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Ethical mainstays in academic translation studies research

By Debbie Folaron

Academic research on translation has long dealt with matters of ethics. It has done so through the multiple disciplinary lens that constitute the rich interdiscipline of translation studies. Of ongoing concern since the emergence of the discipline have been the questions of neutrality and parameters of fidelity to the source language-culture of texts. Along these lines, comparative linguistic and literary studies have sought to examine and distinguish the different ways diverse languages express similar notions and concepts, and the most effective techniques of rendering them for target publics. The earlier reliance on these more prescriptive and normative procedures serving as ethical justification for the interpretation and evaluation of translations and translators later gave way to approaches informed by a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of contextualized language use. Most salient among these perspectives have been the refocalization on target communication objectives and users, the acknowledgement of historical contextual factors and production constraints on translators, and the recognition of individual translator subjectivity and agency. These vantage points in the field have led to such key concepts as skopos, foreignization and domestication, and interventionist and self-reflexive approaches in translation.1 

Ethical orientations and direction

A source of profound reflection in all societies and cultures worldwide, notions of ethics have been fundamentally considered throughout human history in terms of moral principles and judgements, and systems of values that underpin codes of conduct and guide actions of decision-making (“right”/“wrong,” “good”/“bad,” etc.). The perceptions of universalisms and what constitutes truths – with regard to human thought, behaviour, and language – have been a primary focus of those reflections. Concurrently, understanding the socialization of human beings into particular social, cultural, and political systems has likewise proven to be a prolific area of study for disciplines in the humanities and modern social sciences. Its explanatory power resides in its ability to account for the diverse frames of reference, expectations, assumptions, and norms associated with different historical and geographical contexts – of which translators, as human persons, are inevitably an integral part. Language is the ultimate tool that sustains and nuances these particularities. With every language comes an amalgam of embedded and intricately intertwined cultures, traditions, histories, and discourses. An ethics of translation necessarily positions the translator at this complex juncture of diversely established linguistic and culturally informed practices, one that ranges in scope and breadth and along a continuum from source to target production. At their point of convergence in translational space, a trained translator’s ethical positioning is guided by practice and theory, a combination of the preemptively normative (through learned linguistic, cultural and social norms) and analytically retrospective (through critical disciplinary reflections and discourse).

Ethical positionings and agency

The conceptualization of human agency and its affiliated ethical implications are made up of different cultural histories, and by extension have repercussions on translation studies research – even in the very perceptions and theorizations of the word “translation” and myriad roles of the translator. The questions that ensue crisscross theoretical and empirical boundaries and thresholds and serve as critical points of reflection. They are prescriptively, metaphysically and epistemologically oriented. What and why are certain criteria implemented when striving for and evaluating the quality of a translation? How do ideology and diverse power dynamics impact the positioning and strategies of translators? What are the actual working conditions and controls on translation production, and how much decision-making compacity and final validation does the translator have? To what extent should translatorial presence or intervention in a translated text be visible or justifiable? To whom or what entity does the translator owe primary allegiance or obligation? Who are the stakeholders in a given translation project? How does a translator apportion linguistic and cultural weight in the translation of hybrid or multilingual texts? Who or what bears ethical responsibility for a more equitable linguistic-cultural representation in the global market flows of translated content – especially with regard to under-represented or endangered peoples? Responses to these questions guide many aspects of research. Retrospectively, they elucidate and contextualize translator choices, strategies, and constraints in translation practice. They are not mere theoretical abstractions. Translator and researcher subjectivities and agency are decisive factors taken into account in the design, realization, and analyses of empirical qualitative and quantitative studies as well, notably for cognitive, process-oriented, and sociologically framed inquiries of investigation.2 

Ethical choices and machine ‘agency’

Technologies have added yet another layer of scholarly analysis and reflection to ethics-oriented research in translation studies. Aggregated to the existing constellation of agents involved in the production of a translation – its commissioners, institutional and corporate custodians, agencies, project managers, translators, revisers, terminologists, content designers, quality assurance controllers, and so on – are a growing number of digital “entities” participating as automated, semi- or fully autonomous machine agents. Whereas the first wave of translation-aided technologies (e.g. translation memories) had the effect of gravitating translatorial decisions by their provision of pre-translated, ‘recycled’ translation segments, the second wave of technology delivers machine translated text generated by algorithms of variegated sorts. These technologies are no longer peripheral; they are now intrinsic to a digital environment that is representative of and contributing to the existential reality of human beings and societies today – one that clearly includes translators. The contemporary task of the translator – whether a trained professional or non-professional – increasingly entails post-editing automatically translated text in accordance and compliance with diversely stated communication objectives. 

Questioning and critiquing the engineering motives of algorithm, big data, and artificial intelligence technologies in mainstream digital apps and devices have become the domain of critical digital studies. Among other issues, these critical perspectives interrogate design bias and deterministic technical protocols as well as trust criteria and governance, in the pursuit of such goals as ethical transparency and social responsibility in digitally defined practices. They query the collection, interpretation, and circulation of data and information. Our increased human-machine interactions and digitally augmented selves require us to engage more deeply with these ethical spheres. In so doing, the profession and discipline can effectively usher in a new body of research on translation and ethics in relation to digital accessibility and translator agency and decision-making in terms of automation, digitality, algorithmic partiality, and the digital condition. While perhaps less normative or prescriptive in nature, it nonetheless serves as an ethical grounding mechanism when dealing with the panoply of choices and consequences relevant to translatorial action in the digital age. In the end, how well do a human-inspired and machine-generated ethics align in the cross-cultural, interlingual communication that is translation, and how is the positionality and positioning of the translator to be interpreted? The connecting umbilical cord to the translation source has been incontrovertibly transformed.3 

Debbie Folaron is an Associate professor in the Département d’études françaises at Concordia University.


1 See van Wyke 2010; Chesterman 2018; Gambier and Stecconi 2019; Gambier and van Doorslaer 2016; and Inghilleri [and Maier] 2008.
2 See Saldanha and O’Brien 2013; Pym 2012; Angelelli and Bauer 2016; and Angelone, Ehrensberger-Dow and Massey 2020.
3 See Drugan and Tipton 2017; Taivalkoski-Shilov 2018; and Folaron 2020.


Angelelli, Claudia V. and Brian James Baer, eds. 2016. Researching Translation and Interpreting. London and New York: Routledge.

Angelone, Erik, Maureen-Ehrensberger-Dow and Gary Massey, eds. 2020. The Bloomsbury Companion to Language Industry Studies. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Chesterman, Andrew. Translation Ethics. In L. D’hulst and Y. Gambier, eds. A History of Modern Translation Knowledge. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 443-448.

Drugan, Joanna and Rebecca Tipton. 2017. “Translation, ethics and social responsibility,” in The Translator, 23 (2): 119-125.

Folaron, Debbie. 2020. “Technology, technical translation and localisation,” in M. O’Hagan, ed. The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Technology. London and New York: Routledge, 203-219.

Gambier, Yves and Ubaldo Stecconi, eds. 2019. A World Atlas of Translation. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing.

Gambier, Yves and Luc van Doorslaer, eds. 2016. Border Crossings-Translation Studies and Other Disciplines. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing.

Inghillieri, Moira (and Carol Maier). 2008. “Ethics,” in Baker, M. and G. Saldanha, eds. Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. 2nd edition. London and New York: Routledge, 100-104.

Pym, Anthony. 2012. On Translator Ethics. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing.

Saldanha, Gabriela and Sharon O’Brien. 2013. Research Methodologies in Translation Studies. London and New York: Routledge. [St. Jerome Publishing]

Taivalkoski-Shilov, Kristiina. 2019. “Ethical issues regarding machine(-assisted) translation of literary texts,” in Perspectives-Studies in Translation Theory and Practice, 27 (5): 689-703.

Van Wyke, Ben. 2010. “Ethics and Translation,” in Y. Gambier and L. van Doorslaer, eds. Handbook of Translation Studies-Volume 1. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing.

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