Thursday, September 16, 2010

What About Politically Objectionable Projects?

I recently received an offer for a translation job from an existing client where the subject matter was simply "Politics". I don't normally need to see sample text for jobs from existing clients, since I already have a sense for what types of texts these agencies accept. I also have a standard price per word set up with such clients. Thus subject matter, size and deadline are generally sufficient for me to decide whether I can take the project. With my usual bread-and-butter technical texts, knowing whether the text is about IT or mechanical engineering is usually enough detail. However, politics is different, I think. While I do believe that everyone should be able to express any political opinion he/she desires, I will not aid political doctrines I find reprehensible by translating them.

Last month, the Tanslators Worldwide group on LinkedIn conducted an interesting poll on the topic ("Do you refuse translations on ethical, moral, political, or religious grounds?", accessible only to members). Comments ranged from "No, I never refuse," through "This hasn't come up for me," to "Yes, I have done so on several occasions". At some translator events, I have spoken to colleagues who say they don't understand why I won't work for the U.S. defense industry or U.S. spy agencies. These are organizations I oppose during my free time, so why would I work for them in my professional life?

Conversely, I will aid causes I strongly support by volunteering for them, occasionally even providing a translation pro bono. It seems to me that if we take a stance against certain organizations or doctrines by refusing to work for them, we should also take a stance for other organizations or causes by volunteering for them, either as translators or by performing other work. While that behavior should not be limited to our profession, it does have its limits: even the most reprehensible defendant is entitled to a lawyer, and everyone is entitled to medical help, no matter the patient's political views. However, in these cases we are talking about upholding individual persons' rights, not helping to disseminate a particular point of view. To paraphrase Voltaire, "If I disapprove of what you say, I'll defend your right to say it, but I won't help you do so."

As to the "politics" assignment: I asked for more information on the specific topic and end client, but was told the project had already been assigned to someone else.

How do you handle offers for projects from/about groups/causes you oppose?

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