Ethics of Translation

Any discussion of ethics is potentially wide-ranging and complex, with the added complexity that they change over time - slavery, for example, is no longer the accepted practice it once was. In the case of translation, we can point to historically changing ethical positions with regard to word-for-word translation. Outside the realm of incisive and logical philosophical arguments, ethics tend to be less well defined—more subjective and imprecise for being the product of values to which we are exposed through family, friends, learning and experience. Lack of appreciation for the social and contextual nature of ethics may lead to lack of appreciation of different worldviews, and to inflexible readings, which have consequences for translation.

Ethics have always been present in the notion of translation. Early pronouncements on translation revolved around oppositions such as word-for-word versus sense-for-sense, spirit versus letter, faithful versus free, and Schleiermacher’s notion of bringing the reader to the author versus bringing the author to the reader, translatability versus untranslatability, and foreignisation versus domestication, even if these are not formulated as exclusive binaries. All of these pronouncements are rooted in some aesthetic and moral appraisal of what is deemed right or wrong in relation to the original or the translation, and in an ethical sense of what translation should be and do as well as in an understanding of the ethical role of the translator or translation ethics.

Recent reflections on translation have engaged with the notion of ethics in a more systematic way. Increasing professionalisation led to the development of codes of conduct for translators and interpreters (translator ethics) followed by the inclusion of ethics in various methodological models of translation, perhaps the most notable being that of Christiane Nord (1991). The philosophical understanding of ethics began to be expressed (sometimes only implicitly) as being integral to translation practice, in both methodological and theoretical terms by various scholars in the 1980s and 1990s (Chesterman 1997; Pym 2012; Toury 1980, 2012). One of the most useful concepts to emerge at this time was the concept of loyalty (Nord 1997,2001), understood by Nord “as an ethical concept governing translators’ responsibility” or responsibilities (Nord 2001:185). The value of Nord’s model is that it emphasises the interpersonal relations between author, translator and target reader, and extends to other agents in the translation process such as editors, publishers or patrons.

Inherent in the notion of ethics and loyalty, however, is a responsibility that is broader than simply demonstrating responsibility to a conceptualised approach to translation or to the various agents of the translation process. Ethical responsibility extends beyond the confines of the translation world to encompass multiple worlds and a responsibility to multiple ideas (see Baker and Maier 2011). This broader responsibility of translation is particularly relevant in the case of literature, which tends, and strives to, open outwards.

Andrew Chesterman (1997, 2001) provides a systematised overview of the norms and values that have underpinned discussions on translation, including literary translation, over the years and correlates them to constitutive aspects of the translation process. When viewed as overlapping and interdependent ethical values, which need to be balanced in the translation process, they cover important traditional aspects of the praxis of translation: accountability, truthful representation and relations, loyalty working in many directions, clarity, understanding, commitment and excellence. Even the concept of the Other, which dons new clothing through a change in terminology, was germane to many earlier translation debates. It was central to Schleiermacher’s notion of bringing the reader to the author during the German Romantic movement, and to debates on translation in the Romantic period generally (cf. Berman 1992; Venuti 1998; Le Blanc 2012). These translation values, concepts and precepts are framed differently at different times (for example, in formalist, structural, poststructural, modernist or postmodernist terms). These varying (theoretical) positions point to the sociocontextual nature of translation and translation ethics, leading to a tacit acknowledgement of translation as difference, as semiotic—a “sign of the original” (Chesterman 2001:140) which can be interpreted in multiple ways.

Useful as these translation values, concepts and precepts are, they nonetheless fall short of

illuminat[ing] both the cultural otherness at stake in contemporary studies of nationhood and the epistemological otherness at work in language itself.

[Given that] translation has itself become an important border concept in the humanities, affecting some of the most salient intellectual and ethical issues of our time.

(Berman 2005:4-5)

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