Month: November 2015

Ethics and Translation: Do Translators Have a Choice?

I have always been a very political person. It’s in my blood you could say. And I am not very good at shutting up when I see something happening that offends my personal ethical code of conduct. Some people call it “having a big mouth”. Whether it’s tragic suicide bomb attacks in Paris, or children dying in Gaza because medical supplies are being stopped by Israeli border controls, it makes my blood boil.
So “How the hell does that work out for someone who is paid to translate someone else’s opinion and basically “shut the f*** up” or at least take a back seat with her own thoughts?” I hear you wondering very loudly.


In my experience, in person, translators are just as opinionated as anyone else on all the touchy subjects: gender equality, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the refugee crisis, Adidas or Puma, the Oxford comma, all those niggly difficult issues we all struggle with daily.
But, yes, as translators we have to learn to switch off our own opinions to a certain extent if we are going to do a good job.
Obviously, if you are translating instructions for the latest blendtec blender you aren’t going to feel too torn ethically speaking. Even though you might feel a jolt of “capitalism gone crazy” after watching the ad.* And with my chosen subjects, I certainly don’t run the risk of being asked to translate anything involving fossil fuel extraction, car engines or armaments. But even I have come up with the odd twinge of conscience, whether translating for the textile industry, fashion magazines or for plain old marketing texts.

Casual sexism is an issue I come across regularly. It’s insidious because it is often in small details and undermines confidence without you even noticing if you don’t watch out. (Anyone who has a daughter who says, “But am I even allowed to have the blue jumper, it’s in the boys’ section?” will know what I am talking about.) So as a translator and copy editor I do feel a responsibility to point it out to my clients.


I just translated a piece for a communications company with interviews of CEOs in various positions within the company. All the women were referred to (after the initial complete name and title) by their first names (Kathrin, Hanni etc.), while the men continued to be referred to as “Schmidt” and “Peterson”. Mere detail, but immediately conjuring the image of seniority and expertise (in the men) in contrast to the young-sounding women’s names. A short note is all it takes, you don’t have to lecture the client. “It would be stylistically more consistent to stick to all surnames or first names throughout, with both men and women.”

Over the years I have translated from warp to weft throughout the textile and fashion industry, from jeans dyeing techniques to press releases for couture wedding gowns: I know where the dress is made, who the target group is and at which fashion weeks it is presented. I sometimes even know the factory guidelines on toilet breaks for the ladies who make the dress. Naturally I don’t have to agree or disagree, I have to eat, and my opinion is not desired, and my expertise would be lacking anyway. (Hey, try using crêpe de chine instead of polyester? No, I don’t think so.)

But when translating “…our company believes in sustainable and fair factory conditions,” (in Bangladesh) isn’t it my job to point out weaknesses in the source text, and to suggest to the client that more information is needed, if the company in question isn’t to be accused of “green and whitewashing” with such glib generalisations? (I mean, some people believe in the Loch Ness Monster, but that won’t make the world a better place.) By pointing things out, I get to keep my integrity, and the client has an improved text while avoiding potential embarrassment or the ire of some NGO or PC watchdog.

A special skill translators are gifted with, is the ability to see the world from (at least) two different perspectives. If we are really good at our jobs, we can go “undercover” and pass for native speakers of whatever language we have chosen as our target language. At least until the third beer, which is luckily something my clients rarely get to see. So most translators can empathise with feelings of “otherness”, and also have an instinctive tolerance for cultural differences.


The writer Charlotte Otter wrote in a recent blog post “Radical Acts of Empathy” about the role of the writer in providing an insight that is obscured for many: seeing the humanity of others – “in those of different faiths, in those with different skin hues, in those from other lands, in those who are female and not actually less human, in those who are citizens of countries our governments might choose to be at war with, in those whose circumstances are different from our own. We all think and breathe and love and cry and sweat and bleed. We all dream and hope and pray for the well-being of our children. We have so much more in common than we allow ourselves to believe.”**

Beautiful words that apply to the role of the translator perhaps to an even greater extent, because we deal, not in our own insights, but in those of others.
In times of war and strife especially, it seems that our vocation as translators means one thing above all: a quest to foster further understanding, rather than fuelling distrust or misunderstanding. Doctors have their Hippocratic oath, but we have St. Jerome, who, as a Christian, was known foremost for a) translating the bible and b) his writings on moral life in the urban hubs of the first century. (Apparently he was also very fond of telling women how to live their lives but that’s another story…)

Recently there was a petition going round on Facebook urging the UN to prioritise the safety of translators and interpreters in war zones all over the world. Then the Paris attacks jolted me out of my complacent “I love my job, I get to sit in my peaceful flat, in my peaceful part of town all day” mood. Here in central Europe, we imagine ourselves safe from these threats, but how much imagination do we need, to imagine that other translators, with whom we share chatrooms and “talk to” via online translator groups, are living with that kind of threat every day. There are military translators, and interpreters out in the field, translators in Gaza working on medical aid lists, there are people just like you and me who just happen to work in Syria, some of whom, like Alya Abadi, a translator based in Latakia, have nothing to do with the conflict that rages around her. I asked her whether or not people working in her field are left out of the conflict:

“No one here is particularly respected, not even reporters or medical teams, that goes for all sides. In the conflict everyone is questioned and is often a target, and any worker from one side is an enemy, whatever their mission or role (even rescuers). Armed entities (of all sides – we have more than two sides battling!) have the upper hand everywhere and there is no law to follow if they decide otherwise.”

In the past there was always an international unspoken rule that medical staff, press and associated jobs like translators and interpreters were exempt from intentional violence. After all, these were people without any vested interest in the conflict, simply people helping to promote communication or save lives.

When it comes down to it, choosing to be a translator has something to do with a desire to make understood and to understand. A longing to clarify or avoid misunderstandings caused by different languages and ethnicities.

So, surely we have the right to speak out, to have an ethical code? I think it is our vocation to have one and to use it.

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(For those too young to know, this is Spock from Star Trek showcasing an “intergalactic translation machine”… I think.

There are plenty of translators out there who are comfortable going with the “If I don’t do it, there are thousands who will,” attitude when it comes to jobs, and many more may feel uncomfortable, but simply need to make rent. I have been there too, and I am not here to judge. But allow me the luxury of dreaming the world where we translators dedicate our lives to furthering knowledge of other cultures, deepening connections and building bridges of peace.

And yes, I am fully aware it is a pipe dream. Or should I trouble Brecht for his “quotable” again?
“Erst das Fressen, dann die Moral.”

Nevertheless, we should be proud to be working to promote understanding, whether it is about tourist spots, medical supplies, new research on fungi or textiles. Having an ethical standpoint however, and knowing where our “line” is drawn, defines who we are and helps us to feel more comfortable with ourselves and our roles in this sometimes terrible, but overwhelmingly beautiful world. No one said we have to accept the world as we find it!

Lest we forget: The pen is so much mightier than the gun.




*Capitalism gone crazy? Blendtec ad:




Please sign the petition:




Trading in the Female Economy: How Much is Enough?

When people talk about the “female economy” they are usually talking about women as a passive market: consumers with a vagina who (in the US) apparently make 85% of consumer decisions! It seems capitalism has finally caught on to the fact that women also earn big money, and that after they earn it, they also do most of the food and clothes shopping in their spare time. Then corporations try to comfort them with the fact they have no quality of life and no time left, by introducing the idea that women can BUY happiness. (Thank you Ms. Kinsella!)

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But there is a different kind of female economy I wanted to talk about.

As a translator I work in a female-dominated sector. At least 70% of freelance translators in the EU are women. So it’s no surprise that the main complaint you hear when trawling the online translators’ fora is about low to very low pay. If a woman can do it, the price seems to automatically default to sub par.

Of course the high profile translators, the ones who are visible on the stage, commanding big bucks, tend to be men. Nothing unusual there.


But chew on this: roughly 70% of translators in the EU (depending on the country and sector) are women (rising to as high as 90% in some countries and specialties), and yet over the last twenty years only three women have won the PEN Translation Prize.

There’s no point in whinging about it, because, being largely freelancers and entrepreneurs, it is in our hands alone.

Look around: if your job is being done predominantly by women (childcare professional, nurse, checkout operator, waiting tables, cleaning, geriatric care), you can bet your bottom dollar that you’ll be earning at most 77 cents on the male euro.

Add to that the fact that being a translator is highly attractive to many women who have small kids because of the flexibility it brings in terms of working hours and location, and it makes even more sense.

But this isn’t going to be a blog post about how to raise your prices, or how to gain more respect. There is plenty of advice out there already, and if you are skilled and professional at what you do, you will earn good money within a few years of starting out. End of.

I want to talk about the parallel economy that seems to be present in “women’s work”. OUR mode of economics, one that ripples like waves underneath the classic binary transactions of: “I give you X money you give me Y service”.

It isn’t visible, and it’s hard to quantify. You can’t make a statistic out of it either. Which is why I can’t give you hard proof, at least not the kind that has currency in our business world.

As a freelancer, running a brand that consists of “you”, often being responsible not only for earning your own money, but also for providing other people with work on a regular basis, you will probably also get a lot of unsolicited advice if you are a woman. Usually from men. Sometimes I will ask a guy something arcane about a billing issue or how to round up or down to two comma points in excel (I freely admit I am not so great with numbers), and somehow, the guy will wind up explaining to me how I need to earn more, or charge more, or pay people less and later. It’s quite bizarre.


I usually nod gratefully, and then wander off to do exactly what the heck I want. Which is: charge fair prices while still paying translators further down the food chain fairly and promptly. And happily spending my money on “invisible” things like sushi home deliveries and bubble bath, rather than ostentatious shows of fiscal prowess like polished cars or lavish holidays.

But I used to spend an awful lot of time worrying that I “ought” to be doing things differently, and that I couldn’t run with the big guns and was somehow less professional because I was also empathetic and nice to people I did business with. And because I didn’t always hit the high notes when it came to pricing.

Before working as a translator, I spent ten years running a busy ice cream parlour with my female business partner, and we lost count of the times that “new boys on the block” (men who had opened new bijou cafés in our up-and-coming gentrified corner of Berlin) would drop by to introduce themselves and, within ten minutes of downing their double-shot espresso, drawn by my own fair hand, they were busy doling out advice on how to run OUR business and what we should sell or charge. Invariably the advice involved small-batch, single-origin, dark-roast coffee beans (traded exclusively by a friend of theirs) and massive price hikes. They spent more on their interior design than our entire starting inventory costs. Do I need to tell you that these guys barely made it through their first season, before the next gang tried their luck? They also usually managed to have business related breakdowns with their partners involving debt and recriminations.

We weren’t perfect businesswomen by any means, and it was a damn hard slog for little money (which is why I am here, and not handing you your coffee with a smile, right now) but our friendship remained intact, and our relationships with our employees did too. We always paid fair, and when our profits rose the wages did too.


My translation business organically segued into my life, thanks to the “soft skills” I had automatically honed as a woman: a regular customer drank his morning coffee in the sun in front of my café every day, and I would chat politely with him if I had the time. One day he asked me to translate a film script for him and I have never looked back. After some initial jobs I regretted having taken on, I soon wised up to billing and pricing, and avoided the confrontational phone-bargaining sessions of some clients, elegantly side stepping, and using my kids as a human shield when necessary: “Oh yes, 10 ct a word sounds lovely, let me just re-attach my sick child’s catheter while I mull that over and get back to you after her meds have kicked in…” (When I called back with “the 18 ct a word we agreed on…” there wasn’t a whimper to be heard).*

I also tried listening to all the coaching gurus (have you noticed that the ones aimed at women all seem to wear pearls and viscose and have impossible hair) who seemed to be telling me that everyone has a unique gift, which the world is just holding it’s breath and waiting for.

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The male gurus sang a slightly different tune and told me to change the market, change myself, or change my attitude. It was all quite exhausting and I found myself torn in two. There was the person who nodded and took in the advice in an abstract kind of “hmm, that sounds like sense” kinda way, and there was the working mother who just went and got on with her work, while charging fair prices and raising them when she felt she had to.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am NOT a poverty-cult addict. I am not poor, nor do I feel I deserve to be. But there is another kind of currency that counts just as much as euros and dollars:

It seems to me that women trade not only in products, in results, but also in goodwill, support, friendliness, advice and humour. We have been taught that these things are “soft skills” which makes them sound like they are the opposite of “hard” right? As in easy. But any woman will tell you, these are not simple skills and they certainly don’t come easy.

There are infinitesimal modulations. When do you move from the formal “Sie” to the “casual “Du” with a client? How do you respond if the client signs off “herzlichst” or asks you personal questions about your weekend? (male or female) Do you add amusing little comments when you proof stuff for them, or explain their mistakes and inconsistencies, and how do you respond to their critical comments or corrections? With humour, or a stout business-only attitude? One of the most important “soft skill” lessons women have learnt is the fact that, usually, being kind pays off so much more than being right.

Of course money counts. We are notoriously bad at gauging our own worth in financial terms. And we also automatically think that just because we enjoy something, we shouldn’t be paid for it. Sure, we are probably working for less than we could, sure, we could be charging more. I’m not saying don’t charge more. I am just saying “Know WHY you are charging more”.

Let’s not forget that higher prices also bring more responsibility, more pressure. Not everyone wants that. I recently charged a quite extortionate amount for a job, mainly because I had to pay the person who had “introduced” us a 20% commission, and I wanted to pay the translators working for me decently, whilst also earning enough to make it worth my while coordinating everyone and compiling all the boring spreadsheets etc. and, to be frank: it felt like shit. I was stressed, I wasn’t doing what I love (translating) and the responsibility was simply too heavy for my narrow shoulders. The client was completely happy with the results (and fine with the price) but I felt drained and exhausted by it all.

Some people (women and men alike) love the adrenaline rush or the power of coordinating large projects, or being the boss of someone. But it’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking the only way is bigger, better, more.

I was recently at a very enjoyable networking event for women, and there was a smart and wonderful woman there talking about how she had got to where she was. I admired her. She was also witty and obviously on top of her game, and I found myself thinking “I want to do that”. The next moment, I realised that just because something (like running your own agency) is a “great opportunity” it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for you. I liked her, admired her, but I didn’t want to BE her.


Which is great, because, seriously, we can’t ALL run our own agencies and earn six figures.

I don’t want to be earning six figures. Living in Berlin I can completely honestly state that as a fact. I want to be earning low five figures so that I don’t have to pay so much tax my eyes water and so that I have time to curl up with a book and a coffee some afternoons. Yes, I want to feed my kids, but I don’t need to fly them to a Paris restaurant to do it.

So a lot of my “payment” if you like, is also the gratitude and humour of colleagues and people who take on work for me and the fact that, if I am in a pinch, or need a few days off, I have several friends and colleagues who can step into the breach. That is the female economy I am talking about.

Which is why I am grateful to be working in an industry studded with inspirational women like Corinne McKay (whose calming voice can always soothe me) and Worker Bee (aka Chris Durban) whose book had untold influence on me at the beginning of my career, as well as the handful of men who understand that the female-oriented soft skills economy (networking, communicating, and dare I say it, humour) is an untapped source of energy, like Andrew Morris of Standing Out® and Paul Urwin of “Money Monday” who provide us with food for thought and great places to exchange experiences and trade expert advice.

As long as money is our sole currency, it is something that will inherently lead to women having less of it than men (unless someone finally introduces pay for all the unpaid stuff we do every day!). So, it’s time we sat up and took notice of our other currency. It may not be accepted at banks, or restaurants, but it is a currency that will get you through hard phases of your life, your lost moments, your childcare crises and a whole lot more.

Sometimes, instead of higher, bigger and better, I think I will stick with just right, right here and right now.


*This is a fantasy conversation with a fantasy outcome. Yes, feminists are allowed to have fantasies too. Like most translator-women, I tended to hide my childbearing skills from any and every potential client until I was too tired to care.

**More great reading by all those fine translation bloggers out there:

Corinne McKay

Jane Eggers

Chris Durban http://

Nikki Graham

Jayne Fox

Claire Cox

Lucy Renner-Jones /Jenny Piening
http:// (interesting current article on Amazon’s literary ambitions)

The interesting “Great women in translation” interview series:

Katarzyna E. Slobodzian-Taylor

Christelle Maignan


The Status of the Translation Profession in the European Union
by Anthony Pym, François Grin, Claudio Sfreddo, Andy L. J. Chan