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Professional ethics and codes of conduct in translation

Here, we examine how codes of conduct guide translators in their work, and maintain impartiality throughout the process of interpretation.
© Cardiff University

The way we look at translation is not immutable and universal. It changes across time and space but also depends on the role we play in the translation process: whether we are translators or translation users.

Codes of conduct

Codes of conduct (sometimes also called codes of professional ethics) have been developed by most national and international translation and interpreting associations: firstly, to help regulate interactions between translators and translation users; and secondly, to help members to perform their job according to sound and consistent ethical principles.

What is the purpose of a code of conduct?

The purpose of a code of conduct is usually to establish a common understanding of the standards of behaviour expected by the members of a professional body.

Professionals are able to make judgments, apply their skills and reach informed decisions in situations where the general public cannot because they have not received the relevant training.

The British Institute of Translation and Interpretation (ITI)

For example, the British Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI)’s code of conduct establishes basic principles guiding translators and interpreters in areas such as Advertising, Confidentiality, Quality of Work, Competence and Contractual Arrangements.

The most interesting aspect of the code of conduct from the perspective of our discussion of the figure of the translator is the question of reliability.

While general discussions of translation ethics have tended to explore the broad philosophical question of ‘Why translate?’ (Pym, 2012), the translation profession has been much more interested in regulating ‘how to translate’ so that both the text and more generally the service provided by qualified translators achieve a professional standard.

What are the codes of conduct?

According to the ITI’s code of conduct, a professional translator should, for example:

  • Only translate into their native language or ‘a language of habitual use’. The translator’s competence in those languages is assessed and certified by the professional body. (Art 4.1.1)
  • Translate in a way that ensures ‘fidelity of meaning and register’, unless they have been specifically required by the client to re-create certain elements of the source culture or context. (Art. 4.1.2)
  • Notify the client if there are errors, omissions or imprecise language in the source text. (Art. 4.1.4)
  • Keep information and material translated confidential. (Art. 3.5.1)

While, in the case of translators, reliability of product and service are paramount, in the case of interpreters, the most important criterion has to do not with the product of the interpretation but with the position taken by interpreters in the interaction between source and target client.

A position of impartiality

A professional interpreter is one that maintains a position of impartiality throughout the process of interpretation (Art. 4.2), avoiding taking sides between speakers, acting as an advocate or intervening in the interaction.

For example, while a translator should notify the client in case of factual errors or imprecisions in the text, even where the interpreter is aware that one of the speakers in the interaction is giving incorrect or partial information, she should not intervene unless somebody’s life or health is in danger.

For example, if a defendant accused of murder, during a consultation with his lawyer, tells the court interpreter he committed the murder, should the interpreter go to the police?

According to the code of conduct, she should not as she is bound by the same confidentiality rules as a defence lawyer. However, if the defendant were to release information that could have an impact on someone’s life or death, for example, if he were to reveal the hiding place of a victim held captive by his accomplices, then the interpreter would be entitled to breach the confidentiality agreement and inform the authorities.

If you’d like to learn more about working with translation, check out the full online course from Cardiff University, below.

© Cardiff University
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