Chapter 8 – Ethics and activism
8.1 ‘Translators and interpreters face a basic ethical choice with every assignment: to reproduce existing ideologies as encoded in the narrative elaborated in the text or utterance, or to dissociate themselves from those ideologies, if necessary by refusing to translate the text or interpret in a particular context at all.’ (Baker 2006:105)
With its focus on the complex nature of individual and group identities, a sociological approach to narrative provides theorists with a powerful framework for exploring the conscious or unconscious choices made by translators and interpreters. As a result, several theorists in the field of translation and interpreting studies have chosen to use a narrative approach to investigate the rarely explored areas of ethics and activism.
8.2 Rather than seeing translators and interpreters as ‘neutral’ or ‘invisible’ and therefore devoid of responsibility, Baker argues that translators and interpreters must take responsibility for the choices they make. As she puts it, ‘Consciously or otherwise, [translators and interpreters] translate texts and utterances that participate in creating, negotiating and contesting social reality’ (2006:105). According to this viewpoint, translators and interpreters have an ethical responsibility to reject any assignment that clashes with the narratives they subscribe to. Linguists can refuse to work for the CIA, for example, or in Guantanamo Bay, if they feel that the work they would do there would clash with the narratives they have chosen to accept according to their own ‘good reasons’ (Fisher 1987).
Baker (2008) gives the example of Katharine Gun, the British government translator who was tried for treason in 2003 – and found not guilty. In the course of her work she found out about a US request for assistance in bugging United Nations diplomats in order to gather evidence in support of the Iraq war, and she leaked this information to the press. Gun found herself in a position where she was asked to act in contradiction to the narratives she subscribed to and therefore found it ethically viable to betray her employers. This action could be seen as acting in contrary to the professional narrative of faithfulness to the text and to the client to which most translators and interpreters subscribe. In a situation such as this – where two important narratives a person subscribes to clash – he or she must weigh up which narrative relates most closely to his or her ‘good reasons’ or values (see Chapter 5, Question 2). In other words, this is the time to think about which narrative is most important to you. Whichever it is, this is the one which should ultimately control your actions.
8.3 If a translator or interpreter (or any other person) feels that a certain narrative is of particular importance to them, and that this narrative is underrepresented, he or she may decide to join an activist group.
What do we mean by activism from the point of view of narrative theory? From a narrative viewpoint, activists are individuals or groups who strongly subscribe to a narrative or narrative version in conflict with the dominant narratives of the time and who takes action to promote the circulation of this alternative narrative. As Pérez-González (2010:262) puts it, activists are: ‘Highly critical individuals whose personal narratives fail to align, totally or partially, with public narratives at a given point in time and space and who, consequently, set out to bring one or more aspects of their personal narrative to bear on the collective ones’.
This is particularly important when we consider that the flexible nature of narrative identity allows room for people to change their minds if an alternative narrative is offered which they find more convincing. In Boéri’s (2008:24) words, ‘Individuals and communities can and often do re-negotiate their identities and positioning when they become exposed to narratives that disclose previously unimagined possibilities, thus challenging their beliefs and experience, and ultimately leading them to re-orient their actions’. This provides a powerful motivation for activists to invest time and energy in putting forward a convincing case to bring more people to support their cause, providing extra weight to the particular narrative they wish to promote.
Activists rarely work alone, as it would be difficult for any individual to give currency to a lesser known narrative. Instead, activists tend to come together in groups, bound by one narrative which they all subscribe to and wish to circulate more widely; Pérez González (2010:263) calls this ‘narrative affinity’. As he points out in his discussion of bloggers uniting to subtitle an interview with the Spanish ex-President Aznar (ibid.), these groups are sometimes spontaneous and temporary in nature. In his example, the activists involved are not professional translators; subtitling is seen primarily as a tool for promoting their narrative version rather than as a professional practice. On the other hand, activists groups of translators and interpreters can be highly organised practitioners (volunteers or professionals) with very clear objectives, as in the case of the not-for-profit interpreting organization Babels.
8.4 Much of the work in this area has involved examining a particular group of activist translators or interpreters, identifying the narrative which binds them together and exploring how they narrate themselves as a group. This is often carried out by looking at mission statements on websites, as Boeri (2009) does with Babels and Baker (2009) does with Tlaxaca. Baker (2010) has also written about translators and interpreters working in warzones, exploring issues of ethics by examining both how these translators and interpreters are narrated in the international press and the role they play in shaping the public narratives our time (see Question 3 in this chapter).
Research in this area also tends to explore the so-called ‘framing devices’ used both by activist groups and individual translators or interpreters in order to undermine dominant narratives and to promote alternative narrative versions. At this point it is worth taking a closer look at the concept of ‘framing’.