;   Medical Translation Insight: Refusing translations on ethical, moral, political, or religious grounds? - ForeignExchange Translations

Refusing translations on ethical, moral, political, or religious grounds? medical translationAbortion. War. Religion. Sex. Torture.

Those are subjects that most translation service providers don't translate on a regular basis. And for many translation companies and freelancers, a request to translate questionable or offensive materials can raise difficult personal questions.

Our recent articles When politics and translation collide and Translators in harm's way are good examples of how deep-rooted beliefs can come into conflict with the reality of day-to-day life and running a business.

In order to stimulate further discussion, we are conducting a wholly unscientific poll. So go ahead - get on the soap box and let us know where you stand on this subject.

As with past surveys, participation is completely anonymous. But if you want to add some depth to your vote, leave us a comment below!

For daily updates, subscribe to Medical Translation Insight via email or RSS. If you would like more frequent updates, follow us on Twitter at @fxtrans.


  1. Elena Iglio Woontner said...
    Yes. I have refused to work for translations on military weapons and insurance companies.

    I have worked for CDC (Center for Disease Control) translating hygiene instructions for the troops and everything that could be useful.

    Morality is a very personal subject. Religion also. But I cannot translate material on how to kill people or send them to the cleaners for being treated for illnesses when considered a privilege, not a right, for taxpayers.

    [Via LinkedIn]
    Anonymous said...
    Just caught a small typo in your entry. Since this is a language blog, it's relevant. It's "deep-rooted beliefs", not "deep-rooted believes". Cheers!
    ForeignExchange Translations said...
    @Anonymous: Good catch, and thank you for the heads-up!
    Anonymous said...
    Your survey needs another item to choose from... I have not encountered this situation and had never thought about it. I think I wouldn't but I'm not sure right now whether I would translate offensive-for-me material or not.
    Anonymous said...
    This topic brings up the issue of rhetorical choices within translation. Within every translation there are opportunities for bias to be interjected--subtle or overt. For example, it is easy to see how a political or other bias could find its way into a translation, which could in turn affect the way the text's meaning is received. No translation is completely free of opportunities for bias-creep...and if you think that "machine translation" is free of bias, then you must realize that programmers or "language source entities" (dictionaries, schools, governments, native speakers, etc.) are also nesting places for bias. One reason that I subscribed to this blog is to listen-in on how translators deal with the issue. If you think about it too hard, however, you may never translate anything.
    Anonymous said...
    This is a very good question. I have never had such a situation, but I did think about this issue and I guess I would decline an offer to translate a text that could bring evil to somebody in some way. On the other hand, one often has no chance to read the whole text before accepting it and finds out that something is wrong only in the middle of a project. Right now I translate a drug documentation and... It turns out that the medicine is not expected to be effective but still it has been approved! I cannot back out now but I feel bad about participating in such deception.
    Riccardo said...
    It would be interesting to conduct a more scientific survey, with better designed questions.

    As for me, yes, I sometime refuse translations on ethical grounds, and, as a teacher of translation I also devote a substantial part of a week of the ten-week course to questions of ethics in translation.
    Silvina said...
    Interesting poll!

    I have never been offered a translation concerning some issue I find questionable. This is why I have voted for "sometimes". Should the question be "Would you ever accept...", I would have replied "No, never".
    gb said...
    Yes, even if this situation is not so common it happens sometimes. In the past I had to refuse jobs in conflict with my religion - in fields such as supporting abortion or even jokes about God.
    Marcia F. said...
    I was an EMT for thirteen years and worked a 12-hour shift. After my day was over, I would go home and go about living my personal life as nothing had happened. No matter what I saw, what I did, what I heard, who was injured, I NEVER allowed it to interfere with my personal, private life.

    I realize there are very few people who can actually do that, but I think certain professionals should strive to attain this level of understanding, separating what is private and what is work.

    I have been translating for over 25 years and if I allow a text to interfere with my personal thinking, than I might as well close up shop.

    The way I look at the issue is more or less like this: If I do not translate a text that "...would send them to the cleaners for being treated for illnesses... etc.", as Ms. Woontner said (just an example, I am not picking on anybody here!), then they might really be taken to the cleaners without even knowing why and how.

    We, translators, have a VERY important job that has a lot of responsibility attached to it. Besides, we are ONLY translating somebody's thoughts, not ours! If something bothers me to the point I start having questions, I just get in touch with the client and request that a "Translator Note", specifying the text does not reflect the translator's thoughts or opinions, is prominently shown in the finished work.

    Marcia F Havrilla
    Anonymous said...
    Refusing to translate for an insurnace company seems rather silly - that would include most governments (who run insurnace schemes, typically on a far more dubious financial basis than allowed by commercial insurance companies). Also many people choose to rent savings (use insurnace) rather than accumulate wealth, i.e. they make a personal choise to be dependent on insurance by renting rather than owning capital.
    I've refused translations when they conflict with a signed secrecy agreement, i.e. when I get asked to work on both sides of a law suit. Eventually, any busy translator will run into this at some time or another.
    Anonymous said...
    I view your question from a different angle. I refuse, on a daily basis, job offers from "McTranslations" - obviously not their real name - a company that formerly quite reputable translation businesses have been eager to sell out to, that offers the translators of those formerly reputable folks work for less than minimum wage at turnaround times that make any quality translation impossible. I would find it unethical for anyone in my profession to support their efforts. Having tried for more than25 years to get recognition for our profession as not just "replacers of words" but as conveyors of contents and true meaning, I cannot agree to destroy the progress we have made to satisfy the greed of these people. BTW, in view of this new reality, I would also find it unethical to advise anyone to become a translator. Better work at McDonald's than at McTranslations!
    morrc said...
    One area I often refuse to work in is courtroom interpreting (medical or otherwise), if the attorneys blatantly demonstrate that they are not interested in understanding but merely in winning the case even if they do so through a misunderstanding or by intimidating witnesses or translators. We haven't discussed this here yet.
    It can be lucrative work but I'd rather use my skills where people are interested in communicating, not just winning or crushing the opponent.
    Bernie Bierman said...
    I have been in the translation business since 1959, that's right, 1959, and I have yet to turn down a translation assignment on so-called morality grounds. If a client or prospective client wants my professional services and is willing to pay for them, then that is precisely what they will get: my professional services. I leave my causes, my pontifications, my biases, my likes and dislikes and my morality (or lack thereof) at a good distance from my translation desk. And that's the way I do it and have done it throughout my long career in this most diverse and unruly business.

    Bernie Bierman
    Anonymous said...
    Risking of evoking a wave of righteous anger, I, nonetheless, take liberty to state the following:

    Translation/interpreting is a PROFESSION and, as such, is governed by the very same ethical code as many other professions. I can hardly imagine a surgeon refusing to perform an operation just because his patient is a criminal or believes in non-traditional medicine or a lawyer refusing to defend a war criminal in the court of law.

    By the same token, accepting or refusing any assignment is a right and a privilege of any freelancer regardless of underlying reasons or motives.

    However, perceiving simple commercial act of rejecting certain assignment as a sign of moral superiority over others who accepted it, is, in my opinion, utterly immature and unprofessional. It is immature since there’s nothing to be proud of: Your individual belief has no absolute moral authority over acts of others. It is unprofessional since if you’re good as a translator, there’s always a chance that your work will be done by less-experienced individual thereby damaging the reputation of our profession.

    In the modern society, virtually any profession is, directly or indirectly, contributing to causes which many of us may consider objectionable or even immoral. Therefore, some believe that the most honest way of staying morally or ideologically pure is doing nothing and judging others for their indiscriminate greed. This is exactly what is immoral, from my prospective.
    Anonymous said...
    I refuse to translate texts that support animal cruelty. This includes advertisements for fur, leather, and meat, as well as texts dealing with animal experimentation. I made this a clause of my contract with my current employer.
    Anonymous said...
    Thank you for continuing to raise the worthwhile issue of translation ethics. I'm not sure if translators have discussed it recently in prominent publications, but we must never forget this issue. Nice to see that apathy is currently "losing" in your survey results, but I'm afraid that every project we reject will inevitably be accepted by others. At U.S.-based agencies where I once worked, I was pleased to see that my bosses occasionally rejected projects on ethical grounds (violence and sexism), and now as a translator, I have rejected projects supporting what I view as animal cruelty. Unfortunately, when questionable practices are socially pervasive, many projects may reflect this in some way, sometimes subtly. If we discover objectionable content (minor sexism, for example) in projects we have already accepted, we can phrase things in politically correct ways and educate clients. Again, thank you for the community reminder that before we ask ourselves how we can help translation clients, we must ask should we.
    Anonymous said...
    I have turned down translations because I was busy or felt that I was unqualified. However, I have never turned down a translation (or interpreting assignment) on any sort of "moral" grounds, for the simple reason that I have never been asked. In principle, I am certain that there are clients whose motives are so abhorent to me that I would refuse, but it simply hasn't happened to me.

    I would be interested in a poll that was designed to explore some more hypothetical situations.
    Anonymous said...
    I have refused translation jobs on religious matters I do not agree with. However, I have a very good client (in fact he has become a friend) who sometimes asks me to translate materials that cause some ethical conflicts with my believes, but I cannot afford to refuse those jobs. This is a very delicate situation, which sometimes puts you between a rock and a hard place!
    Florian v. Savigny said...
    @ the Anonymous who posted on July 24, 2010 8:47 PM (it would be desirable to leave one's name here, frankly):

    Very bluntly, most of your arguments and analogies are simply flawed:

    1. Different professions are governed by different ethical codes, not the same code.

    2. I do not see in any way how a surgeon refusing to operate on a criminal would be analogous to a translator translating, say, a torture manual. A surgeon refusing to operate on a child because (s)he believes the operation will not benefit the child would perhaps be one.

    3. I believe quite a few lawyers do decline to defend certain people (and certainly, as you have suggested, war criminals) precisely because they do not wish to contribute to their evading any punishment.

    4. Your argument that risking that a text deemed immoral will be translated by a translator whose work is inferior to yours is damaging the profession as a whole (and therefore immoral!) is also utter rubbish. Even though I agree that people will always find SOMEONE who is prepared to translate anything (such as, apparently and regrettably, you): if they have difficulty finding a reputable translator and get several rejections on ethical grounds, this would, in my eyes, raise the reputation of the profession as a whole.

    The only thing I can agree with is that today (and probably, in the past), virtually every profession is (and was) "contributing to causes which many of us may consider objectionable or even immoral". That may very well be the case, but it applies to almost everything you do in modern society, whether professionally or as a private person (e.g. polluting the planet by driving a car, buying clothes sewn by children in sweat shops etc. etc.). But it does not prevent you from trying to rectify things where you can, and this applies to professional in the same way as to private behaviour.

    You somehow seem to make the case that what is ethical is purely a matter of individual choice (otherwise I could not make any sense of your weird last argument). I would suggest reconsidering that point.

    Florian v. Savigny
    Anonymous said...
    I think that a much-better query to be polled would be "IF you accept a translation/interpretation assignment on a topic where you have strong ethical leanings, do you render the source into the target language faithfully to the intentions of the source writer/speaker?"

    As linguists, one of the best ways that we can fight ethical wrongs is to make sure that everyone understands the wrong-minded source, with the assumption that others will recognize its unethical overtones as we have done, personally. This speaks for a precise translation that conveys what the source says, but without 'highlighting' our perceived negative aspects or 'torpedoing' the source with poor wording or misleading word equivalents.

    For myself, I have declined assignments in which I had professional conflicts of interest.
    Anonymous said...
    A translator is just like an interpreter but in a different medium. An interpreter should report faithfully what is said and so should a translator whether they agree or not. A translator may have a private opinion on the subject but that should not influence whether they accept the job or not. Rather the controlling factor is whether the subject material influences the translator's ability to do a good job.
    I have done a lot of human rights abuse work, such as torture, rape, beating and murder and it leaves me drained and depressed, as do Tax codes. My reason for refusing either one are apolitical, simply I would rather be doing something else.
    innerlens said...
    Thank you for doing this poll. I think it is very important that we have ethics in our profession. I routinely reject translations associated with the warfare and the porno or adult industry, and I would reject jobs for certain corporations like Monsanto. I also make sure I let my clients know the reason for my rejection.
    Anonymous said...
    Once, I was asked to translate a document by a church. It was full of insults to other religions including my religion.

    Why should I translate that document?
    Phoebe said...
    I have refused to take part in a project for translating a local series of books by one of the most prominent business magazines in the world for a very important newspaper in my country because their fee was below average. I sometimes do accept below average fees for individuals or small companies for whom I'm positive translation is a luxury. But having one of the top newspapers in my country and one of the most consulted magazine in the world pay below average and without a contract would definitely have been wrong. I would have loved to delve into such an interesting project but I believe it is unethical to accept low fees from companies who can afford to pay what we deserve.
    Memo Zizo said...
    Being a Muslim, I do not translate any text that has to do with porn, winery, adultery, casino, and any text that is offensive to any religious or ethnic groups. Also, I do not translate any text that would - for example - promote hatred or claiming for example that Israel is being attacked by Palestinians while the opposite is true. Moral, ethics and religion play a central role in my preferences when it comes to translation. In the past, I refused a project that involve daily translation for a news portal (expected monthly outcome was more than 3000/month) because it was targeting the Muslim world and describing freedom fighters as terrorists which I could not take and hence refused the whole project. I won't benefit from money that is earned from lies. This is against my belief and ethics.

    d'Ouwegoeroe said...
    Yes, I would at all times, refuse to translate anything tainted with discrimination, whether it'd be on racial,religious or any other ground detrimental to any living thing or person.
    Dana Ionescu said...
    I represent a company, and I can say that the only thing we refuse to translate is related to pornographic material. Of course, this is a personal choice of the Manager of any company, but this is how it is with us.

    At one point, we received a request to translate manuals on how to maneuver weapons. We didn't have trouble with our translators, but once word got to our (same) Manager, he said we should refuse such work in the future.

    He is a highly principled person who cares a lot about the environment and well being of everyone he interacts with. I can totally understand his point of view and would probably do the same if I were him.

    I have interacted with translators over the years I have worked in the business, and some of them have refused some projects. I believe every freelancer can choose to work for whatever project they feel they want to. At the same time, I fully understand why someone wouldn't want to list certain projects in their CVs, so why translate something that they feel would be a stain in their impeccable CVs?

    Freelancing is also about having the freedom to choose your clients, projects, how you spend your time. I wouldn't blame anyone, no matter the reasons they bring for their refusal. Some can simply say they're too busy to handle certain projects and we might never know whether ethical, moral or other reasons hide behind those excuses.
    Indeed, bragging about those true reasons and considering that they make one superior to others who accept them is not nice.
    Anonymous said...
    Once I was asked to translate an article by a whale researcher in Japan. The article included an elaborate defense of commercial whaling, in addition to scientific material. My first inclination was to decline it, but I eventually decided to translate it because then people all over the world would know that there are some who harbor such views.
    Ana Paula said...
    I will not translate content that are specifically intended to harm people/animals.
    Christian said...
    First of all, I would decline jobs that I feel uncomfortable performing for whatever reason - lack of time, lack of trust, or, obviously, ethical reservations. Also, I think it is dangerous to dissociate one's "professional life" from one's ethical principles.

    However, Memo Zizo's post brought up an interesting broader issue. I happen to disagree quite strongly with his or her take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and distinction between terrorists and freedom fighters. Does this mean we should both stick to translations of texts that reflect our own stance on this issue? I don't think so.

    I think it is dangerous to translate any source text that you feel too passionately about to keep the necessary professional distance, be it in agreement or in disagreement. To quote Cicero, we should aim to translate "sine ira et studio", meaning that, in my experience, overly enthusiastic agreement with the content of the source text is as big a danger to the quality of the translation as strongly felt disagreement.

    In other words, if we notice the content of the source text deals with issues we feel very strongly about - positively or negatively -, we should take a hard look at ourselves and question our ability to remain uninvolved enough to stay professional. We are not robots, and - albeit in most cases: hypothetically - I think there are issues for any of us that hit too much of a nerve to keep cool.
    Christian said...
    Correction: I quoted Tacitus, not Cicero, of course.
    Wendy Greene said...
    I recently accepted a week-long conference interpretation assignment for a large non-profit organization. During the course of the meeting, someone made a profoundly racist comment about the ethno-religious to which I belong. I was interpreting and had no idea that this comment was about to be made. I managed to interpret it, but through gritted teeth. It was one of the worst professional experiences of my life.

    I later found out that the president of this organization is known for making racist comments (against the same group) when no "outsiders" are present. At this same meeting, he made veiled racist comments to the members on at least one other occasion. Again, I had the "pleasure" of being on the microphone when he made them.

    I will no doubt refrain from working for this group again in the future despite the fact that they treat the interpreters with the utmost respect, something which is often sorely lacking in today's world.

    It's interesting to note that one man's racism is another man's truth. I personally take exception to some of the comments on this very thread, but I prefer to not start a long and fruitless argument here.
    jTuba said...
    @ Wendy Greene

    I'm very sorry to hear about your experience and would suggest that, at least in this case, they clearly did not treat the interpreter with the utmost respect, or even a baseline level of respect. If you feel comfortable doing so and have not done so already, please let them know the reason why you will refuse future work with them. What you're doing is a form of boycott, and as with any boycott, its effect is neutralized if the object of the boycott isn't informed of why they are being targeted.

    As far as the question at hand, I have not yet refused a job on ethical grounds, but I'm sure I would. Offhand, I can think of a fairly lengthy list of industries and advocacy organizations whose offer of work I would refuse based on my objection to their core missions. I do not, however, think that my enthusiastic support for a topic would impede my ability to do an accurate translation, as another commenter suggested.

    Lastly, I would agree with what appears to be the consensus here: Any freelancer has the right to choose what work they accept and what they reject, and they don't really owe the would-be employer much of an explanation either way.
    Anonymous said...
    Once I have accepted an assignment I will follow through unless I find the client to be acting in bad faith towards me.

    I will not knowingly agree to work for organizations such as neo-Nazi groups, though I will faithfully and accurately render what their members have to say when I'm working for anyone else.

    What we do matters. The story of the Third Reich is the story of people who were "only doing their jobs". I can understand people needing to make a living, then as now, but don't try to pretend it doesn't make a difference what you accept.

    I've known interpreters who have claimed to "leave their morality at the door" when interpreting and then flaunted all sorts of ideologically biased and unprofessional terminology choices -- e.g., traditionalist interpreters refusing to say "gender" and always saying "sex" at feminist gatherings (the equivalent of an atheist interpreter refusing to say "God" and saying something like "the imaginary Supreme Being" at a theological conference), or strict vegetarians refusing to say "carcasses" and saying "dead cows" at a meeting on beef statistics.
    Maksym Kozub said...
    In the first question, options to choose from are a bit ambiguous.
    Does "Yes. sometimes" actually mean "Yes, in some of those cases where the assignment contradicts my beliefs", and does "Yes, always" actually mean "Yes, in all such cases"? Otherwise, "Yes, sometimes" might mean "Yes, sometimes, — whenever translation assignments run counter to my beliefs", while "Yes. always" might (in theory) mean "Yes, I always refuse translation assignmentss, i.e. I do not work as a translator anymore, because every time I would find something wrong in them" :).
    While I understand that yoo have most probably meant the first type of interpretations, I would still make the survey wording 100% clear.
    Anonymous said...
    I would refuse to work for the mainstream porn industry (although I might accept work from, say a feminist underground porn producer)- not because I have any moral issues with porn as such but because of all the other issues such as human trafficking that come with it.
    I would definitely refuse to work for the arms industry (and since I don't do technical translations it's highly unlikely they will ever ask me). I have volunteered translations several times in the past for Greenpeace.
    I do work a lot for the medical device and pharmaceutical industries. Sometimes I feel uneasy when I translate marketing materials for drugs that patients do not really benefit from. But then I hope that everyone who is able to read the statistics will feel the same way when they read my translation.
    ADDeRabbi said...
    I'm usually a bit more subtle - I work pro bono (or something very close to it) for a small handful of organizations as a way of contributing to them. The only time that I've refused a translation on ethical grounds - and it was after I had accepted and started working on the translation - was a bunch of tax documents that had been tampered with to support proof of recent activity. I have political red lines somewhere, but they have not truly been tested even though I've translated for a pretty wide political spectrum.
    Denis Couillard said...
    There is something fundamentally wrong with this question.

    First, as a professional, this question undermines the essence of my profession. Two, it totally negates the role translators have played throughout history. Third, it relegates the essential services provided by a translator to an art-level, as opposed to a professional service.

    The litmus test for accepting translations can only be the legality of its content. If it is legal, I must translate it.

    As such, I am glad to live in a province, and a country, Ontario, Canada, where a translator could rightfully be sued for refusing translations on so-called ethical, moral, political, or religious grounds.

    My role as a translator is to reproduce objectively the message provided in the source language into the target language.

    Throughout history, translators have played a role in bridging the gap between languages and cultures (sometime at great cost for themselves in period of conflicts) to convey the point of views of others.

    Furthermore, I would seriously question the professional standards of any translator willing to refuse translations on “so-called” ethical, moral, political, or religious grounds. By letting his or her personal opinions (subjectivity) get in the way, he or she demonstrates the ability or his or her willingness to compromise objective professional standards.

    Sadly, this question transpire of a popular “right-wing” agenda which uses ethical, moral, political, or religious grounds to create rules of exception that justify discrimination.
    Anonymous said...
    I haven't yet had to face this problem, and I probably woud balk at translating material I found revolting. I've somtimes been asked to translate material I found totally idiotic and badly written, and turned those offers down, so why should I translate material I find revolting?
    Patricia Bown said...
    There is a way to deal with these situations within the scope of a profession, rather than personally. W hear the world over that translators and interpreters lament they are not always treated as professionals. This is an area that could be used to help raise the level of perceived professionalism by the general, often naive, public. It is this: Other professions have specialists. Physicians, attorneys, clergy, etc. Many make it clear what their specialty is, including that some "specialize" in a general practice. If they feel they are not qualified/experienced or are simply too busy to accept new clients at the moment, they decline the assignment and/or refer to a colleague whom they know to be a better fit. If pushed to the limit, they have a professional commitment to providing their service to those who desperately need it, no matter what. The bottom line for professional translators and interpreters would be, in my humble opinion, similar to providing the actual medical or legal service (for example), by way of providing humans access to such. If one doesn't agree with the content or the action, at least one can be party to making sure the communication is handled accurately and professionally. It is left to the practitioners of other professions to use the communications, and to judges, juries, and "mother nature" to determine final outcomes.
    Anonymous said...
    I cannot afford the luxury of worrying whether or not a translation job is ethically moral or not. Working in an area that has many English and German translators competing with one another only means that if I don't do it, another will. I would currently translate anything as long as I know I'm getting my price and also will not wind up on a watch list or get arrested.
    Miriam Erez said...
    I like Marcia's suggestion of a Translator Note stating that the beliefs are not necessarily those of the translator.

    "Anonymous (why anonymous?), you don't accept human rights work because you'd rather be doing something else? So would the victims of torture and beatings. How do you think human rights will improve if we all don't do what we can to alleviate the situation? And conversely, if enough xlators do turn down jobs we find objectionable, perhaps the clients will sit up and listen. Or what Anonymous said about the Third Reich…

    I'm Israeli, and I respect Memo's decision. I actually refused a job from a realtor selling residences in the occupied territories. It was for commercial gain from land that belongs to Palestinians. And I did politely let the client know that I couldn't comfortably do the job. I knew he'd find someone who would, but it didn't matter to me. It was a small job, so I might've found it harder to refuse if it were NIS3,000 instead of merely NIS 300. I guess that's where the Translator Note comes in.

    What do others think of a client who discovered a suspected lover in his wife's mail and wanted it translated (he didn't know the wife's native tongue)?
    Gillian said...
    I never received a medically unethical translation job. Some of the requests I have received for translations have admittedly been a bit weird, so because of pressure not to refuse freelance work and get billed as never available I have hedged around and requested proof that it is legally above board, proof of client's ability to pay, requested to share a massive job with someone else, or refused to edit a diabolical and inaccurate translation sample without reference to the original. 3 modalities worked, but in the last case I lost a significant client and the word got around that we had parted ways on unpleasant terms. It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. Luckily, most of the hearsay will be forgotten when your skills are needed.
    amaxson said...
    Seems like this is a debate for the ages! Its so great to hear all of your opinions and ideas! While we might not all be able to agree on this subject, its good hear where translators, interpreters, and agencies stand on this issue.
    I have to admit, Marcia's idea of adding a 'translator's note' stating that the views of the document do not represent the views of the translator seems like a good idea. However, I wonder how much good that would do when it comes to activists that may be protesting. If say, an agency added a statement like that to a document that was drawing attention from an animal rights group, do you think that would excuse the agency from the activists?
    Fadhma I. Folensbee said...
    Do Not Shoot the Messenger, or the Translator!

    The first element of ethic I learned in translation school was the "detachment" of the translator from the subject in order to achieve a maximum degree of objectivity in rendering the message.
    The first time someone refused to help me translate a military-related document on the basis that the person was against the war in Iraq. So am I! I had to tell that person that if translators across history had his attitude, none of the ancient texts, information, historical facts, or scientific discoveries would have ever been passed down to future generations. The reasoning behind that? Victors wright history and usually translators are found among the vanquished; they become the voice of the vanquished and the voice of the past without actively participating in the events, were they constructive or destructive.
    By defending the rights of a criminal, the lawyer does not participate in the crime and by treating a criminal, the doctor does not support crime.

    PS: I am very surprised by the results of the poll.
    Anna L. said...
    I have turned down a translation job on moral grounds. I do think it's better if I turn a text down than translating it. It's no good to anyone if I translate a text I do not support as this might be reflected in the translation.

    I once subtitled a documentary about Abu Ghraib prison. Although I felt like it was an important job, I also felt quite sick and I was glad when I finished it.

    Also, I do believe that one of the benefits of freelancing is that it is in my power to deny certain tasks.
    Rebecca said...
    To Dennis Couillard:
    You wrote, "Sadly, this question transpire of a popular “right-wing” agenda which uses ethical, moral, political, or religious grounds to create rules of exception that justify discrimination."

    When I read that kind of a statement, I have to ask, who now is being disciminatory, not to mention openly bigoted? The left is just as, if not more, discriminatory than the right. Discrimination eminates from everywhere and everybody including ALL political groups and agendas. It is a universal problem.

    The original question, however, is interesting. I have never had this issue arise but I would refuse something that was illegal.

    I believe that everyone should be free to chose with whom he or she works as a freelancer. However, I also believe that if we openly discriminate against clients based on personal agendas, then expect that to come back to haunt you. And don't complain when it does.
    tatilidington said...
    I already told the companies I work for that I will not interpret an abortion procedure.
    The code of ethics requests that we only accept assignments where our own biases will not interfere with the appointment.
    I know I would not be able to remain impartial in such a situation.
    Mark said...
    This is not a clear-cut issue. Lawyers who represent an accused mass murderer point out that everyone is entitled to legal representation in the justice system. Is not everyone also entitled to freedom of speech and thus translation of their message? Yet the courts and most citizens readily accept certain limitations on freedom of speech, such as yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, or speech that inspires or constitutes "hate crimes." For many years I translated promotional material for a government-operated casino, but ultimately decided that I was becoming an instrument of something that potentially could ruin lives as a result gambling addiction (especially innocent lives of children dependent on parents with a gambling addiction), an activity that had few if any socially redeeming qualities. I therefore ended my relationship with this client, but they just found another translator, so I ended my personal participation but ultimately contributed nothing toward resolving the underlying problem. Would I translate for a tobacco company? No, definitely not, but enough fellow professionals would, so my abstention ultimately has no real effect.
    Anonymous said...
    I have read all your interesting comments and insights, this is a highly important subject. Many industries and fields were mentioned as problematic, but I would like to single one out: I would never translate anything for the tobacco industry. I strongly encourage everyone to do the same, they are killing 5 million people a year, every year. Please, think about it.
    Anonymous said...
    I strongly disagree that my refusal to translate a text does not have an effect if they find another translator. This is simply not true, perhaps the other translator will have doubts also, decline the translation at some point or at least think about it. All our actions are important, if you want to sleep well, do as your conscience tells you.
    Anonymous said...
    En tant qu'interprète, il m'arrive de travailler bénévolement. Il va de soi que dans ce cas, la nature et les objectifs de l'organisation sont importants puisque je choisis de soutenir celle-ci.

    Si je suis rémunéré, on ne peut associer mon travail à un quelconque ralliement politique. Après tout, qui soupçonnerait un plombier de racisme au simple motif qu'il a remplacé la chasse d'eau chez un homme politique d'extrême droite ?
    Christian Flury said...
    I've got to chime in on this debate again because I feel we are mixing up a lot of different issues (including my own post a few days ago). "Declining on ethical grounds" could mean:

    1. In translation
    a.) You do not want to do business with a CLIENT that you feel acts unethically - e.g. "I won't do business with racists, weapons manufacturers, etc.".
    b.) You do not feel comfortable lending your voice to CONTENT you feel is unethical or might get you worked up - e.g. "I won't translate texts justifying torture."
    c.) You have ethical reservations about the intended PURPOSE of the translation: e.g. "I would translate this Hitler speech for a documentary, but I won't if it is for a political pamphlet targeted at neo-nazis" or "I won't translate a manual that will be used to operate weapons and kill people."

    2. In interpretation
    all of the above plus:
    d.) You get caught in a situation where a speaker says outrageous things that, even in a professional interpreting situation, you feel very uncomfortable repeating.

    For example, I once found myself in a position where I, unexpectedly, had to interpret a staunch stalinist (yes,they still exist) who told survivors of communist prosecution to their faces that they were "lying agents of fascism and capitalism". It was heart-breaking and very hard to interpret.

    In addition, my adrenalin went up as extremists usually are cowards and it's easy to blame the interpreter. "I never said ..., it must have been mistranslated" (Every interpreter dreads this moment, and this was the first thought I had when reading Wendy's post). However, this is an entirely different question very specific to interpreting...
    Anonymous said...
    I know of some translators in France who have been asked by the police to do consecutive telephone translation for cases involving the deportation of women "sans-papiers" back to Africa. One colleague found himself having to tell the women over the phone that their children were being taken into care in France... This is definitely the kind of work I would refuse - never accept telephone interpreting in such cases, only face to face, or simply refuse any work relating to questionable deportations.
    Anonymous said...
    It is a business like many other businesses - if you want to be in this business, you need to comply with the rules. Strange that is is the issue of discussions. No more professional linguists these days?

    Toronto, Ontario
    Anonymous said...
    "Abortion. War. Religion. Sex. Torture."

    Does this mean one could/should be equally shocked by all these topics?
    Kris said...
    I have refused several translations during my 8 years in translation because they belonged to industries that I do not support, e.g. military, nuclear, porno, unsympathetic car adverts and similar.

    Usually I say that this is not my topic, I won't be able to make a good job out of this. Especially if it is no such obvious case as military which might be more "normal" to refuse than many other things that I want to refuse.

    I regret that I have not refused some more, e.g. on deceptive products used to get advantages for one's own person (declared in the text not to be illegal!), some documents on unethical greedy behaviour from one person

    I did a translation of a petition for a private person once, dedicated to a court to plead her case. I felt with her case and I did not translate it quite truly: I sorted out some of the many adjectives to make it sound less affected and more convincing. The client asked me on delivery what my impression was and I said that I had tried to make it a bit more matter-of-fact by sorting out some adjectives. The client was happy for this. Therefore I think I made a better job of it getting this emotionally involved.

    Translating accurately or not accurately versus accepting or refusing to accept jobs are two different things, though sometimes interconnected. Refusing a job on moral, ethical, or any ground is fair to do, doing a bad job for a cause that one does not agree with is not fair. Doing a good job for a cause that one does not agree with might be called professional - if it is to get food on the table it is might be difficult to avoid, but if it is just for earning more money than necessary for surviving one will lose credibility. Then it must be difficult to trust oneself.
    Francisco Abreu said...
    I do not refuse translations on ethical, moral, political or religious grounds by principle. As a translator I give voice to other people, organizations, businesses, cultures, schools of thought. Based on my particular view on ethics, morals, politics or religion I cannot censor those voices, I cannot create obstacles to the free flow of ideas whether I personally agree with them or not. That's just the opposite of what my profession is about.

    If today I refuse to give a voice to an abortion advocate, tomorrow I can as easily do the same for a civil rights advocate.

    I don't believe I can impose my views to other people or to society and my profession puts me in a position where I don't have the luxury of skipping this issue.
    Anonymous said...
    It is hard to said "yes" to everything specially when you are discussing an issue that affects your own persona, however, as of the present time, I have not refused to translate regardless the situation or the topic... is hard but thats where my professional value comes into place and I leave the personality outside
    Anonymous said...
    You did post an interesting question. My three cents:
    1) As humans, regardless of how cold blooded and self controlled we are, our emotions can betray at some point.
    2) I would be more concern whether I have to vocabulary required to cover a specific topic in an interpretation and remain accurate.
    3)If I was going to take an unfamiliar topic which could step on my intellectual boundaries, I see it as an opportunity to expand my knowledge.
    I bet all of you at the end of a session on your way home, etc, you reflect about what transpired in a conversation.
    So might as well take it as an opportunity to grow intellectually.
    Believe me, living in SC there is a lot of rubish that drive me nuts!!
    Carlos Harris
    Anonymous said...
    Translation and Interpretation are professions and as such I am voice and ear. I merely say what I heard and write what I read. It is not ethical to change the meaning of the text because it is offensive or goes against my moral, political or religious beliefs, it is very important to translate exactly as it is in the text. My moral, political, and religious principles are mine and cannot interfere with my job. This is the meaning of being impartial and professional.
    Anonymous said...
    As long as you asked: I have been retired for a number of years, but during the decades when I was actively in business, I did have occasion to refuse translation of material I consiered offensive.

    Translators and typographers are not public carriers like a railroad, and we may -- and should -- refuse service to anyone who asks for work that offends moral, patriotic, or religious sensibilities.
    Tommi said...
    I'm not a professional translator but have done such work a lot in the past years anyway, with satisfied clients, both from the fiction and non-fiction department. Also english is not my first language.

    I guess it's a question transcending well beyond the realm of translators and I find it hard to answer.

    How much would I have to disagree with a text to refuse translating it? (For me, the money is not an issue but that might be due to my complete ignorance regarding it.) How much would I have to disagree with the client's agenda to refuse working for that client altogether?

    I can imagine scenarios where I would refuse to take on a translation job and I have to say that I find it very disturbing that there are areas in the world where I could be sued for that.

    On the other hand I find it questionable to "tint" a translation with my beliefs, for whatever reason. I would consider this as not doing my job professionally.

    Then again, I live in Germany. I can imagine that in other parts of the world where beliefs are generally stronger and/or more radical, people would decide differently.
    Anonymous said...
    I'm not just a translator, I try to have an informed articulate life outside translating as well. I'm involved in for example campaigning on poverty and development issues and in that context I've been involved in campaigning against various Novartis attempts to thwart wider access to medication. I don't want to work for them. That's my privilege. I explain why when I turn the work down.

    My problem is when by mistake I accept work that I then find I have problems with. I feel I have an obligation to my client, so I'll finish the job but I won't charge for it and I'll tell the client I don't want to accept further work of that nature.

    My obligation is to do the work I've accepted to the best of my ability, not to turn every trick that comes along.
    Jørgen Christian Wind Nielsen said...
    The case is different if you are not a freelance or selfemployed translator, but an inhouse translator in an industrial companny? What if you are asked by your superior to translate a text that you positively know is not true or against your personal ethics? What if it may cost you your job to act in an ethical way?
    Wulf said...
    Translators are translators and not censors. Since there is the freedom of opinion and information there might be clients, who want their opinions disseminated, there is a need for their opinions being translated. I might disagree with such opinions, even feel repelled by such opinions, yet my professional duty is to translate it to the best of my ability so that such opinions may be discussed by a wider public and I might join that discussion afterwards. Yet, as a translator I have no right to censor anyone.
    Anonymous said...
    The problem is that I can say "yes, I refuse such orders always", however, I do not remember that I received a translation request that I should have refused on said grounds. However, I refuse regularly jobs which appear exploiting, i.e. customer pays much to the agency and the translator is paid low by the agency. BTW most of my work is related to science & technology. Technologies can be used and missused but I think it is not my problem to judge upon that.

    Uwe Saddhu Pharoah S. Hirayama
    Anonymous said...
    Yes, I do refuse any kind of translation whose content would help spread hatred between people. That's why I totally and irrevocably refuse racist, revisionist and religiously extreme contents. This, out of respect for people, their history and their culture.
    Berenice Bastin
    Anonymous said...
    "No matter what I saw, what I did, what I heard, who was injured, I NEVER allowed it to interfere with my personal, private life."

    Yeah, the best at this little game is Rudolf Höss, head of Auschwitz-Birkenau! During the day, he could order his soldiers to throw kids into gas chambers (on top of adults) and then join his family (4 kids) in the evening, feeling perfectly happy...
    Not my style or upbringing...
    Anonymous said...
    I will take a contrarian view here and look at matters from a different viewpoint.

    Of course, I don't want to be working ON PURPOSE for entities that encourage war, hatred, etc. But I know of at least one company that works for industry, and has deals with MoDs, so where and more importantly how do you draw the line with a such a client?

    The fact that you are a professional translator/interpreter/whatever, especially if you work freelance, also means that you need to take responsibility for what you accept or turn down, not just lay the blame on those evil clients who make those evil offers to you.

    So my (different) view is that if you actively and consciously promote your services to "good" clients (and the definition of this will clearly depend on your own sensitivity) instead of passively receiving "evil" offers, you might be able to keep yourself busy enough (as I do) with only those clients, and to turn down every unacceptable offer, while nurturing the higher moral ground that you want to keep. I agree that it's not an easy route, but it can be done.
    Anonymous said...
    At least twice in my 20 years of translating (and related services) I have had to deal with this. When I was just starting out, I did actually accept a very lucrative contract involving a proposal for nuclear submarines. My partner and I actually did the work and donated half the fee to a pacifist organization! Now I would simply refuse the work. More recently, a client asked me to helped brand a line of packaged cocktails; I later found out they were actually cigarettes but the client was having such a hard time finding freelancers to work for Evil Tobacco that she did a little window-dressing. I was furious with her - for lying to me but also for making me cross a line I would never knowingly have crossed. (Lots of cancer in my family, etc.) I'm no longer a freelancer but if I ever go back to freelancing, I will make it abundantly clear to clients that there are accounts I will not work on. I do not think we are bound by the same code of ethics as doctors - we do not take the Hippocratice oath and as members of a liberal profession, I think we actually can choose how our work and talent are put to use.
    Jørn said...
    I voted "Yes, sometimes" in this poll even though I haven't had to, thankfully, turn down any translation jobs on biblical grounds yet. I did this to indicate that I would turn down a job which I would believe was unethical, dishonest or offensive.
    Maksym Kozub said...
    I just cannot understand those colleagues who keep comparing such sort of refusal to "censorship" etc.
    There would be two cases where we would be obliged to accept every job. One is the Hippocratic Oath or any similar situation, but we are not doctors. The other type of situations is about a public offer. E.g. there is a shope selling bread or sugar at a certain price, or a bank opening its branches and saying "Come and deposit your money, and we will pay 4% p.a.". However, as a freelance interpreter and translator, I do not make a public offer, i.e. I do not promise to provide my services to anyone and everyone on certain terms.
    A question for those who talk about censorship etc. Suppose there is a printing shop that prints books, magazines, newspapers, etc. Would you say they violate the freedom of speech by deciding that they only print all those for clients from a certain specialized area, or by accepting orders for newspaper printing from leftists only, or Conservatives only, etc.?

    I would also like to ask Ontario-based colleagues for a reference to any law or regulation under which a freelance translator or interpreter can actually be punished for "refusing translations on so-called ethical, moral, political, or religious grounds".
    Georgios Zoumpoulidis said...
    Quoting Memo Zizo ... July 25, 2010 10:21 PM

    “Being a Muslim, I do not translate any text that has to do with porn, winery, adultery, casino, and any text that is offensive to any religious or ethnic groups.”

    To do this, you would need to know, in detail, rituals, beliefs, etc of all ethnic and religious groups. What if somewhere in this world there is a cult dedicated to the worship of the “divine spinning wheel”? Would your beliefs not contradict theirs? If I, not being a Muslim, translate something related to wine, am I committing a “sin”?

    “Also, I do not translate any text that would - for example - promote hatred or claiming for example that Israel is being attacked by Palestinians while the opposite is true. Moral, ethics and religion play a central role in my preferences when it comes to translation. In the past, I refused a project … because it was targeting the Muslim world and describing freedom fighters as terrorists…”

    How do you know the “opposite is true”? Israelis do “attack” and will quite probably go on “attacking” Palestinians, but do not the latter also do exactly the same?
    You seem to somehow “know” who the “freedom fighters” and who the “terrorists” are; So can I ask, what do you call the “live bombs”, Palestinians who “sacrifice” not only their lives (as is their absolute right) but also the lives of young people dancing in discos, staying at hotels or waiting for a bus at a bus stop? Are they martyrs? Will they be declared “saints”? Are they freedom fighters? Or maybe, quite simply put, plain, common murderers?
    Also, what happens if the “other side” also decides “your” “freedom fighters” are “terrorists”? What if I decide Confucius is evil while “they” decide “my” “insert sacred text here” or whatever is equally evil? Should we never translate either text? How do we communicate? You send over a few suicide squads and I few missiles/combat drones and conclude the matter “according to our beliefs”?

    “I won't benefit from money that is earned from lies..”

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on principle (assuming you can tell the “lies” from the “truth”). So my friend, it would seem you never did - and never will - translate anything like this ad :))

    BUY XXXYYYZZZ! Not just a car - the best car in the world!

    Also, please have in mind that by "you" I do not really mean you personally in any way - by "you" I mean anyone else who is not "me" really ... or as some put it, perhabs a bit better, "the Other".
    Anonymous said...
    Interesting, how the brief cross section of comments I saw here reflects what is right and what is wrong in the world. (cruzify me for thinking that I know what that is, but then, I am not the first one, and I have the advantage of being out in cyberspace).

    Anyway, the spectrum goes from people claiming that a young woman or man has the right to blow themselves up (I disagree: without insane patriarchal indoctrination they would never even conceive of that) to the pseudo-professional ethics of impartiality. It's just a job. I followed orders. Or the "just an ear" excuse. Chop yourself off the body you're an ear of and see how you feel then about being "just an ear".

    I have seen - and experienced - judges who, against their better knowing and under no legal obligation, make decisions that destroyed people's lives, and do that for the mere purpose of proving to themselves their impartiality. How much of a self-lie can you come up with? Verrrrry partial to their own impartiality, aren't they?

    Don't get involved. There were times when, around the world, that statement was clearly tagged as an Americanism. Now, hardly anyone ever gets involved anywhere.

    I do. I get involved. I am involved.
    If I translate a contract for a company who is about to get themselves into a corporate suicide mission, I will tell them so. I am enough of a legal eagle to know a bad thing when I see one and I will tell.

    On the other hand, If I get a text to translate which is offensive to me, I may either refuse or, within the margin of linguistic variances, translate the text in such a way that its offensiveness becomes evident rather than soft-pedaling it. I do that. And the bad guys are so lacking self-reflection, are so sure of themselves and their greedy schemes, that they don't even notice.

    On the other hand, when I am working in-house with a company and I see a personality problem, either in the shape of a text or a flesh-and-blood person, I will get involved. I will translate the context and not just the text. (Don't anyone dare steal this slogan, you sandwich boards of ethics our there!)

    You see, it's like the story of a drunken asshole who gets sober and becomes a -- you guessed it: sober asshole. We will always be who we are. If we can't handle power as a older sibling, we won't be able to do so as a clerk or a cop or a judge. Or a translator.

    As a translator/interpreter we have the power and responsibility that comes with knowing something our clients don't. Some time ago, I translated operating instructions for a heart catheter. If I don't do that right, someone may die. Maybe not, but for argument's sake, let's presume it is so.

    So what it boils down to is an issue of power and responsbility.

    Blessed be

    JPS said...
    My barrier is the law. I have not refused any translation for legal reasons, but I would if asked to translate illegal material.
    I have no other qualms.
    Per Morten said...
    I routinely refuse translations related to gaming/gambling, online or offline, as I believe these to be harmful to theirr intended suckers - er, audience. Fact is, I guess I refuse to translate anything that might do harm to people, including religion.
    All within reason, however, I translate automotive matters happpily, even though the cars are instrumental in killing millions of people every year.
    Anonymous said...
    I absolutely agree with Florian v. Savigny!!
    Anonymous said...
    Can't say I've been confronted with an ethical or moral situation concerning a translation to date. However, I agree that religion is a personal issue. Will definitely refuse to do translations that will will assist in causing death or violence. I guess it ultimately depends on the intention that lies behind the purpose of any translation. Anonymous
    Anonymous said...
    I posted comment #5 about bias, and after reading the accumulated list, I wanted to mention that my point was exemplified in many of the comments that have been made. For example, when the person mentioned "terrorists" or "freedom-fighters"--this is an obvious point in which bias enters the translation. Whatever word is chosen as a translated substitute, a clear bias has been introduced into the text. This example dealing with "terrorism/freedom fighter" is perhaps rather an obvious one; more subtle instances could be easily found. The fact that the translator may not even be aware that their translated word choice introduces an element of bias, shows just how easily bias creeps in.
    WT said...
    Wow...lots of great responses, though, I have not read them all. Clearly a very stimulating question. Perhaps the question posted should have been a bit different. In my opinion--as so many others have expressed--it is up to the individual translator/interpreter to exercise judgement.
    However, the question could have been, How objective could you be translating something you have a strong opinion on (either in favor or against)?
    I feel that would provide a very different perspective, and probably answers.

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