Do the Right Thing: The Translator’s Moral Code
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Do the Right Thing: The Translator’s Moral Code

Do the Right Thing: The Translator’s Moral Code

The Translator’s Moral CodeTranslation may sound like an easy career choice for anyone who’s bilingual, but veteran translators know better. Translation is about a lot more than the rendering of material in one language into another; translators have to think about what they are doing and why and how they are doing it. If you’re considering a career in translation, be prepared to encounter a bunch of real-world sticky situations and ethical dilemmas in which the answers may be unclear.

The effects of being unethical in the translation industry range from delivering a sloppy translation that doesn’t represent the original work, to harming users, to the decline of the profession. Hasty or ill-considered actions can threaten a translator’s project pay – or far worse, your reputation.

The following “what if” scenarios may help you prepare for common challenges in setting up your translation practice, manage client expectations, and hold yourself accountable.

1. What if you can’t do a good job?

As long as we are human, we’ll make mistakes. By ‘good job’, I am talking about completing a faithful translation, with minimal grammar, punctuation, mistranslation and clarity issues. If you can’t stand by your work and say ‘I did my best’, then it is not worth doing.

2. What if the client’s material is badly written?

Are you responsible to let client know that it will be hard to translate accurately? That they need to clean up their act? It is your obligation to let the client know of any issues in the source that will impact your work.

3. What if it’s not your area of expertise?

Do you refuse to translate? Surely there will be issues if you don’t know the vocabulary and concepts and standards for a certain industry like medical/pharmaceutical. Don’t touch it.

4. What if you don’t have experience at all?

If you are new to the industry, how do you make your new-grad résumé appealing without actually lying? If you are cutting your teeth in the field, maybe you want to charge less and let the client know. 

5. What if the material is offensive to you?

I think this is an easy one. Who wants to be mad, frustrated or put-off while they are doing their work? Don’t do it.

6. What if the client pays too little?

A cutthroat rate, if you accept it, will probably not inspire you to do your best work. It is a shame if translation has become a job performed almost solely to earn money. Does working for cheap affect quality? Don’t undervalue your work by accepting too little pay.

7. What if the deadline is ridiculous?

A client will always push for a specific TAT, but speeding through your work can affect quality. The client should at least know that there is a balance between speed and quality. Certainly working like a speed demon doesn’t do your peers any favors…it will skew metrics and client expectations on throughput. Don’t race through your work.

8. What if they haven’t ever paid you on time?

To take on more translation projects for a payment-challenged client will annoy you and compromise your work for this client. Politely decline to work for this client and by all means, tell them why.

9. What if you don’t have clear directions to guide your work?

This can happen when there are competing stakeholders. Who are you supposed to please? You should point this out to your client and the effects it may have on your work. Don’t complete a translation unless expectations are clear.

10. What if you need help and involve a colleague?

Do you need to tell the client? Generally speaking, if you are delivering a good translation, most clients will not care – but sometimes this depends on your contracts or non-disclosure agreements. Same goes for the use of tools – CAT or Machine Translation. (You may disagree here, and if so, please weigh in in the comments section.)

What does it take?

Making sound, ethical business decisions in the field of translation requires training and pride in your work. It may also require some guts! Yes, sometimes it’s hard to step up, but you’ll never regret doing this to ensure a good work product, increase clarity in client communications, protect your business interests and ensure customer satisfaction.

Speak from your own experience: Is ethics in translation an important topic to discuss? What ethically sticky situations have you come across in your time as a translator, and how did you handle them?