Ethical intervention

Anthony Pym recently created a Youtube channel where he has posted a number of videos on translation studies (e.g. a conference presentation on translator intervention, some course material on sociolinguistics, a talk on humanism in university education). I’ve enjoyed downloading these and listening to them whenever I go out for a jog.

One of these videos, which discusses the ethics of translators intervening during the translation process, has an interesting conclusion. About five minutes into the third video in this series, Pym argues the following:

I will now solve the problem of the Peace Map intervention. […] What is this text? What is this Road Map? What is its function? What’s it doing out in the world? It’s a text that has to work as a basis for conversation, for dialogue, for future exchange. It’s a point of departure; it’s not a fixed text. And any intervention—most of the articles were added in a Palestinian newspaper—likely to get popular support for this initiative in the town where the translation was carried out, if that aim is laudable, if that translation can get large segments of the population engaged in an act of cross-cultural communication like the Road Map for Peace or any other peace initiative or any other act of cooperation, then it is ethically laudable, in that situation, for that purpose. I have now justified ethical intervention.

I found this to be an intriguing way of assessing the ethics of translator interventions. The argument here seems to be that translators are free to intervene in a text as long as they are doing so in line with the purpose of the text. Since the purpose of the text would change according to the situation, the same intervention could be deemed ethical or unethical in different situations. But I think this argument raises a number of questions.

Let’s look at the second-to-last sentence, where Pym argues that “any intervention […] likely to get popular support for this initiative in the town where the translation was carried out, if that aim is laudable, […] then it is ethically laudable, in that situation, for that purpose.” My question here is, who determines whether the aim is laudable? The translator(s)? The receiver(s)? The client(s)? Someone else? What if different agents determine that different aims are laudable in a given situation? How does that affect the interventions made by the translator? What happens when a text has multiple (and possibly conflicting) purposes? And what happens if the translator intervenes with the intention of supporting the document’s purpose (in this case to get popular support for the Road Map) but the interventions have the opposite effect once the translation is published? Does this make the translator’s interventions any less ethical?

Pym does clarify some of these points when he responds to a comment from a YouTube viewer. The commenter wanted to know what happens when the translator intervenes for better cooperation between two cultures and this adversely affects a third culture. Pym’s response is as follows:

The ethics I am interested in is consciously regional, in this case limited to a profession; it is not general, not for all humanity.
The aim of this regional ethics is long-term benefits for all parties engaged in the communication act (i.e. not just two sides, and including the mediator). So mutual benefits for Hitler and Mussolini, for example, would make their communication professionally ethical even when it is not in the interests of many others.

Those determining whether an aim is “laudable,” then would presumably be the parties engaged in the communication act. However, this still doesn’t answer the question about what happens when an intervention is intended to have one effect but actually has another. Does the intent to act laudably make an act ethical, even if the action is ultimately deemed not to be laudable by the parties involved in the communication act?

Finally, it occurs to me that this entire argument is based on deception: the target readers of the translated Road Map do not know that the translator has intervened in the text. What happens when and if they discover that the proposals in the translation are not entirely the same as the proposals in the original document? Though the translator’s interventions may initially increase popular support for the Road Map, they may ultimately erode this support when and if the target readers discover that they have been deceived into believing the document said one thing when it actually said something else.

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