Virtues and translators

While studying the codes of ethics from seventeen professional translator associations (e.g. ATA, ATIO, OTTIAQ, ITI, SATI), I came across an article by Andrew Chesterman that explores how professional virtues could apply to the translation profession. That led me to consider how the codes of ethics/codes of professional conduct might shed some light on what virtues an ethical translator requires.

What quickly became clear, though, was that no two professional associations agree upon the set of virtues required by an ethical translator. That’s because no codes endorse the same set of principles and only two principles—confidentiality and competence—were included in all seventeen codes. And, since confidentiality and competence are required of almost any profession in which services are provided to the public, they are not translation-specific traits. But, while there is clearly no single set of virtues professional translators are expected to have, the codes of ethics do show what virtues are typically considered desirable for professional translators.

First, several virtues are considered essential by virtually all seventeen profession-oriented networks: discretion, so that translators do not divulge confidential information, sound judgement, so that translators can effectively determine whether they have enough competence to complete a task well and integrity, so that translators will advise clients when they are not competent enough to accept a project, and will behave as professionals at all times, adopt good subcontracting behaviour and not accept bribes. Likewise, a good number of codes emphasize the virtue of reliability, so that translators complete the projects they have been assigned and do not arbitrarily abandon clients mid-assignment, and cooperativeness so that translators will share their knowledge with colleagues, recommend colleagues for jobs and avoid disloyal competition. Finally, as Chesterman suggests (2001: 147), commitment to the profession is necessary, and seems to be accepted as a basic tenet of all seventeen codes of ethics.

So far, though, these virtues are not specific to the practice of translation: professional accountants and engineers, for instance, are also expected to have similar character traits, according to some of their codes of ethics (e.g. IMA, AICPA, and NSPE).

What’s interesting is that the consensus about virtues begins to dissipate when the codes address ethical principles directly related to translation. In fact, the more closely a character trait is related to translation, the less consensus can be found in the codes of ethics. For instance, do professional, ethical translators require persistence, resourcefulness and carefulness (cf. Pincoffs 1986: 84) or determination (cf. Chesterman 2001: 147) to ensure they accurately convey the ST information? Only twelve of the seventeen codes address the principle of accuracy at all. What about honesty, truthfulness and fairness (cf. Chesterman 2001: 147), virtues required for translators to disclose conflicts of interest and convey information exactly as it was related in the ST? Only seven codes have an impartiality principle, and only six include stipulations about accurately conveying untrue statements, informing clients of ST or TT errors, and not distorting or manipulating the truth. Likewise, with respect to rates, only half the codes include stipulations about working for reasonable rates or for rates that do not fall significantly below those common in the market. Thus, not all profession-oriented networks agree that fairness and reasonableness are virtues required of professional, ethical translators, and none specify that ethical translators should volunteer their services for charities or non-profit organizations, for which character traits such as benevolence, generosity and/or altruism would be necessary. Finally, since so few codes discuss a translator’s ethical obligations with respect to immoral or illegal texts, guidelines are lacking here as well. Do translators need courage to refuse unethical texts? What about empathy for the groups that might be harmed by the texts that will be used for illegal, immoral or dishonest ends?

Clearly, the codes of ethics do not really clarify the question of what virtues a translator should have or should try to acquire if he or she wants to achieve excellence while facilitating cross-cultural communication. Discretion, sound judgement, integrity, reliability, cooperativeness and commitment, character traits endorsed by nearly all seventeen codes, are likely to be required in any profession. Such virtues could be considered essential for translators—at least as far as professional associations are concerned. While the other virtues, namely persistence, resourcefulness, carefulness, determination, honesty, truthfulness, fairness, reasonableness, benevolence, generosity, altruism, courage and empathy are not directly mentioned in all of the codes, they do arise in several. These virtues are probably important then, even if they’re not considered essential by all professional associations.


Chesterman, A. (2001). Proposal for a Hieronymic Oath. The Translator, 7(2), 139-154.

Pincoffs, E. L. (1986). Quandaries and Virtues: Against Reductivism in Ethics. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press.

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