Translation ethics: an experience at the wordface

What would you do if this happened to you?

We were all brought up to be good boys and girls (probably girls, statistically speaking, given the demographics of the translation ‘fraternity’). We all have our moral compass and our idea of what’s right. And when we join a translation institute, we sign the code of professional conduct, glowing gently with the noble feeling that we’ve just made the world a slightly better place.

Then we merrily translate away in our snug home offices for several years, and nothing of note happens, ethics-wise.

Until one day, something does…

I accept a job from a new agency client to translate an advertisement. The kind that falls out of a newspaper or appears at the back of a magazine. (Not that kind of magazimisleading advertisingne! You are awful.) Everything goes smoothly until, while researching a term, I stumble upon a webpage that looks like a statement from the advertising standards authority in the source-language country. A statement about the advert I’m translating, it seems.

Attention drawn to … blah blah … unsubstantiated claims … blah blah … misleading content … etc.


What now?

How can I be sure which advert it refers to? It looks like this one, but I can’t be certain. Surely, it would have been withdrawn? And the agency would have checked first. No?


[Reaches for CIoL code of conduct] Nothing there.

[Reaches for ITI code of conduct] Aha! Principle 1, paragraph 3.3. “Members should not be party to any statement that they know to be untrue, misleading, unfair to others, or contrary to their own professional knowledge, either by making it themselves, or acquiescing to its being made by others.

That they know to be untrue …

Well I don’t know if it’s untrue. Or misleading. The advertising standards people seemed to think so. If they were looking at the same advert.


Dear Project Manager … [explains situation] … Please advise. In the meantime, I’ll be suspending work on the job. I hope to hear from you soon.

The response arrives. “The end client says that the advertising standards authority’s verdict is purely advisory, so no laws or regulations have been breached. I really hope that you can continue with the job, as I don’t know if I can find anyone to replace you in time.

What do I deduce from that? The end client doesn’t deny that the statement relates to their product and doesn’t dispute the findings. Can I conclude that I know that the advert’s claims are false? And what about my duty of care to my client, the agency PM? Would it be acceptable to withdraw and leave her in the lurch?

I ring the ITI. No one can help interpret the code, but someone calls back and suggests that I try the free legal helpline. The operator there is friendly but takes 12 aghelplineonising minutes to log all the details. (International call; cheers, dude.) Someone will get back to me. Someone does but cannot advise me, since the first operator didn’t give me the right password.

Time passes. I discuss the situation informally with some friendly colleagues. All things considered, I decide that I’d better carry on, at least for now.

Someone rings back from the helpline. They cannot comment on the ITI code of conduct, but under English law it would be extremely unlikely that I’d be held liable for translating a misleading advert (if misleading it were), as I’m not the originator: it isn’t me who’s making the claims. What about under anyone else’s law? Someone else calls back and says the same thing in a European context. Hypothetically, what if the original advert had been found misleading under the law of another EU country and the advertiser had been legally required to withdraw it? She doesn’t know, but she does suggest that I add a disclaimer when I deliver the translation, just in case.

Which I do, adding that it might be best if I don’t work for this end client again.

Feeling a bit more reassured now.

After all, like all of us, I take pride in my work – in my “art”, to use HRH Seth Godin’s term; I don’t want it used to sell something under false pretences.

General principles and codes of ethics are all well and good, but they come into their own only when interpreting specific cases in real practice. I know that the institutes have made efforts to provide practical examples and “what if” training, but I suspect that more can be done – we could devise a set of case studies to circulate to members along with the actual code, for example.

So come on, then, youz lot.

What would you have done?

7 thoughts on “Translation ethics: an experience at the wordface

  1. Pieter

    What puzzles me mostly is this: if you’re a translator, you’re the originator for the target language, aren’t you? I am curious about the copyright and legal aspects of that.

    1. Oliver Lawrence Post author

      Hello Pieter, thanks for commenting. I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding is that the translator holds the copyright in the target text only until the client has finished paying for it. My impression from the advice given, as I mention in the post, is that, in translating a text, any claims in it are made by the author of the original, not by the translator. As the translator, I am re-expressing the same message in another language; what I’m originating is the linguistic vehicle, not the actual content.
      But I agree that further clarification from the professional bodies would help.

      1. Ben Jones

        I think you’ll find you retain copyright unless you sign it away. Many translators do now sign it away unknowingly via those horribly long agency contracts, or by default (under the last shot rule) by not rejecting the client’s terms in their PO or email .sig. Only occasionally would such terms actually specify that copyright transfers on payment. The more interesting issue is TMs: in theory clients should not leverage your TM (or your translation via their own TM) as it’s your IP unless signed away. Because of this, agency contracts have increasingly come to specify that when you sign, the IP in all past & future translations transfers to them (and even if you don’t sign, it’s odds-on they use it anyway).

  2. Robert Rogge

    Fun story!

    I guess I would have interpretted “The end client says that the advertising standards authority’s verdict is purely advisory, so no laws or regulations have been breached” to mean that the original content was not against the law, and therefore your translation is cool.

    Because if the original content is not against the law, then that pretty much solves the case, right?

    Anyway, it is thought provoking – makes me wonder how many “translation thrillers” are left to be written about transaltors that get entangled in “dirty” translations unwittingly and must fight to survive and reveal who the real perpetrators are… 😛

    1. Oliver Lawrence Post author

      Hello Robert

      The original content may not have been illegal (although I only had its author’s word for that, so not exactly independent advice), but it might well have been ethically questionable. If the laws, regulations and codes of conduct don’t debar me from accepting the work, it’s down to my conscience and whether I’d want to be associated with such material. No harm done, in the end, at least I hope.

      The next thing I’m waiting to hear about is a translator getting sued for negligence. Then we might all find out whether our professional indemnity insurance cover is enough (or actually worth anything). Fingers crossed the test case doesn’t fall to me ;).

      All the best.


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