Ethics and translation/Darf Übersetzer privates Tagebuch übersetzen?

The Salt Lake Tribune’s Everyday Ethics section asks: Was dad right to translate diary?

My father, a translator, was hired by a man who suspected that his wife was unfaithful and married him only to get a green card. He had my father translate photocopied pages from her diary. Family members think this was unethical. My father maintains he simply did his job. You? (Incidentally, the diary confirmed the devastated man’s suspicions, and he is initiating divorce proceedings.)

The answer given is that the translator should have declined the job on moral grounds, instead of violating the privacy of the diarist. This is seen as parallel to the rule in the code of ethics of the American Translators Association that a translator should ‘refuse any assignment he believes to be intended for illegal or dishonest purposes, or against the public interest’ – this isn’t quite the same thing – translation may be legal, but not ethical.

One thing that strikes me is that the translator shouldn’t have been discussing his work with his family anyway.

17 thoughts on “Ethics and translation/Darf Übersetzer privates Tagebuch übersetzen?

  1. As an erstwhile inhouse translator with a London trans. co.-cum-agency – under threat, in UK employment law, of instant dismissal for disobeying lawful orders – I was asked/’made’ 20 years ago to translate, into English, extracts from a Swedish au pair’s diary for use in what seemed to be affiliation proceedings or a paternity suit. I believe the end-users were North London Solicitors or Swedish lawyers. Call me unethical or voyeuristic if you will, I still use this job as a paradigm example of the range of subjects a translator can be called on to unravel.

  2. Surely only if the price is right?

    I tend to think I would have translated this diary, I must say.

    What I wonder is why this particular ‘ethical question’ should appear – apparently it was in the New York Times magazine or somewhere like that and not just in Salt Lake City.

  3. If the wife wrote the diary, then all rights in the text were hers, including the right to translate the text. The translator was quite wrong to translate diary entries without her express permission.

  4. Talking of ethics, what about texts that are perfectly “legal” from a copyright point of view, but the content is morally questionable for other reasons.
    I often get company terms of business, and I often feel that they are a rip-off, stacking the chips so high against the customer/supplier that they would probably be thrown out in a court of law.
    Things like: our terms of business apply even if you never confirm them, but your terms of business never apply even if we don’t object.
    Or business reports which argue that the deficit from the previous year/quarter/period is really a good thing because of the one-off circumstances, and that the company is going to come up exceptionally well in its next figures. And sure enough, six months later the newspapers report that the company has gone belly-up.

    Sometimes gives you the feeling that the business world would collapse if people were fair or truthful. So where does that leave us in the ethical dilemma for translators who have to process such stuff?

  5. The odd thing is that the FT itself recently carried an article on this topic. The consensus was that – of course – disclaimers are never, ever going to stop you being liable if you’re liable (if you get what I mean). But: if things come to court, they may well reduce your financial (or other) liability because you’ve shown that you’ve made some effort to draw attention to the fact that there may be a problem in the first place.
    I suppose the other point is that disclaimers in general are a much bigger issue in the English-speaking world (especially the United States) because of the litigation culture and the large sums awarded as damages. And if you do business with customers there (as we do), it may well make sense to use disclaimers – after all, it doesn’t do any harm and doesn’t cost anything!

  6. I think I’m too busy worrying about whether I should be translating for someone who describes the medieval timber construction at the top of a tower incorrectly and promises to pop up the tower to check, leaving the translator in the last instance to go up the tower twice and leaving the whole thing unresolved. As for the company that goes belly-up, I did something like that once – just a small thing – and I got my come-uppance because the company went belly-up before I was paid!

  7. Yes, e-mail disclaimers. As for Fassenacht, I’ve hardly been out the door for the past four days, apart from walking the dog. Somebody forgot to tell our customers to take some time off, so they all decided to be totally disorganized, collectively, all at the same time….

  8. Well, perhaps you looked at my alternative link, which was a U.S. one?
    I don’t celebrate Fasching apart from eating doughnuts, but I think my customers did, but they didn’t want me to.

  9. Yes, sorry, your US link seems to say the same as that FT article did. Like a compliance system (which we also have), e-mail disclaimers won’t avoid liability, but they may mitigate the consequences of any claims. Considering that we do business not only with “foreign” companies, but also with German companies that are covered by e.g. SOX, SEC rules, FSA rules, etc., I think it’s sensible for us to play safe and use e-mail disclaimers (irrespective of what some colleagues in pt may think of them…)

  10. My “Fasching” consists of watching the Friday night “Sitzung” from Mainz.
    Disclaimer: this does not imply that I endorse any disparaging remarks made therein about Wiesbaden or Finthen, nor should any inference be drawn from this sentence with regard to any link between Wiesbaden and Finthen.
    Go on Robin, sue me anyway!

  11. Victor, as our office is technically in Wiesbaden (Mainz-Kastel), we’ll let you get away with that one. But if you’d said Gonsenheim, that would be a different matter altogether. Mz-Finthen, for those who don’t know it, is also known as the “Kurort von Mz-Gonsenheim”. A slight matter of local rivalry….
    As far as an F&B cart is concerned, it would have to be very political, in the best Finther tradition. Maybe something to do with the BSE pandemic in Germany (that would be the linguistic BSE, not the cow one).

  12. I do of course draw the line at racist texts and politically correct texts or texts promoting political correctness. Such clients receive a short mali saying “no” or other words to that effect.


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