The ethics of crowdsourcing

I’m almost finished my paper on translation blogs, and I’m getting ready to move on to my crowdsourcing projects. That’s why I was glad to hear that the editors of Linguistica Antverpiensia accepted my proposal for a special issue on community translation. Here’s what I plan to write about:

If, as Howe (2008: 8 ) argues, “labour can often be organized more efficiently in the context of community than it can in the context of a corporation[,] the best person to do a job is the one who most wants to do that job[,] and the best people to evaluate their performance are their friends and peers who […] will enthusiastically pitch in to improve the final product, simply for the sheer pleasure of helping one another and creating something beautiful from which they will benefit,” crowdsourcing raises some ethical questions. What, for instance, are some of the implications of for-profit companies benefiting financially from user communities who help create something from which not only the users will benefit but also the companies themselves? What effects might a user’s interest in project or commitment to a cause have on his or her translation? If crowdsourcing makes available translations that would otherwise not be produced or which would be available only after a long delay (e.g. translations into “minor” target languages, translations of less relevant texts, such as discussion forums), is this reward enough for the community, or do members deserve other forms of remuneration as well? What effects might these forms of remuneration have on community members, professional translators, non-profit and for-profit organizations, and users outside the community? Using examples of crowdsourced translation initiatives at non-profit and for-profit organizations, including Kiva, Global Voices Online, Asia Online, Plaxo and TEDTalks, this paper will explore various ethical questions that apply to translation performed by people who are not necessarily trained as translators or remunerated for their work. To better explore questions related to translation into major and minor languages, this paper will contrast the target languages offered through these crowdsourced initiatives with those offered via the professionally localized websites of five top global brands. It will also search for answers to these ethical questions by comparing the principles shared by the codes of ethics of professional translation associations in fifteen countries.

As I’ll be working on this paper between now and April 2011, I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who has worked on a community translation project, as a translator, an editor, developer, organizer, etc. What are your thoughts on the ethics of crowdsourcing? Leave me a comment or contact me over the next few months and let me know your point of view.

January 2012 Update: My article on the ethics of crowdsourcing is now available. It was published in Linguistica Antverpiensia 10 (2011), the theme of which was “Translation as a Social Activity–Community Translation 2.0.” The table of contents is available here.

Applied research

Now that the 2009/2010 academic year is really underway, I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had much time for blogging, much to my dismay. On my desk are several books I’ve been meaning to read and discuss while I prepare my next paper on website localization, but I haven’t had time to do much more than flip through them. Needless to say, my article hasn’t progressed beyond the vague contemplation stage that precedes any actual research. I know only that I want to look through the websites of another fifty or so companies to see whether any of them have localized for Quebec, and that I also want to explore whether English Canadian and US culture vary enough to merit separate localization strategies. I’m hoping December will be a little more productive, since I’ll have a temporary respite from teaching and what seems to be an endless number of tests and assignments that need to be marked.

On another note, I was very happy to learn today that the article I presented at last year’s CATS conference, and which will be appearing in the July 2010 issue of the Journal of Specialised Translation, is being consulted while the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario (ATIO) reviews its code of ethics. Because I analyzed seventeen codes of ethics from professional translator associations and studied the questions raised by translators in an online discussion forum, I was able to highlight several places where the codes of ethics did not necessarily address the ethical challenges translators faced in their practice. The fact that ATIO members may find my research useful reminds me that I often prefer to do applied research because I like seeing practical results arise from my efforts. So now I have one more thing to add to my December to-do list: plan out another applied study of translation networks to balance out the theoretical article on localization and Canadian websites.

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.