Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
That which must not be translated
March 27, 2010 - By: - In: Translation - 20 comments

“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

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