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Ethics

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.

From the translator's internal point of view, the ethics of translation are 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.

And so increasingly translators are beginning to explore new avenues by which

to reconcile their ethics as human beings with their work as translators. The

Quebecoise feminist translator Susanne Lotbiniere-Harwood (1991), for example,

tells us that she no longer translates works by men: the pressure is too great to adopt

a male voice, and she refuses to be coopted. In her literary translations of works by

women she works very hard to help them create a woman-centered language in the

target culture as well. In The Subversive Scribe Suzanne Jill Levine (1992) tells us that

in her translations of flagrantly sexist Latin American male authors, she works —

often with the approval and even collaboration of the authors themselves — to subvert

their sexism.

This broader "internal" definition of translator ethics is highly controversial. For

many translators it is unthinkable to do anything that might harm the interests of

the person or group that is paying for the translation (the translation "commissioner"

or "initiator"). For other translators, the thought of being rendered utterly powerless

A British translator living in Brazil who is very active in local and international

environmentalist groups is called by an agency with an ongoing job, translating

into English everything published in Brazil on smoking. Every week a packet of

photocopies arrives, almost all of it based on scientific research in Brazil and

elsewhere on the harmful effects of smoking. As a fervent nonsmoker and

opponent of the tobacco industry, she is pleased to be translating these texts. The

texts are also relatively easy, many of them are slight variations on a single press

release, and the money is good.

Gradually, however, ethical doubts begin to gnaw at her. Who in the Englishspeaking

world is so interested in what Brazilians write about smoking, and so

rich, as to pay her all this money to have it all in English? And surely this person

or group isn't just interested in Brazil; surely she is one of hundreds of translators

around the world, one in each country, hired by a local agency to translate everything

written on smoking in their countries as well. Who could the ultimate user be

but one of the large tobacco companies in the United States or England? She starts

paying closer attention, and by reading between the lines is finally able to determine

that the commission comes from the biggest tobacco company in the world, one

responsible for the destruction of thousands of acres of the Amazon rain forest

for the drying of tobacco leaves, a neocolonialist enterprise that has disrupted

not only the ecosystem of the rain forest but the economy of the Amazonian

Indians. Gradually her ethical doubts turn into distaste for her work: she is essentially

helping the largest tobacco company in the world spy on the opposition.

One week, then, a sixty-page booklet comes to her, written by a Brazilian

antitobacco activist group. It is well researched and wonderfully written; it is a

joy to translate. It ends on a plea for support, detailing several ways in which the

tobacco industry has undermined its work. Suddenly she realizes what she has to

do: she has to give her translation of this booklet, paid for by the tobacco industry,

to this group that is fighting this rather lucrative source of her income. Not only

would that help them disseminate their research to the English-speaking world;

sales of the booklet would provide them with a much-needed source of funding.

So she calls the group, and sets up a meeting; worried about the legality of

her action, she also asks their lawyer to determine what if any legal risks she and

they might be taking, and be present at the meeting. When at the meeting she is

reassured that it is perfectly legal for her to give them the translation, she hands

over the diskette and leaves.

No legal action is ever taken against her, but she never gets another packet in

the mail from the agency; that source of income dries up entirely, and instantly.

It seems likely that the tobacco company has a spy in the antitobacco group,

because she is cut off immediately, the same week, perhaps even the same day

- not, for instance, months later when the booklet is published in English.

to make ethical decisions based on personal commitments or belief structures is

equally abhorrent; it feels to some like the Nurnberg "ethics" of the SS, the claim

that "we were just obeying orders." When the translator's private ethics clash

substantially with the interests of the commissioner, to what extent can the translator

afford to live by those ethics and still go on earning a living? And on the other hand,

to what extent can the translator afford to compromise with those ethics and still

go on taking professional pride in his or her work?