Translation internships

This past June, I attended a conference in Edmonton that focused on Canadian labour and social movements. Although I enjoyed the conference quite a bit and was particularly intrigued with how academics, labour unions, social activists (and even a few “trouble makers”) gathered together at the same event to share research, stories, and calls to action, I didn’t blog about it earlier because it wasn’t a translation-focused event. (My talk, which was about how and why Left-leaning Canadians translated Quebec sovereignty texts into English in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, was the only one that looked at translation). Yet the conference did lead me to carefully consider (and sometimes reconsider) various social issues that are relevant to translation. If you’ve read my blog posts before, you’ll know, of course, that crowdsourcing, and the ethics of crowdsourcing in particular, is one of my research interests, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the conference had me once again pondering the effects of unpaid or underpaid labour on the translation profession. But later, as the new academic year started and I took over our various internships programs, I started to also think about ethical questions related to internships for translation students.

The problem that I wrestle with as I try to find internships is that generally, I can’t offer an internship to every student who applies for one. This is usually because although many Toronto-area translation companies have been generously taking on interns for a number of years, many smaller companies and individual translators (who make up a large portion of the translation market) find working with an intern difficult to coordinate: how, for instance, can they be sure they will have work for the intern every week? How will supervising an intern fit into their schedules, which might be full due to travel and other commitments? Since there are only so many large translation service providers who might be able to accommodate a intern or two, this leaves me having more students than internships nearly every term.

And this problem is actually more complex, because although about half of our internships are paid, the other half are not, leaving students who cannot afford to do unpaid work unable to take advantage of an opportunity to get more translation experience, and leaving me with the problem of offering paid work to some students and unpaid work to others. These kinds of challenges (unpaid internships, and internships that are not available to everyone) are not unique to translation, as this article in Canadian Lawyer demonstrates, but they are something I’ll be spending more time thinking about. I may be overestimating the interest in internships: some students are pursuing a degree in translation without intending to become translators and therefore may not be particularly interested in professional experience in the field. Others may not be concerned about unpaid work because they value the experience an internship provides. To find out more, I plan to survey our students later this year, to see what they think about internships, both paid and unpaid. My hope is that the results will help me feel more confident that the internship programs I coordinate are benefitting as many students as possible, as fairly as possible. I’ll blog more about it when I have some of the results.

In the meantime, I’d be very interested in hearing from others who run an internship program: what has your experience been with the internships? What do students think about unpaid work? Are internships mandatory, and therefore equally accessible to everyone? Do you have any ethical concerns about translation internships? If so, do you have any ideas about how to address these concerns?

Should I fix this mistake or not? On the ethics of researching Wikipedia

I’ve just finished some of the final edits for an article that will soon be published in has just been published in Translation Studies, and it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about an ethical dilemma I faced when I was preparing my research. So before I turn to a new project and forget all about this one again, here’s what happened.

The paper focuses a corpus of 94 Wikipedia articles that have been translated in whole or in part from French or Spanish Wikipedia. I wanted to see not just how often translation errors in the articles were caught and fixed, but also how long it took for errors to be addressed. It will probably not come as any surprise that almost all of the articles I studied initially contained both transfer problems (e.g. incorrect words or terms, omissions) and language problems (e.g. spelling errors, syntax errors), since they were posted on Wikipedia:Pages needing translation into English, which lists articles that are included in English Wikipedia but which contain content in another language, content that requires some post-translation editing, or both. Over the course of the two years leading up to May 2013, when I did the research, some of the errors I found in the initial translations were addressed in subsequent versions of the articles. In other cases, though, the errors were still there, even though the page had been listed as needing “clean-up” for weeks, months, or even years.

And that’s where my ethical dilemma arose: should I fix these problems? It would be very simple to do, since I was already comparing the source and target texts for my project, but it felt very much like I would be tampering with my data. For instance, in the back of my mind was the thought that I might want to conduct a follow-up study in a year or two, to see whether some of the errors had been resolved with more time. If I were to fix these problems, I wouldn’t be able to check on the status of these articles later, which would prevent me from finding out more about how quickly Wikipedians resolve translation errors.

And yet, I was torn, partly due to a Bibliotech podcast I’d listened to a few years ago that made a compelling argument for improving Wikipedia’s content:

When people tell me that they saw something inaccurate on Wikipedia, and scoff at how poor a source it is, I have to ask them: why didn’t you fix it? Isn’t that our role in society, those of us with access to good information and the time to consider it, isn’t it our role to help improve the level of knowledge and understanding of our communities? Making sure Wikipedia is accurate when we have the chance to is one small, easy way to contribute. If you see an error, you can fix it. That’s how Wikipedia works.

In the end, I didn’t make any changes, but this was mainly because I didn’t have the time. I didn’t want to tamper with my data while I was writing the paper, and after I had submitted it, I didn’t get around to going back through the list of errors I’d compiled to starting editing articles. Most of the corrections would have been for very minor problems, such as changing a general word (“he worked for”) to a word that more specifically reflected the source text (“he volunteered for”), or changing incorrect words for better translations, although the original version would have given users the gist of the meaning (e.g. “the caves have been exploited” vs. “the caves have been mined”). I had trouble justifying the need to invest several hours correcting details that wouldn’t really affect the overall meaning of the text, and yet this question still nagged at me. So I thought that instead I would write a blog post to see what others thought: what is more ethical, making the corrections myself, or leaving the articles as they are, to see how they change over time without my influence?

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.

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.

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.