Thursday, 29 July 2010

ethics in translation

We spend lots of time in class talking about the challenges of translation; how to deal with colloquialisms, ambiguity, puns, cultural references, rhetorical devices, terminology and so on. We ask 'how' a lot. We don't often ask 'whether' - whether we should be translating a text at all in the first place. So I was interested in the discussion taking place on the fxtrans blog about ethical and moral conflicts of interest. Are there subjects (abortion, pornography, animal experimentation; munitions) that make you so uncomfortable that they would stop you taking a translation commission? Are there clients (laboratories testing on animals; arms manufacturers; insurance companies) you wouldn't work for for moral or ethical reasons (as opposed to for banal reasons of low rates/risk of non-payment)? Are there circumstances in which taking part in a boycott (of Israel, of Arizona, or maybe of organisations boycotting Israel or Arizona) could affect what translation commissions you take on? How far should the translator's ethical stance affect how much they work and what they work on? Fxtrans set up a poll, and the discussion that resulted shows that actually, these issues come up for translators pretty often (though not as much in reality as in principle) (see also here and here). The debate ranges from the 'I wouldn't ever translate anything against my beliefs' crowd to the partisans of neutrality and objectivity for whom a translator who turns down a commission because of the content isn't really a translator at all. It's just a pity that the usefulness of the poll is compromised by the fact that it doesn't account for translators who have never thought about it, or the (probably much larger) number of translators, like me, for whom a moral or ethical conflict of interest hasn't (yet) ever arisen.

A couple of posters make the point that it's more professional to turn down a job that you can't be neutral about than it is to take it and possibly compromise the job. I can see why some other translators would think that in these cases one simply stiffens one's upper lip, holds one's head high and slips into a neutral, objective headspace - but I don't see that one is any less of an ethical being as a translator than one is in any other profession. I don't think it's a question of whether or not translators operate in a 'third space' or of professional codes of ethics, so much as of individual ethical stances. No matter what one's profession (in the exercising of which one will of course have to abide by a code of professional conduct) one is always 'free', at least in theory, to refuse to co-operate with power structures or interests with which one disagrees.

I am reminded of a film I saw recently, Gillo Pontecorvo's Kapò, released in 1959. It's an early Holocaust fiction film, set in a concentration camp. It's not unproblematic (Jacques Rivette famously declared his 'profound contempt' for its use of a tracking shot to aestheticise the death of one of the inmates), and it's melodramatic by today's standards, but it has one very powerful scene in which a camp inmate, Riva, is asked to interpret at an execution. Part of the way through the execution, Riva simply stumbles to a halt, unable to continue. The German commandant yells at her to translate, but she cannot force the words out despite the savage penalty that will result. (Interestingly, the subtitler takes over where Riva falters, translating the German officer's final peroration. One might ask how and whether the subtitles could or should have supported the interpreter and refused, too, to translate.)

Quite a different tack is taken by Roberto Benigni in a scene which you may remember from Life is Beautiful. Since some kind soul has put the clip up on Youtube, I thought it might be interesting to rewatch and think about the different ways in which ethical behaviour and indeed fidelity can be understood in translation. Note how faithful Benigni is to the body language and gestures of the camp guard for whom he is interpreting:

Maybe it's just the rhythm of consecutive interpreting that they have in common, but I find it hard to imagine that Benigni wouldn't have had Pontecorvo's film in mind when writing this scene.

I would be interested to hear from any readers of the blog about ethical or moral conflicts they may have found themselves in as translators, subtitlers or interpreters, and how they addressed them...?

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