Loyalty to the client or to oneself?

By Vanessa García, translator and proofreader

Professional ethics is an important subject of studies in many fields. We’ve all heard of professional ethics in the fields of medicine and law, right? Well, in the field of translation, although this issue may not seem to be widely discussed, it is a concept worthy of consideration and you only have to dig a little deeper to realise that there are plenty of studies about it.

If we take a look at one of them (Chesterman 1997: 147), we will see that the debate about the ethical dimension of translation normally deals with the rights and duties of the translator. The following elements are usually considered to be the key components of professional ethics: a commitment to providing the highest standards of quality, a willingness to improve one’s skills and knowledge, a capacity to adapt, discretion, the professional reputation and loyalty.

This latter component, loyalty, is a key concept in these discussions, which is why it is the focus of this post. Off the aspects of loyalty that might spring to mind when considering the translation process, which I discuss below, I am interested in a translator’s loyalty to themselves, because this is what directly concerns me and anyone reading this. Furthermore, it is one of the issues most commonly dealt with in German translation studies. In the early days of the Skopos Theory (Skopostheorie) formulated by Vermeer, the source text was considered to be merely information. In other words, the intended purpose of the target text was what really guided the translation process. Therefore, right now, this in itself could be the source of a lively debate. Indeed, as translators, do we not appear to be forever engaged in such a debate?

Talking of loyalty, Christiane Nord (1989, 1997: chap.8, 2001: 185) also argued that, in their loyalties referred to above, translators, as mediators between two cultures, must assume responsibilities to a number of parties: the author of the source text, the clients (with their respective intentions) and the intended recipients of the translation (who expect the final text to be faithful to the source text). These responsibilities may converge and be easier to fulfil, or they may be completely opposed, meaning that the translator is forced to betray someone. The tricky part of this, I might add, having given it some thought, is that on most of these occasions these three parties have to trust what the translator says, as none of them has the knowledge or skills necessary to check the consistency between the texts. And this is where I believe that a translator’s loyalty to themselves and their professional ethics comes into play, because they are things in which the clients and intended recipients of the translation can trust.

Maintaining this loyalty, a concept that may appear to be simple to put into practice, is sometimes extremely difficult and the translator is absolutely overwhelmed by the responsibilities that they have to assume and the possible consequences of failing in these responsibilities.

In my opinion, loyalty is easy to put into practice when the translator’s moral dilemma about whether or not they are being loyal to themselves only concerns them and they alone, for example, decide whether to accept the work, based on their appraisal of the consequences of the translation. Let’s say that you are a strong defender of animal rights and you receive a translation from a company that sells chickens that are crammed into cages, or you are asked to translate a text that advocates political views that are the complete opposite to yours. This creates a moral dilemma which the translator has to consider, but they make the final decision.

However, then there are cases where it is not so simple to be true to your principles because the rights of the person who needs the translation, to whom the translator has an obligation, must come before them, whatever they may be. I mean translators and interpreters who work in hospitals, courts, ministries etc. or who work for these institutions. Communication between people in certain situations where it is needed most depends on these translators and interpreters. Factors such as multiculturalism and the communication requirements and problems among the foreign population, etc. determine the translating and interpreting context and the professionals responsible for them have always had to face such conflicts as best as they are able with their professionalism and own resources, despite their principles and how true they may want to remain to them. Fortunately, tying this in with another extremely interesting topic related to loyalty and professional ethics, since 2001 there has been a European Master’s Degree in Intercultural Communication and Public Service Interpreting and Translation, and it is on this subject that I will conclude this post. The master’s degree aims to professionalise this role. I personally believe that it is essential for a translator or interpreter who works in the Public Services with specific training to be able to be loyal and faithful to themselves, to their profession and to the people who require their services. It was necessary to provide translators who work in these fields with the resources that would enable them to perform their duties with greater professionalism. This is because, in matters as delicate as these, loyalties have to be abundantly clear and not everything should depend on how ethical or unethical or loyal or disloyal the translator is being to the parties involved and to themselves.

It seems apparent that the loyalty of translators is such an important issue that, for one aspect of it, it has resulted in a demand for the creation of specialised training. Therefore, I recommend that all translators and interpreters personally reflect on this and try to remain true to the conclusions they reach. Of course, our work can be mechanical at times, but even then, there is room for loyalty to our profession and to our principles, which we must respect. At the end of the day, we are translators and interpreters because it is our calling…