The Translator and his Choices in Ethically Problematic Situations

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

23 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Asymmetric power relations: translation in post-colonial context
2.1. Reflections on African literature and its translation
2.2. The African literature translator’s choices and responsibilities

3. Translating confidential documents
3.1. The man who had his wife’s diary translated
3.2. The translator’s choices and responsibilities towards “illegal” translation jobs

4. Translating rudeness
4.1. Rudeness in La Haine
4.2. The translator’s choices and responsibilities in translating rudeness

5. My translator’s Code of Ethics

6. Conclusion

7. Appendices

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Postmodernity is a confusing term which has been extensively discussed over the last years. There is no standard definition of it but the three intertwined senses of the word ‘postmodern’ provide some clarity about the matter. Postmodernity is an era, it also incorporates postmodern philosophies attempting to grasp the peculiarities of that era and eventually corresponds to postmodernism, which includes expressions of the first two in the aesthetic realm. There is no postmodern school or single postmodern theory. The concept has received contributions from a pleiad of writers. Although it has first been broug regrouping term to name writers such as Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Kristeva, Irigaray, Cixous, Spivak, and de Man (Koskinen 2000). In this paper, I will adopt the latter view. I will also use the word ‘postmodernity’ as a synonym for our contemporary post-World War II era.

Since the beginning of postmodernity, translation’s ideals have changed. The dream of a one hundred percent perfect translation has almost disappeared. The source text has lost a lot of its importance to now have barely as much price as the translator’s work technique. The translator is in most cases no more expected to be invisible but now has a claim to visibility. It did exist before and always has but was systematically denied for the sake of traditional ethics.

The traditional translation ethics have also been reinvented. There has been a massive rejection of old principles and universal ethics. The translator has nowadays a larger wiggle room. Even an unusual translation can be considered as a masterpiece as far the translator remains consistent with his personal ethics and is able to justify them.

In this paper I will portray the translator in three kinds of ethically problematic situations - asymmetric power relations, confidentiality and rudeness – in order to define his position and possible choices. After this reflection, I will eventually formulate my personal translator’s code of ethics.

2. Asymmetric power relations: translation in post-colonial context

The following paragraphs comment on Iheanacho A. Akakuru and Dominic C. Chima’s article “Réflexions sur la littérature africaine et sa traduction” published in 2006.

2.1. Reflections on African literature and its translation

Translating African literature was initially meant as a means to import some of the African culture to Europe. Although the term is often used in singular, we should talk about “African cultures” as each country – delimited by the colonization - shelters numerous tribes with their own languages and traditions. There are about 2110 spoken languages in Africa, with incredible densities of language groups: 278 and 215 living languages only in Cameroon and Democratic Republic of the Congo respectively. These 2110 languages are dividable in four main groupings[1]: (1) Afro-Asiatic, covering most of Northern Africa, (2) Nilo-Saharian scattered in Central and Eastern Africa, (3) Niger-Saharian covering the two third of Africa with the Niger-Congo as a principal branch and the Bantu languages as a sub-group of the Niger-Congo branch, (4) Khoisan gathering about thirty languages in the Western part of Southern Africa.

Superposing this indigenous high linguistic diversity with the languages imposed during the colonization point out the complexity of each writing process. In such a cultural context, every written production is already a translation. The African writer (for example Achebe, Munonye, Tutuola or Diabaté) thinks in his mother language and writes in English or French, taking liberties with these two in order to restitute his thoughts in the most faithful way. According to Akakuru and Chima, trying to translate Kourouma in English means adding new difficulties emanating from the differences between French and English to the Malinke/ French dialectic of the original. Another major problem is that the first translations of African literature were made by Europeans whose cultural competence was extremely poor.

We will now go through several reflections on hindrances to the translation of African works and propose ways to suppress them.

First of all, it is very important to define the nature of the literary text. Each literary text presents distinct characteristics depending on the time it was produced and its purpose. According to Delisle, a literary text is definable by the author’s subjectivity, the power of evocation of the text, what is left unsaid, the form, the polysemy and the work’s timelessness – the fact that it contains universal values. Delisle’s characteristics have been widely commented and modified; we will evoke the recent challenges to the notion of sense in a following paragraph.

Translating a literary text requires a wide range of competences. The translator will have to consider the linguistic and cultural aspect of the text but also the restrictions caused by the author’s choice of a particular genre. In poetry, the translator – according to Moulin – should not try to deliver a one-to-one reproduction of the text in the target language but remain faithful to the poetical character of the text. However, to understand this complexity, the translator will have to analyze the constituting elements of the poem and then give priority to the poem’s dominant characteristics, namely the versification, phonic effects, stanzas, figures, symbolism, the general atmosphere etc., while also reinventing the language. In theater, the translator will have to define the characteristics of the original text on three levels: writing, action and setting.

Novels represent a much more important volume in translation than theater plays and poetry. Just like for poetry, the novel’s message is not necessarily obvious. The translator will have to go beyond the carapace of the form and access the message – which is actually the condition to any translation. Akakuru rightly said on the matter:

Il est évident que la traduction ne peut être indifférente à la nature du texte à réexprimer. C’est pourquoi traduire un texte littéraire est un défi lancé au traducteur. Car, c’est ici que le signe linguistique perd sa stabilité comme sa rigidité systémiques. Le signe, selon les caprices de l’auteur ne cesserait de se réinventer, de se redéfinir en contexte de communication. (Akakuru 2005)

However, postmodernity has challenged the notion of sense. There has been a shift from the ethics of sameness to the ethics of difference (Koskinen 2000). This namely means that essentialism, i.e. the idea of an absolute truth or message, is rejected. Every text can only be interpreted according to the reader’s background as well as the social and historical context he belongs to. The message then becomes a vague concept which differs from reader to reader and there cannot be any mistake in interpreting anymore. My problem with the challenge to the notion of sense is that it forgets the author, denies its authority and basically disrespects the literary text itself. It is undeniable that every novel, theater play or other literary production is written on purpose. The author sits down and starts creating because he means to convey a message. Irony, metaphors, poetry: they are all roundabout ways to the sense. It is often a multiple sense, just as we pointed out earlier, but it is there. Even absurd works protest against something: mankind’s pointless existence as in Camus or the oppressive society as in Baraka. Choosing to ignore this message is practically an excuse not to have to look for it and the best way to misunderstand the work. We readers will of course be influenced by our background but the author always leaves enough clues to put us on the right track. These clues reside in the writer’s life, the historical context of both the production and the time of writing and his inner convictions. Our personal experiences and sensibilities can only help us to discover more aspects of the work.

Therefore for any literary translation, the translator will need linguistic, communicative and stylistic competences. Yet the esthetics of the African literary text are complicated by the use of idiolects and idioms inspired by the ethnos, transliterations, all kinds of replicas and also archaisms coming from the author’s personal history. The complex chemistry between African languages describing a world full of undisclosed secrets and European languages less ingrained in localness calls for transcultural knowledge. It is the only key to the meaning of the text (Akakuru, Chima 2006).

Many European translators are deprived of this cultural competence. Numerous translations of African literature have been commented by theoreticians and professionals. They emitted a judgment on their adequacy. Examining some of these points of views will help us resolve the problematic of African literature’s translation.

The particular use of the language in these texts already creates a lot of difficulties. The first translation is at the intralinguistic level. These texts are steeped in the languages and cultures of their authors. Some, like Kourouma or Achebe, introduce local languages or tales in their texts, others proverbs or African sayings. This new problem adds to the primary difficulty caused by the literary character of the text. Until recently most of African literature translations have been achieved by European anthropologists, linguists and teachers. Although they were certified translators, their productions contained serious errors which proved that they did not understand either the vision of the African world or its modes of cultural intelligibility.

We will use two of the examples named by Akakuru and Chima in their article: firstly Femi Ojo-Ade’s critic on the translation of Oyono’s Une Vie de boy by John Reed and secondly Diop’s translation of Achebe’s A Man of the People.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Reed took the liberty to modify the source text, giving it another sense. It is not clear whether he actually did not understand Oyono’s text or he found suitable to change it. In the next example we will see what happens when the translator is uncomfortable with the dialects appearing in the text - in this case a Nigerian pidgin.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Here Diop, not understanding Nigerian pidgin or not knowing how to translate it, chose solutions that alter the source text – if the theory according to which the sense of the text is an evolving concept were true, his translation would be acceptable, but it is not.

In fact, it would be wrong to pretend that only Europeans have produced bad translations. African translators translating each other in French or English have also mutilated original texts as recent studies showed. There have been countless inacceptable literal translations, omissions, approximate and even contradictory ones.

The literary language differs from the one used in the everyday-life. Moreover it is immensely influenced by historical, political and cultural realities. Therefore the translator will not only need an excellent competence in French or English studies, he will need to know more about the culture and the daily rituals from which the text he wants to translate is issued. Furthermore he will have to possess a poetical sensibility.

2.2. The African literature translator’s choices and responsibilities

Translating a text into another language is an enormous responsibility, especially when the text is bound in the oppressive context of asymmetric power relations. Translating a text from an African or Asian language to a European language is often seen as a favor from the European point of view. As the mainstream culture is their own, any attempt to try to open to another culture is perceived as an honorable act. It is sometimes pure interest, sometimes the consequence of a fashion – just like African dance courses or Japanese and Chinese language courses. Today, as we speak of globalization, anyone theoretically has the right to be represented. In practice it rather means that anyone has the right to try to find a place on the global market which has three poles: North-America, Europe and North-East Asia. There is no real equality.

So when a translator receives a text in his hands he is already under pressure. He has to translate the text in the most attractive way possible for the readers. Could this be a justification for some of the choices made by the translators we have named in the previous section? The translator mostly remains anonymous. A French person will say “I read Virginia Woolf,” whereas he has in fact read translations of Woolf’s works. Paradoxically, this tells how important the translator’s role is: he represents the writer in the other language group and basically constructs the image that this group will have of him. By the single power of his words a good novel can remain a good novel or become a bad one, or he can even make a bad novel a good one. This responsibility is even higher when it is the first translation of a work.

As a native French speaker now studying translation with English as second foreign language, I could pretend to the title of translator. If I was ordered to translate The River Between (1961) by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya) in French, these would be the questions I would ask myself:

- First of all, am I able to achieve this mission? Translating a text from English to French is not a problem but here I have to translate an English text from Kenya. I would have to learn more about the writer’s life. English is practically never the mother language in African countries with English as an official language. People first learn it at school and use it mostly for administrative purposes or when their interlocutor does not speak their tribal language. What is the writer’s mother language? Kikuyu.

- I would have to find about particularities of the Kikuyu language that could influence wa Thiong’o’s English. Can I understand Kenyan pidgin? Then I would also have to learn more about the ways of the Kikuyu people and the place and significance of female genital mutilation in their culture. The fact that wa Thiong’o calls it circumcision – the same name as for the operation undergone by men – already tells a lot about the general acceptance of the act.
- Would I be able to translate without emitting a judgment? Of course not because as human beings we are prone to judge all the time, but I could at least translate in a way that will not betray my opinion of the text. It must remain wa Thiong’o’s text.
- My motivation to translate the text would also have to be strong: I should have a real interest in the text.

If I were to answer any of these questions by the negative, I would have to refuse the job.

3. Translating confidential documents

In this section we will examine another of the problems the translator often faces nowadays: the conflict between professional ethics and translating material that have been illegally obtained or which could be used for a dishonest purpose.

3.1. The man who had his wife’s diary translated

Randy Cohen, writer and humorist, since 1999 author of The Ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine, treated the theme of ethics in translation on February 11, 2007. His discussion material was a letter from a reader.

My father, a translator, was hired by a man who suspected that his wife was unfaithful and married him only to get a green card. He had my father translate photocopied pages from her diary. Family members think this was unethical. My father maintains he simply did his job. You? (Incidentally, the diary confirmed the devastated man’s suspicions, and he is initiating divorce proceedings.) Nicole Schou, San Francisco

Cohen thinks that although the reader’s father was only doing his job, he had to subject his actions to moral scrutiny, i.e. to considerate the way these documents were obtained. In this case the documents were obtained “illegally” so he should have turned down the offer. Cohen is referring here to the notion of conscience but his analysis is a bit simplistic.

We have to consider one by one the ethical issues that the translator meets in this case and compare them to his daily reality. The client could just have come to the translator and asked him to translate those lines without any further explanation. The conscience issue actually first begins when the man tells him that these lines are an excerpt from his wife’s diary and that he is suspecting her of adultery. Doing this, the client voluntarily appeals to the translator’s human judgment and places him right between him and his wife, at the heart of a marital conflict. There is the traditional idea that no one should interfere in a marriage. In the everyday life, when a couple has problems, unless the parents or closest friends are asked for advice, others will not say a word, simply because it is assumed that quarrels are part of the marital or couple life and that everything will eventually be fine. Even if it is not the case, it is no subject to discussion, it is a private matter. The second problem is the translator’s family. As we are already talking about ethics, was it ethical to talk about this case with his daughter and the rest of the family? This remains after all, as we just said, a private matter. The translator simply ignored all these questions and did his job. Was is right or wrong?

Blogger “Masked Translator,” professional freelance translator vehemently attacked the New York Times article for being too simplistic.

Although the American Translators Society and the other organizations regard as unethical the translation of material that is illegally obtained or for which the translator suspects an illegal or dishonest purpose, one a purpose that conflicts with the “public interest.” In terms of the law, the husband did nothing wrong placing the translation, and the translator did nothing illegal in translating it. […] There is a professional responsibility to serve the client within the bounds of the law, as well. In the diary case, during the divorce proceedings the diary’s contents would be subject to subpoena. Would it be unethical for the translator to refuse subpoenaed material?

With the comment on the evidence material, we see that everything is a question of perspective. I share the blogger’s opinion but in order to explain my position I will give an example from another field: medical ethics.


[1] See appendices A and B.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


The Translator and his Choices in Ethically Problematic Situations
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Seminar "The Ethics of Translation in Postmodernity"
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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577 KB
Translation, Ethics, Translation Studies, Postmodernity, African languages
Quote paper
Carmen Odimba (Author), 2010, The Translator and his Choices in Ethically Problematic Situations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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