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Understanding Ethics and Translation

Professional ethics

There are, of course, commonly accepted ethical standards that apply to any professional activity. Such as not taking a job that you are not qualified to do; not charging more than you originally quoted; or keeping to a previously agreed deadline. With regard to professional ethics and translation, maintaining your client’s confidentiality is fundamental. Translators may be working on legal documents which are not yet in the public sphere; or the specifications of a patented product or medicine that has not yet been released. Translators might also consider the ethics of translating a document at all.

In fact, most translators will have to consider the ethics of their professional at some point in their career.

Some countries have official ethical guidelines for translation: in the USA, for example, the American Translators Association (ATA) has a formal code which all members must commit to, and observe.

With regard to professional processes and service, ISO 9001 certification can ensure a professional management service; as well as being a reliable method to Evaluate a Translation Agency.

The personal ethics of the translator

Suppose a translator is asked to translate something which relates to an issue they feel strongly about? Should a translator agree to translate a pamphlet containing extremist religious views, or racist ideology? What if the document is an advert for firearms, or pornography, which is clearly targeted towards teenagers? Or a pamphlet that is pro, or against, abortion?

Some translators feel that professional standards require them to separate their personal views from their work. After all, translators do not create content, and a translation is not an endorsement. It is certainly true, that one of the key ethics of translation is to be faithful to the original text, and strive for accuracy — not just in content, but also in tone and nuance.

Translators should consider whether they can really provide a quality service, if they feel uncomfortable about the content they are working with.

Another viewpoint is that translation is similar to Jury Duty, in that Jurors must leave their personal opinions outside the court. An ethical Jury will never convict someone on the basis of whether they like, or approve, of him/her. But rather, they will endeavour to judge the criminal case presented to them both impartially, and dispassionately. Likewise, a defence attorney should, and will, defend people who they believe may be guilty — because our entire legal system depends impartiality, and the right to a defence.

To an extent, translators must set aside personal opinions in order to provide a professional service. But all professionals should abide by a code of conduct. The key factor perhaps, is that translator and client have the same interpretation of the ethics involved.

Ethics and translation

1. Accuracy

Imagine, for example, a financial transaction between two parties: in this case any infidelity from the original document, could lead to fraud — even a criminal case. Accuracy in this context is not only essential, but may also be a legal requirement.

For legal and financial documents it is generally wise to use a Sworn Translator. Sworn translators endorse the documents they translate with their signature and seal. This means that the translator takes full, legal responsibility for the accuracy of the document. This endorsement grants the document an official, formal status and a legal value that is equivalent to the original document.

However, all translators have an obligation to:

  1. Understand correctly the source text (which may require additional research)
  2. Convey it in a way that is faithful to the original text.

An accurate translation will preserve the meaning, style, tone and context of the original source.

2. Confidentiality

Translators must always maintain strict confidentiality. Professional translators are accustomed to signing non-disclosure agreements; and professional translation agencies require all their translators to do so.

3. Impartiality and conflicts of interest

To maintain professionalism, a translator should identity any conflict of interest, and decline the job if they feel they cannot (or should not) remain impartial.

4. Professional practice

Translators usually agree the price before commencing work, and should charge as agreed. If the work has a deadline, translators should ensure they deliver on-time.


A code of conduct sets both new and experienced translators on the right path for a successful, professional career. Always remember that as a translator, your good reputation will be vital to your success. As such, you should strive to provide your clients with value, while always maintaining your professional ethics.

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