31 Oct 2023
by Dr Joseph Lambert

Kicking off a new era for ethics

Ahead of ITI's ethics ‘kick-off’ event, held in November 2023, Dr Joseph Lambert set the scene in this article. His aim was to stimulate some initial discussions by asking a series of questions.

Ethics. It’s a word we’re all familiar with. We all strive to be ethical professionals and to uphold the values that we deem appropriate for a professional in our industry. But what exactly is, or can be, expected of us in the current industry context? What areas matter the most to a translator or interpreter? What ethical guidance is most useful in practice? And what of the documents that enshrine these values and purport to guide us in our ethical decision-making?

For the Professional Association of Research Networks, ethical codes generally lay down professional standards ‘in terms of values, competencies and specific aspects of conduct expected to be adhered to in practice’, with the ultimate aims of, among other things, protecting the distinctiveness of a profession, setting shared expectations, displaying to outsiders what is involved in the profession and reassuring them of the standards upheld, and building and maintaining trust between clients, professionals, and the wider world.

ITI currently employs a Code of Professional Conduct, rather than a Code of Ethics and, in the translation world, it is common to use the two titles interchangeably, despite them fulfilling quite different purposes.

A code of ethics is designed to convey a bigger picture, vision or overall philosophy of an institution or industry as a whole, and should help guide members’ or employees’ decision-making. For instance, a company committed to protecting the environment could have a code of ethics that calls for employees to choose ‘green’ solutions. A code of conduct, meanwhile, outlines the concrete, small-scale behaviours expected of an employee or member, which should be enforceable rules with obvious applications.

There is no one definitive code across translation or interpreting, but we find eight regularly-used ethical principles, which generally stick to this small-scale view:

  1. Accuracy (fidelity and completeness)
  2. Competence (and skills required)
  3. Confidentiality
  4. Conflicts of interest
  5. Continuing Professional Development (CPD)
  6. Impartiality/neutrality
  7. Integrity and professionalism
  8. Role boundaries.

Despite the appealing aims outlined above and some key strengths, however, the extent to which current codes in the translation world (as in other professions) achieve their intended outcomes is up for debate.

For instance, how realistic are calls for impartiality and neutrality? How easy is it to gauge when and where an interpreter’s role begins and ends? How well do these guidelines sit together? Another concern is whether the codes cover everything that they should, something that is complicated by the rapid development of the industry.

Among potential areas that could be covered, there are questions of representativeness and diversity within the translation profession, and a growing need for all industry players to consider our carbon footprints. The tools we use and the data we store have an inevitable environmental impact, and the increasing use of energy-intensive technologies reinforces our responsibilities. These are vital collective issues that merit further attention and would sit well in a Code of Ethics for the profession or for an institution.

A common theme uniting many of these issues is the development and increasing deployment of technology, which impacts upon status, job satisfaction, pay, and the environment, as well as adding concerns over data privacy, fair practice, bias, ownership of resources, and more.

These concerns can in turn feed into well-being issues, with the mental toll on professionals making burnout a very present existential risk. As a result, we are seeing increasing attention paid to the importance, and ethical necessity, of self-care.

With such a wide range of concerns, are we asking the codes to do too much? They should cover the core expectations of a professional in their specific field – so how and where do we draw the line?

While a static code alone isn’t enough to solve the issues we currently face, ongoing vigilance, mutual support, and dialogue between key stakeholders – professionals, LSPs, associations, and academics – can undoubtedly contribute to the long-term success of the profession and the industry.