That which must not be translated

by Translation Guy on March 27, 2010

“Blazing a Trail to Business Success” was the title of the American Translators Association, Translation Company Division conference last week in Phoenix. Made me think of a pack of grubby woodsmen running through a darkened forest, swinging axes and defacing trees, which is a nice way to visualize your competition.

Actually, I found them to be a pretty nice bunch (especially after I had a few drinks), and it was great to see old friends, make new ones, and compare notes on the trade. As we hurtle towards the Translation Singularity, I’m going to start going more frequently to these meetings to keep my fingers on the fading pulse of translation as we know it. I was amazed by some of the stuff people in the industry are doing and thinking.

I had one of these jaw-dropping moments when the conversation turned to what kind of content people refuse to translate. Ironically, this occurred in a panel discussion of “The Inside Story of America’s Fastest-Growing Translation Companies,” when Vigdis Eriksen of Eriksen Translation announced that her company did not do any defense or military work, or porn translation for that matter.  The reaction was swift, with a chorus of male members rushing to pick up her fallen porno banner.

Personally, I keep my politics and religious beliefs private, as a personal and professional courtesy.  Personally, because they make most people crazy. Professionally, because I spent so many years as a hack/flack PR whore advancing the kinky ideologies of various johns (I did mostly government policy). But now that I am no longer kept, and can practice my trade on the street as it were, I am eager to serve all comers. Since I am only transmitting the content, instead of creating it, I feel relieved of responsibility.

I’ve always believed that, as translators, our job is to get the message across, and any opinions we have on a subject should not appear in translation, or even be discussed with others in our confidential trade.

That said, we don’t turn just any trick in the house of 1-800-Translate. Nothing illegal, no hate, no racism, no incitement. I’m not too keen on porn, since I think it’s often offensive to the women who actually do most of the work in this industry, plus we’ve been stiffed by some shady operators in the past.

But I’ve been surprised by how few translators will refuse these assignments, and how much the ones that accept the work enjoy the change of terminology from the more tedious material they usually churn out. Either way our translators go, we are good with that, as we are keen to use only those confident in their subject expertise.

One time, we did have a guy who refused to translate some Japanese anime (not porn, unusually) because he believed it encouraged kids to zone out on violent fantasy. Fei, my ops lead at the time, was so outraged by this translator’s unprofessional screed that she dropped him from our list. I think that’s the only time it happened.

Personally, I hate tobacco. You should see my impression of my Dad drawing his last breath in his battle against lung cancer. Hilarious at cocktail parties. Anyway, many years ago, I got the call from Phillip Morris or the like, and it sounded big. It was all I could do to say, “Sure, not a problem,” when the caller asked me if it was a problem. I was thinking of my Dad’s relationship to that ugly industry, but I was also thinking about professionalism ― and my wallet. Thankfully, the caller figured out where I was coming from, so end of story. I wonder if I would have actually ended up taking the work? I honestly don’t know.

Again, personally, while I’m no more in favor of war than I am of tobacco, I see defense translation as my civic duty to support my fellow citizens on the front line, who are putting everything on the line, in service of the government that is our own responsibility, whether we like it or not. I am proud to help any way I can. So I can’t separate it out myself, yet I can appreciate the position of those like Vigdis who can.

As a former public relations flak, this ethics stuff is, like, hard. Our business gets grey around the edges sometimes, and our values infuse every act of our workday no matter how professional or greedy we profess to be.  So three question to all you translators out there: What won’t you translate? What should we refuse to translate? And on a more positive note, what are you proudest to translate?

-Semper Fi, Translation Guy


  1. I would steer clear of porn. I’m just not comfortable with it and I would worry about payment. Proudest to translate? That would be for our nonprofit clients who do so much good here in Nashville.

  2. Terena Bell says:

    I think translators and interpreters have an ethical obligation to say, well, when their ethics will get in the way. If you think XYZ is evil, can you remove that belief when you translate? If so, translate away. But if you can’t, if it will affect the kind of job you do, say so. Just don’t say why. Just say, I do not feel as though I am the best person for this assignment. I wish all freelancers would bow out when they know they won’t do a good job. It’d keep a lot of those bad translations from being out there. Whether you’re sick, think XYZ is evil, don’t know the words involved with XYZ, the fact of the matter remains that you should be professional enough to know what assignments you can do well and which ones you can’t–for whatever reason.

  3. Deb says:

    Terena Bell, saying something like “I do not feel as though I am the best person for this assignment.” may sound reasonable if someone is asking a favor of you, but is that acceptable when a client has done their competitive research and knows full well that the work is within your skill set? Isn’t it more professional to be transparent about your company’s ethics and morals than beating around the bush? Afterall, we should all be proud of our decisions in this regard, regardless of what they may be. Just a thought, but I’d love to hear your reaction to this – have you run into this problem specifically in the past?

  4. Hm, interesting how a porn site is instantly not considered credible by some…I guess it depends on the site and how long it has been running for.

  5. Mike T. says:

    Really…is this a problem? Do consumers who frequent porn sites care if there is the odd translation blunder? These people aren’t going to these sites to read…last I checked anyway 😉

  6. Non-profit clients, you mean you do the work pro bono? Are they still consedered clients then?

  7. Leslie says:

    This begs an interesting moral and personal question. Ken, would you translate for Al-Qaeda if the money was good? Or is it that you don’t necessarily have anything against porn in general?

    • Ken says:

      Leslie, there is porno that we don’t do, if its about hate or non-consensual, or abusive, but as a general principal, I am not opposed to the publishing of mastabatory reference material. Not that I would ever… well, ehem, moving on….

      But I do have a special place in my heart for Al Qaeda and others who are so convinced blessed intentions that they hate, and murder and incite others to do the same. I would never translate for them. Not to mention the fact that on 9/11 they blew up two dozen of my customers. That was the worst day of my life, and the day I got a whole different attitude towards the military-industrial complex that Vigdis disdains and I so proudly support. There is something to be said for the monopoly of violence.

      IXXI Nolite umquam oblivisci

  8. Eriksen Translation won’t do military work? I’d love to hear Vigdis Eriksen’s rational here. Very interesting. Ken, seems like you have a story with a personal touch, maybe you could direct Vigdis to this post for a response, or at least get an official response from her?

  9. Jasmine says:

    Ken mentions that he has been stiffed by ‘shady operators’ in the past as well. I’m thinking that it’s safe to say that some industries are better avoided from a professional standpoint, but would that stop a guy like Ken Clark (translation guy)? I doubt it, I’ve read most of his posts and am a fan. I’ve begun to understand him, I’d say that he would like the drama of tracking down a low life porn theif and castrating them. Even if he didn’t get his money in the end…heck at they very least, it would make one heck of a blog post!

    • Ken says:

      I’m glad you appreciate my lack of ethos, Jasmine. Just for the record however, I draw the line at castration, although I will mount a gelding now and then, under appropriate circumstances.

  10. What about certain products like pesticides, fast food, etc. No one can possible choose to work only on projects that they believe in or else I find it hard to believe that they would have much of a business at all. Are there some things that are on the fence and others that are complete “no’s” – how do you make that decision? Seems minorly hypocritical…

  11. Sam says:

    I applaud, Terena’s response. You need to stand up for what you believe in once in awhile.

  12. Terena Bell says:

    1) Thanks, Sam!

    2) Deb: The way I interpret NCIHC Code of Ethics, at least when it comes to medical interpreting (I’m thinking abortion & family planning appointments that might be uncomfortable for Catholics, blood transfusion appointments might be rough for Jehovah’s Witness, etc), impartiality and neutrality apply. Medical interpreters are ethically bound not to have an opinion on the assignments we take and/or deny. I think say “No, I’m anti-blood transfusion” would be showing and sharing an opinion and against the ethics. So, in that case, it’s ethical not to share your ethics. Again, this is my interpretation. It does bother me sometimes when I lay down at night that I keep my mouth shut in instances like those, but I think anyone who knows me will tell you I voice my opinion freely enough on other matters to make up for it. 😉

  13. Terena Bell says:

    I’d also like to add I’m happy to translate for porn. As long as it’s not tacky porn. (Just joking. We all know there is no non-tacky porn.)

  14. It’s surprising to hear that people find it remarkable that there is work we choose not to do. While I am not so naïve as to believe that we can stay completely morally “clean,” we choose to draw a line in the sand somewhere and I sleep better at night knowing we are not a part of the military-industrial complex.

  15. Amalie,

    We do paid work for nonprofit organizations, and we offer all local nonprofits one free Spanish translation a year (there is a word limit). Some organizations that have taken advantage of the offer have become paying clients.

    My conscience is my guide, if something feels funny, then it is a no-go.

  16. Once in awhile or all the time? Once in awhile is being a hypocrite…my two cents

  17. Marg says:

    Interesting how Translation companies have such differing opinions on things, has anyone looked at any numbers? Does being more moral/immoral produce different revenue results in the market place?

  18. Hamlet says:

    Great post Ken and awesome dialogue. Everyone.

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