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When politics and translation collide

When politics and translation collideTranslation service providers often work in a type of global wonderland: You interact with people around the world who are worldly and open-minded. Unless ones work involves animal testing or abortion or a similar topic, translators are unlikely to get political about their work.

But the world, it is a-changing.

We recently received the following email from a medical translator who has worked for a long-standing device client of ours:

"I'm not sure if you were aware, but there is a boycott in Mexico regarding travel, business, services, etc. related to Arizona and companies based there. It has come to my attention that [medical device company] is a company based in Arizona, U.S.A.

I offer my sincerest apologies, but I have to terminate my contribution to this project due to my collaboration with this boycott. My timing is highly unfortunate. I realize this will affect our working relationship. I hope you can understand that had I known this earlier, I would have informed you appropriately."
It's not like our team was living under a rock and hadn't heard of recent events in Arizona but we were nevertheless surprised.

What is your take on this?

Is it the right thing to do to quit work for political reasons? Or should you suck it up and separate translation work from politics?

ForeignExchange Translations provides specialized medical translation and software localization services to medical device and pharmaceutical companies. Contact us to learn more.


  1. amaxson said...
    What about when religion and translation collide? I've had projects that have run into problems because we couldn't find an Arabic translator that would translate pork as a type of protein. While again, as with political views, I can appreciate and respect personal beliefs, choices, and morals at what point does it affect your job? While you may not believe in supporting a company, eating certain things, etc. There will always be others out there that do. By translating something, are you then subscribing to that belief? It can be a blurry line--at what point do you decline work based on your personal beliefs and values?
    Publicat said...
    Using the same rationale that led me some years ago to reject the translation of a site marketing "bizarre" pornography, or the proposal to translate messages from the tobacco industry trying to convince Spanish speakers that links between cigarette smoking and disease were a myth, I find the decision of this Mexican colleague laudable and even heroic. I didn't know about the boycott but I find the Arizona anti-Hispanic law atrocious. Politics is inseparable of ethics, so these issues affect the deontology of our profession.
    jclark said...
    This is definitely an interesting issue. While we in the translation industry would definitely like to feel like we are in a vacuum when it comes to complex social and political issues, it can't be that simple.

    Even outside of content, there are always careful lines to watch. For example, when a client requested translation of Arabic for Israel (Arabic being one of the official languages of that government), we were quickly corrected by our Arabic translator that the Arabic would be for Palestine, not Israel. This was an unintentional gaffe (to say the least) on my part, but reminded me that I can't work in a vacuum as I would like.

    It is certainly within anyone's rights to refuse work based on their own ethics, and I certainly find it admirable to put ethics above financial compensation. What I find interesting about this example, is that the translator refused the job based solely on the location of the headquarters of the client company. To my knowledge, the company itself did not support the immigration law, and obviously wouldn't be in a position to immediately pack up and move their operation to another state, regardless of their disposition towards the law.
    Inga Kononenko said...
    I used to do a lot of political translating and interpreting. While it's easy for a freelancer to accept or decline written texts, things are not as straightforward when you're translating a round table meeting or negotiations. Often you have no idea whatsoever what's coming next. The hardest part is to remain neutral when you have to interpret things you strongly disagree with, to put it mildly. The temptation to shift emphasis or to word the most objectionable things differently can become very strong. Brief pre-work meditations help: I managed to draw a line between personal and professional and just "took in" and "output" dialogues. If it made me an interpreting machine - okay. That was what I was hired for. In my opinion, if you did not refuse the job in the first place it is your duty to remain professionally ethical and to perform at your best, as always.

    [Via LinkedIn]
    Rod Walters said...
    I turn down military related work because doing it makes me feel physically sick. Do I want to suck and fatten on the military teat while bemoaning high taxes and the militarization of the world? No, I don't.

    I don't often get to have a say in how the world works, but this is one area where I do.

    [Via LinkedIn]
    amaxson said...
    thanks all, for your comments.
    @Inga: Good point! Once you've agreed to interpret something, if the discussion 'goes south' so to speak, how do you react? Your professionalism is definitely present in your post--even if you disagree, its your job to translate, without bias as much as possible if you have accepted the job.
    This topic seems to have struck a chord...there will always be things requiring translation that not everyone agrees with. It is a fine line of when to say no, and when to become a 'machine' It is definately admirable to hear all of your opinions, and that you have stood your ground at times and turned jobs down!
    Amelia said...
    Wow, I am surprised to read this post.

    I definitely think that we should stick to impartial standards in work, since we share projects with coworkers from different parts of the world, different political and religious views and different attitudes to life.

    And as regards clients, well, we just have a commercial relationship, that's it and that's the best position we can take to avoid discussions.

    I would like to receive your input from our posts:


    Best regards,

    mserrano said...

    The line "let us just have a commercial relationship" reminds me of a presentation I heard at the Spanish Cultural Attaché's London premises during a round table discussion. One of the panelists (a fellow translator) said "do not forget that translation is the second oldest profession in the world. someone had to make sure that the prostitute's client knew that her price for "services rendered" was 2, 3 or perhaps even 20 or 30 shekels". In other words, translation has a lot and has had a lot to do with morality. The Italians even have a famous saying: "traduttore tradittore" (translator traitor). So do not think there is no ethical context in quite a large chunk of translation work. Our profession may agree or disagree as to what constitutes a limit, but lines have been traced and will be traced in the sand of day-to-day translation. For example, some of us would not translate divorce papers, even though this is a huge market that is unlikely to stop, particularly in our litigious Western societies. Some of us do not wish to contribute towards the banalization of play in the children of our societies, and thus refuse to be part of a huge industry, namely the videogames industry whose aggressive marketing towards virtual reality so much has obscured true reality. There are many stands one can take, and yes, they will cost you. Honor will keep you thinner (not because you diet but because you refuse to feed yourself if it means compromising their beliefs).
    Anonymous said...
    As interpreters and translators our clients depend on us; we are the ones who interface and make a dialog possible, a bridge between languages and cultures. As such, we are supposed to be impartial regarding translations/interpretations. For instance, I abhor any kind of exploitation, sexual and otherwise. However, without my services, the defendant could not be brought to justice in an international human traffic case. The same with abortions. Translating an abortion text or interpreting the procedure is just that, I am a professional who is supposed to be impartial. It is not my place to pass judgment on the things I am called upon to translate/interpret. That might create some vicariuos trauma for me in the future, but if I know it does, I refuse the assignment.
    Here we need to discern carefully between the profession and whether by interpreting/translating we are actually helping or not the unfair situation. Moreover, there are many types of boycotts. It is something, for instance, to boycott Israeli products as a consumer by not buying them, to actively protest the exploitation of Palestinians, and something to impose this to a store that needs to cater to everybody's tastes, needs and views. Each story has a side, everybody has a political, economical, religious, sexual, social, racial, philosophical orientation. I feel that my duty as a human being and interpreter is to respect other views, and this does not mean that I agree or help them by interpreting/translating. Therefore, if I feel that my interpretation/translation actively helps an unfair situation, I decline the assignment. Most of the time, however, I really don't know whether this is helping or not a situation, unless the situation is plainly obvious, at which point I can always recuse myself.

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