Translatorial Ethics & The Heironymic oath
Updated: Jan 23
This post explores the ethical minefield that is translation ethics by seeking to answer questions we translators ask ourselves everyday:
"Should I translate this operations manual for how to easily build a nail bomb?"
"Should I omit this misogynistic joke in the President's speech, or should explain it?"
"Should I translate this WW2 history book, a subject about which I know next to nothing?"
What makes a translator? As there’s no council or committee declaring X a translator and Y not, it is extremely easy for just about anyone to declare themselves a translator. In fact, this is a huge problem in the profession. Often, people who consider themselves reasonably bilingual think they are automatically capable of quality translating. Agencies don't seem to agree; formal education in the science of translation is required to make the best possible translator. For example, to be recognized by the International Translation Institute requires
a) MA or above in Translation, or
b) a BA and 2 years of working experience, or
c) five years of working experience.)
But then there’s that word, "quality". Just as there’s no group deciding on who exactly counts as a translator, there is no group monitoring translation quality. That’s why we've all seen glaring signs of poor translations – anywhere from DVD-player manuals to the cooking directions on the back of Cup-o-Noodles. But someone translated these, right? More than that, someone paid for and distributed these translations, which inherently means someone approved them.
In cases like these when the translation is clearly of a low quality, what element has been entirely disregarded? You! The reader, the target audience. Sure, the client has been taken care of and the source text has most likely been reasonably represented, but if the readership can’t understand it, then the first two successful elements fall apart, too. If a car takes off from point A, sure it’s worked, it’s helped you leave your starting point. But if it never gets you to point B – it’s failed, and you as the driver will blame anything in site, from the car maker (the client,) to the road that you drove on (the translator).
Failed translations fail to do what translation is supposed to do at its most fundamental level – break down a communicative gap.
It’s certainly not supposed to enhance it. And that brings us to another interesting point – surely we have to know what purpose a translation is supposed to serve in order to know if it has failed, in order to know that it’s low quality, in order to then know if the translator has indeed acted unethically. Woosh! That’s an awful lot of case-specific work just to find out if you’ve acted ethically or not. No wonder there’s no set committee for this!
If we set aside the idea of purpose and quality for the moment, then we can speak solely about the translator’s roles on the most general level. What does a translator need to do in order to be ethical; how does the translator need to act? Those questions have led translation studies theorists to suggest the following four major bullet points a translator needs to consider before translating:
1. What should I be translating?
a. What is in demand or what do I want to translate?
b. How much should I be charging? If I go to low, I degrade the profession, but if I go to high no one will hire me.
2. Should I translate this or not (after a client has approached me?)
a. Is this text within my skill-set? Am I comfortable with the technical vocabulary?
b. Will translating this affect someone in a way I don’t agree with and thus will be a hindrance to my ability to translate non-biasedly?
3. Should I omit, explain, or recreate?
a. Words, ideas, and phrases that may not get across well into the target language
4. Should I highlight or omit a particular ideology?
a. What if I’m asked to translate a fascist text? An anti-Semitic text?
b. What if I’m asked to intentionally remove the fascist ideology of the text while translating it for say, a group of politicians the client wants to agree with him?
Boy, the ethical life of a translator just got complicated. And here I thought as long as you translated the words on the page, you’d be all set. Pft!
And so I leave you with this new idea making its way through the realm of translation theory and that is the demand for a Code of Ethics of our own. University of Helsinki translation theorist Andrew Chesterman, has suggested the following oath be taken by all translators. It would work in the same idea the Hippocratic Oath works for doctors, only this one would be called the Hieronymic Oath (after the patron saint of translation, St. Jerome Hieronymus.)
1. I sweat to keep this Oath to the best of my ability and judgment. [Commitment]
2. I swear to be a loyal member of the translator’s profession, respecting its history. I am willing to share my expertise with colleagues and to pass it on to trainee translators. I will not work for unreasonable fees. I will always translate to the best of my ability. [Loyalty]
3. I will use my expertise to maximize communication and minimize misunderstanding across language barriers. [Understanding]
4. I swear that my translations will not represent their source texts in unfair ways. [Truth]
5. I will respect my readers by trying to make my translations as accessible as possible, according to the conditions of each translation task. [Clarity]
6. I undertake to respect the professional secrets of my clients and not to exploit clients’ information for personal gain. I promise to respect deadlines and to follow clients’ instructions. [Trustworthiness]
7. I will be honest about my own qualifications and limitations; I will not accept work that is outside my competence. [Truthfulness]
8. I will inform clients of unresolved problems, and agree to arbitration in cases of dispute.[Justice]
9. I will do all I can to maintain and improve my competence, including all relevant linguistic, technical and other knowledge and skills. [Striving for excellence]