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Translation is becoming more and more prevalent in today’s society. In our era of globalisation and continuous advancements in information and communication technologies, an increasing number of documents covering a multitude of subject areas need to be translated to reach their wide intended audience. While some of these subject areas could be described as politically correct, others are more problematic and controversial. As an example, let’s consider a newspaper article with racist overtones or that extolls the benefits of guns. Is it really ethical to translate this article? Is there a code of ethics that forbids translators or translation agencies from translating certain types of content?

Every professional activity is now subject to a code of ethics and the translation profession is no exception. Every professional commits to a certain code of conduct. However, there is no rule that prohibits a translator from translating specific content types. Does this mean, therefore, that a translation agency must accept any assignment? Of course not. It is incumbent on the translation agency to specify its own ethics rules. But how do you determine whether a text is too immoral or licentious to be translated?

Is a magazine about weapons not allowed to be translated because it might offend some people? The fact that people do not agree on certain subjects, or that they have different political or religious opinions, does not allow us to judge the ethics and therefore the translatability of a text. The likelihood that one day everyone will have the same opinion about all issues is very slim – and this can be seen in the increasing number of controversies on social networks. However, we often only translate for a specific target audience and very rarely for a whole population.

Moreover, refusing an assignment means closing your doors to a client which then results in a decrease in productivity. While it is easy for some to refuse assignments, it is less easy for others. But our team believes that it would be detrimental to give up one’s principles for money.

The issue of reputation must also be taken into account. Since translators often remain anonymous and work in the shadows, why should they refrain from translating controversial material if they have no moral problem with it and can omit the names of clients who might damage their reputation? The fact is that translating texts that are deemed unethical by oneself, by some people or by the majority of the population can be damaging to an agency or a translator because, like anyone else working in an area that is contrary to one’s beliefs or values, this position is not sustainable over the long term. It is sometimes better to focus on one’s preferred areas and avoid translations that might offend or be in contradiction with one’s own personal values.

From this standpoint, therefore, how do we draw the line between what is moral and what is not? Although pornography may be shocking, it cannot be classified as unethical content as long as it is content created by and for consenting adults. It is a specialised field among many others that also deserves to be included in the translation activity. Only translators who are specialised in this field will accept such an assignment, and they tend to be rather rare. The same applies to defence issues. If the texts are not violent or illegal, there is no valid or ethical reason to refuse to translate them.

Instead let’s consider what is unethical. Any text containing xenophobic, sectarian, illegal, insurrectionary, violent, misleading or dishonest language is not ethical and should not be translated. Such texts should not be written or even thought of in any language.

Globish world or the reclaiming of language? On the other hand, it is interesting to note the recent controversy that revealed the lack of diversity in those wanting black women to translate the African-American poet Amanda Gorman who caused a stir with her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the traditional inauguration ceremony of the US President in 2021. In our opinion, the question of gender and origins distorts the debate. Just as a writer legitimately slips into the skin of a character of a different colour, sex, religious belief or rank than their own, a woman can just as legitimately translate documents covering mechanics or aerospace as a man can fashion or feminism. Our prejudices often reveal our fault lines.

Therefore, there are no universal ethics rules about whether a document can be translated or not. It is up to the freelancer or the translation agency to determine the right balance between what they consider to be moral or immoral. In a team environment everyone’s opinions must be considered and these may of course differ widely and then a final decision in anticipation of possible consequences must be taken. While certain concepts such as incitements to hatred, violence or racism have no place in written documents, the dissemination and translation of such documents is a thorny issue. In all cases, it is a matter of taking a decision and following it through to the end.