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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 19.58.18
(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:





  1. Thank you for this brilliant post. It is true that sometimes (read almost always) we have to stifle our own opinions, and I am finding it to be quite hard in some cases. The balance is a very delicate one, which is why I enjoyed every word of your post so much.

  2. Reblogged this on Tatiana Kaplun and commented:

    We are all human. We have our thoughts, our beliefs, our opinions. And sometimes we have to translate texts that are as different as can be from what we believe in and hold to be true. The decision as to how to render words and ideas can instantly become much more complicated. Which is precisely why I would like to share with you this brilliant post by a fellow translator. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

  3. A great post and it’s essential that people keep making us think about stepping outside of complacency and into a world where we voice our opinions. It’s vital that those of us with a positive message do so to counteract those with a very negative message, who seem to get most of the press coverage at present. Every little change any one of us makes starts the momentum for much bigger things. Thanks for making us think about this and realising that even in our profession we have ways and means of standing up and being counted 🙂

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