We Translate On Time

Ethics in Translation

August 15th, 2018

As every other profession, translating relates to responsibility and making decisions. There is no doubt that the main responsibility of the translator is transmitting the correct information from the source text to the target text. Yet, how far may the translator go into deciding what will be translated and what will be omitted? According to Katharina Reiss, translation is always "subjectively conditioned" and the final form of the text is only "an interpretation". If translation is entirely subjective, are there any official rules of ethics for translators to follow?

National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) suggests several general principles concerning translators and interpreters. These rules are derived from codes of ethics from different cultures all over the world:

  • Respect their clients’ right to privacy and confidentiality.
  • Disclose any real or perceived conflicts of interest.
  • Decline to undertake work beyond their competence or accreditation levels.
  • Relay information accurately and impartially between parties
  • Maintain professional detachment and refrain from inappropriate self-promotion.
  • Guard against misuse of inside information for personal gain (NAATI , 2016).

These rules may seem universal, but in fact they are really broad. A more detailed set of ethic principles was proposed by Association des Traducteurs Littéraires de France (ATLF). It may be summarized as follows:

  • Translators must have adequate linguistic competence.
  • Translators must have knowledge of the pertinent subject matter.
  • Translators may refuse to translate a document conveying a message they do not agree with.
  • Translators may only alter a text with the author's consent.
  • Translators may demand the related documents necessary for the translation.
  • Translators must respect privacy rules.
  • Translators must ensure that their name appears on book translations.
  • In the case of co-translation, the names of all the translators must appear.
  • Translators must refuse work detrimental to a fellow translator (ATLF, 1988).

It needs to be said that sticking to these rules is not always enough. Every situation, every context, and every text is different. As Anthony Pym claims, the priority must be given to the intercultural character of the profession; and the translator should in the first place translate the cultures. In his conclusion, Pym presents two main questions which the translator asks himself constantly: "What will the reader say?" and "What will the client say?" An ultimate answer seems to be: "You decide!". Yet... decide wisely.


Pym, A. (1992) Translation and Text Transfer. Berlin: Peter Lang Publications Incorporated

Reiss, K. (2000) Translation Criticism ­– The Potentials and Limitations. London: Routledge

American Translators Association Code of Ethics and Professional Practice (2010)

National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters Information Booklet (2016)

by Gabriela Stępień