Monday, January 24, 2011

Should We Translate or Shouldn’t We?

If Blackwater asked you to translate assembly instructions for an automatic rifle, would you do it? What if they told you the document’s target audience was teenagers in the Sudan?  This is not a hypothetical, but a real dilemma my staff had to grabble with a few years ago.  At the height of Blackwater’s unpopularity, not that long after the shooting crisis in Iraq, my staff sat in an office in Louisville, Kentucky and asked ourselves, “Should we or shouldn’t we?”  In Every Language was still a young company, starting to grow an early, national-level client list, and to be quite frank, we probably could have used the money.  But we decided not to touch the project with the proverbial ten-foot pole.

Personally, I don’t know as much about the Sudan as I should, but I do know I don’t want to be responsible for anybody killing anybody there or anywhere else, for that matter.  For all I know, though, these guns could have been used for defensive purposes.  For all I know, without this translation, someone might not have known how to properly assemble his gun and gotten his defenseless head blown off as a result.  The point is, once we’ve translated, the power leaves our hands and the document returns to the hands of the client.  We rarely know exactly what happens to it.  I didn’t know then and I don’t know today.  So given the chance, would I turn down translating that project again? That’s something else I don’t know.

Military contracts and contractors aside, the language services profession is rote with controversial issues as subject matter.  If you’re pro-life, do you interpret for an abortion?  If you’re pro-choice, do you interpret for a crisis pregnancy center?  And it doesn’t stop there.  Legal interpreters who are against the death penalty having to interpret judgments they don’t agree with, feminist translators asked to localize for adult entertainment.  Read enough bumper stickers and you’ll quickly learn everyone has their issues.

In truth, though, these issues are important to us on many levels.  Regardless of your set of ethics, no one likes to think of herself as an unethical person.  We each have our constructs, whether we have religion or not, the sheer having or not-having of religion being yet another.  Be we ruled religiously, morally, or ethically, we all have certain things we will or will not do: murder, theft, translation for two competing clients?

Located in Arlington, Virginia, Alboum and Associates bills itself as “translators for the good guys.”  There, the meaning of good guys includes clients in the stop-smoking market, or as CEO Sandra Alboum calls it, “tobacco control.”  Because of the large number of clients Alboum has in this industry, her contract translators pledge not to translate for big tobacco while they’re translating for her.  Alboum claims, “We are translating for you but we are also supporting your cause and as part of your cause, we commit to not work for big tobacco or any pro-tobacco organization or pro-tobacco lobbying. We’re not going to work for competition, if you will.”  In fact, Alboum goes one step further by promoting her company and her contractors to clients as being tobacco-free.

Now, I’m from Kentucky, where tobacco wasn’t just the number one cash crop, but where farming it was a way of life.  But in today’s climate, you don’t have to tell me or our dwindling state economy that smoking is no longer cool.  Anti-tobacco sentiment is, in fact, the well-shared, majority opinion.  But many issues don’t boil down into majority and minority categories with such ease.  Take abortion for example.  According to Derek Selznick with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, 20% of Americans are adamantly pro-life, 20% are adamantly pro-choice and the rest are either in between or without opinion.  No majority or minority here, unless you claim the majority as undecided.  Tobacco use may be a clearer cut issue, but when your opinion is without clear majority, whose ethics does a company follow then?

In Alboum’s case, her company would drop a translator who translated for both sides. If her company had pro-choice clients, “then [a translator started] translating for the conservative, right-to-lifers…we would have to re-evaluate.  You’re supposed to be on the same page as your client and you’re providing a service for people that understand and are sensitive toward their cause.”

Victor Hertz, CEO of Accredited Language Services in New York, New York, disagrees.  He claims he would never drop a freelance translator based on who else hse translated for or on any set of ethics that translator might hold.  “Unless you can prove that there’s a social good that’s being infringed upon, it’s none of your business,” he says, asking “At what point do you impose your personal values upon others?”

And that is the question.  Whose is it to judge?  As company owners, I suppose you could say it’s ours.  In the end, I, Terena Bell, am responsible for In Every Language as a business.  Sandra Alboum is responsible for Alboum and Associates; Victor Hertz is responsible for Accredited Language Services.  As CEO’s, the buck stops with us and whether and how our companies judge will be based off the executive judgments we make.  In fact, this responsibility is exactly why LinguaLinx in Cohoes, New York, owned by CEO David Smith, doesn’t judge as a business.  “We don’t judge,” Smith says matter-of-factly.  “I would limit the company if I injected my personal viewpoints or morals or values into it.”  Not limiting his company is a personal driver for Smith, whose company regularly takes on projects and clients he doesn’t agree with.  “My company does a lot of things I don’t agree with but in the interest of growing the company as its own independent entity, that I just need to [do].”

One of these things may or may not be pornography translation.  At this year’s annual conference of the American Translators Association –Translation Company Division, Smith sat a panel where he admitted to accepting adult entertainment projects after another panelist expressed opinions against it.  To Smith, though, the ethic at hand is not whether pornography itself is good or bad.  The more important ethic -- the larger priority -- is that responsibility I mentioned earlier.  “Because of my decisions and what I’ve done,” Smith states, “forty-three people go home to their families and can pay their bills.  That’s a good feeling.  I’m creating jobs. That’s the way I look at it.  I’m creating jobs, I’m creating profitability, I’m creating opportunity. People have 401K’s, their retirements, and they rely on me, they rely on my decisions. So whether I personally agree with porn or not, the decision is made that it’s profitable and it needs to be done.”  To Smith, each assignment LinguaLinx accepts gets him one step closer to a goal and creates greater provision for his employees.

 For some of us, though, the two concepts of growing our businesses and pushing our own beliefs aside are not mutually exclusive.  At the end of the day, both translators and business owners are still people.  In fact, 46% of translators and interpreters recently polled by Foreign Exchange Translations occasionally turn assignments down for ethical reasons, and even Smith admits, “I don’t think [accepting assignments you’re against is] necessary to grow, but I think you’re limiting your growth.”

Assignment acceptation and rejection are more clearly addressed in the interpreting world, where one might argue that individual interpreters have an obligation to reject assignments that run contrary to their personal beliefs.  In fact, the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC) Code of Ethics includes provisions on both impartiality and neutrality:

Impartiality: The interpreter strives to maintain impartiality and refrains from counseling, advising or projecting personal biases or beliefs.

Neutrality: The interpreter maintains the boundaries of the professional role, refraining from personal involvement.
Both of these core ethics speak of separation between yourself and your assignment, but the way in which interpreters, well, interpret these rules can be very different.

Marjory Bancroft, Director of Cross-Cultural Communications in Columbia, Maryland, claims “interpreters divide roughly into three categories on this issue: 1) Interpreters who are certain they could remain neutral no matter what the assignment (or just about certain), 2) Interpreters who know there are certain assignments they could not be impartial about and who would therefore decline or withdraw from such assignments, [and] 3) Interpreters who are not sure what they would do and may have to face such a situation in real life to know.”

I think we would all admit that categories one or two would be preferred: interpreters who are certain in their abilities and limitations.  Actually, for Victor Hertz, ethical boundaries are just one more area that make a linguist qualified or unqualified for a particular assignment.  “If [freelancers are] good, they’ll say I can’t do this. If the reason they can’t do this is ethical -- whatever the issue is -- that seems to me to be no different than a translator saying I do technical but not legal.”

Personally, I wish all freelancers would bow out when they knew they wouldn’t do a good job. It would keep a lot of the world’s bad translations from being out there. Whether you think a certain client is evil or whether you simply don’t know the words involved with a particular topic, the fact of the matter remains that you should be professional enough to know what assignments you can do well and which ones you can’t–for whatever reason.  Translation is not the place for martyrs and regardless of which jobs we accept, it’s our job to do those jobs well.  Only we, as individuals, can tell what will and what won’t get in the way.  When Blackwater came to my company, there were a lot of things I didn’t know about the project.  But there was one thing I did know: my individual ethics would have gotten in the way.  So what gets in your way? When should you and when shouldn’t you translate?

(This article initially ran in MultiLingual Magazine.)



Clark, Ken.  “That which must not be translated.”  Translation Guy Blog.  March 29, 2010.

National Council on Interpreting in Health Care. Code of Ethics.


Maija Haavisto said...

I face this problem on a milder level quite often, as I'm a medical translator. A lot of the documents I translate involve or come from the "Big Pharma" which I'm not as frantically against as some people are, but I'm not very happy with the way they work, either. For example, one medical report (from a pharma company to doctors) I translated quite a while ago was highly misleading (IMO): it suggested a medication was very good because it reduces "surrogate outcomes" (=your bloodwork will look better) but hushed on the subject of reducing mortality and morbidity (which the med doesn't really do).

So far I haven't turned down any jobs because of ethical issues. I would, however, definitely turn down antichoice stuff and anything promoting alcohol, drugs or smoking and some other things, like animal abuse (including the meat industry). I probably wouldn't translate anything involving adult entertainment, but that's just because I'm not familiar with that stuff. And I wouldn't translate anything that was outright lying, such as a supplement ad making outrageous claims.

Anonymous said...

It gets tricky when you encounter an ethical issue during an otherwise very pleasant assignment. What if you have been hired to interpret on an overseas trip for a group of people from a large corporation, and the group visits a nuclear power plant construction site. You have been against nuclear power and suddenly you're surrounded by supporters. Do you withdraw frm the assignment? It would be unrealistic to expect a professional interpreter to withdraw at that stage, and I believe this applies to many other situations where the ethical issue crops up smack in the middle of the work you are doing. My belief is that you should continue and be professional. It is impossible to predict everything a job can throw at you. Where it's clear in advance, as when child pornography, pro-violence and similarly obvious issues become known to you from the start, you are at liberty to opt out, but not right in the middle of a job. Wouldn't it be entirely unethical to withdraw, leaving clients literally "speechless"? I have been in situations where this was exactly what I was facing, and the only thing I could do was carry on and voice my dismay when it was over. Of course everyone has to make their own choices, but I think once we have taken responsibility for doing the job, we have committed ourselves to remain loyal to the parties we have agreed to work for.