To Translate or Not to Translate: An Ethical Imperative


Language forms the base of human communication, however, the dilemma of whether to translate or not to translate is a never-ending riddle. It’s a question that always causes hesitation and disputes as it equally baffles both translators and interpreters. While discussing matters of ethics in various domains; medicine and the legal system quickly tickle the mind. Upon further consideration, we realize that translation itself emerges as an important participant in the ethical arena. 


Translation connects different cultures and multilingual people allowing them to share their ideas. And like all the other professional acts, translation also involves ethical implications. In reality, several ethical problems go beyond professional boundaries. However, there exists a universal set of standards, that when precisely followed ensure admirable outcomes for the clients. The decision of whether to translate or not to translate a document carries ethical obligations. Therefore in this blog, we will discuss the complex ethical imperatives surrounding translation. 

What is Ethics?

Translation plays a vital role in fostering intercultural understanding and cooperation. However, to answer the question “whether to translate something or not?”, it is necessary to begin with the definition of the concept of ethics. It should be noted that ‘ethics’ generally refers to systems of values and moral principles that guide our notions of right and wrong and, thus, discipline our conduct. It is fair to say that the history of translation studies, for the most part, is entwined with the history of translation ethics.

What is a Translator's Professional Ethics? 

Ethics of translation lies in deciding upon the right course of action within the act itself, deciding what is the right or wrong treatment of the text we are translating, and knowing how to implement those decisions. It implies meticulous awareness of your role in the translation process and a keen awareness of the impact of your decisions on the world around you. Therefore, often the answer to the question “To translate or not to translate?” is based on ethical considerations. 


In terms of professional translator ethics, the translator is in no position to fully appreciate the significance of their choices or the subtle shades of meaning that are being erased, mangled, or mistreated and is thus acting in an unethical manner. 

Ethics of Translation and Interpreting: Interpreter Ethics

An interpreter is obligated by their profession to interpret everything that is being said.


Interpreters are in a slightly different situation than translators in terms of dealing with ethical situations, due to the very fact that their morals will (or potentially will not) coincide with the expected professional morals as set out by various institutions. 

Ethics of Translation and Interpreting: Translation Ethics

One of the requirements to achieve a good translation is to be faithful and accurate to the source text and this means there is no place for subjectivity. Translators and interpreters at times must make difficult ethical choices. In most cases, these choices positively affect their professionalism as they ensure dedication to a quality product.


The primary duty of interpreters and translators to remain impartial is intended to protect the rights of all parties. There are circumstances when interpreters must weigh the rights of one individual against another to ensure that the objectives of all participants are given equal or adequate space within the interaction. The ability to balance one ethical obligation against another requires moments of genuine ethical insight. 

Code of Ethics for Multilanguage Translators

Multilanguage Translators Code of Ethics defines what it means to be an outstanding translator. “Every translation shall be faithful and render exactly the idea and form of the original – this fidelity constitutes both a moral and legal obligation for the translator.” – International Federation of Translators (FIT). 


Let’s discuss the code of ethics for translators and some ethical imperatives that surround the process of translation. 

Cultural Sensitivity

Sensitivity toward cultural nuances is a crucial ethical imperative in translation practices. The failure to consider cultural sensitivity can lead to the generation of harmful stereotypes. E.g. the literal translation of a novel or inadequate portrayal of a character might unintentionally reinforce cultural biases. 


While translating the text, translators must consider the cultural context and be more conscious of certain terms, phrases, and idioms that can be misunderstood in the target language. Expert translators can only achieve this goal through extensive knowledge and research. 

Preservation of Source Text’s integrity

Maintaining the original author’s intent in the translated text is another ethical consideration. Translators are responsible for honestly conveying the message from the source to the target language. A single mistake during the process can sometimes lead to distortions and misinterpretations. 


Some source texts do include harmful content, but here comes the role of a professional translator. He/she would identify the associated ethical considerations and act accordingly. Certainly, the exact answer to ethical complexities in translation varies depending on the specific context and purpose of translation. 

Professional Practice

Translators should endeavor to provide service of the highest quality in their professional practice. Industry-specific translators must possess deep knowledge of the associated terminologies and jargon. 


The translator must translate accurately. By accurate translation, we understand a translation that preserves the meaning, style, and context of the source document. 

Promoting Multilingualism

Multilingualism holds both ethical and social importance. Diverse languages exemplify evolving human culture and history. Individuals must be encouraged to speak and learn multiple languages to preserve and pass on these linguistic treasures to future generations. Similar is the case of multilingual translators. They bridge the gap between languages and promote linguistic diversity across the globe. They add value to the global society by promoting multilingualism through translation services


The translator must respect, under all circumstances, the confidentiality and privacy of the information contained in all documentation provided by the client for translation, unless otherwise required by law. All information submitted shall be confidential and may not be reproduced, disclosed, or divulged.

Impartiality and Conflict of Interest 

To maintain professionalism, the translator must remain impartial and declare any potential conflict of interest (including personal or ethical values and opinions) that might affect his/her performance while translating a document.


The translator is accountable for his/her work and must recognize and acknowledge translation mistakes and try to rectify them even when the translation has been completed, to avoid potential liability and risk issues. 

Professional Development

  • The translators must seek professional development courses to maintain, improve, and expand translation skills and general knowledge through self-teaching, and formal and informal continuing education.

  • Learning is a process and translators must embrace the change over time. In this digitalized world, expert translators must upgrade their skills from time to time to remain at the top. 

  • They should identify and acknowledge their limitations so that they can solve them and gain more professional experience. 

  • They must acquire the proper terminology and enhance his/her knowledge by creating and updating terminology files.

  • They must seek evaluative feedback and practice self-evaluation concerning performance. 

Limitation of Practice

  • The translator must know his/her linguistic limitations and decline assignments that go beyond his/her skills and competence.

  • The translator must only accept assignments that he/she can complete and deliver promptly (by the due date).

  • The translator must accept documents that he/she can translate. No work should be subcontracted to colleagues without prior written permission.

  • The translator should possess sound knowledge of the source language and be an expert in the target language.

  • The translator should accept translations only for fields or subject matters where he/she has knowledge and experience.

Respect for all parties

  • The translator must show respect for all parties involved in the translation assignment, including respect for self, the agency, and its clients.

  • The translator must respect copyrights and intellectual property. Translated documents remain the client’s exclusive property.

Final Thought

To sum up, translation serves as a bridge that connects people, cultures, and knowledge. Interpreters and translators encounter a variety of ethical issues and questions in the course of their work. Therefore, to translate or not to translate is not just a linguistic question, rather it involves various ethical imperatives. Ethical behavior and the maintenance of high ethical standards are essential to good practice, in developing the profession, and in maintaining positive opinions and perceptions. While working as an interpreter or translator, ethical responsibilities overlap with the duty of care. All translators have to strive for an ever higher level of professionalism to bring prestige and respect to themselves and the translation profession.

Also, read The Subtleties of Performing Simultaneous Translation of Training