they ‘agree with’, may then have to think about, in a competitive marketplace, whether it is more important (ethical) to earn the money they need to support their family.


It is of crucial importance that translators, (whatever their personal values or beliefs), exercise complete impartiality and neutrality. This may not always be easy. Unintended transgressions are of course likely to be picked up during the editing stage which follows, but better if they don’t occur in the first place.