Making Ethical Decisions in Translation

Michelle Dawson, a French translator in Washington D.C., is employed by a United Nations office that functions to strengthen NGO’s through grants, training programs and a wide range of other programs.  As a translation worker, Michelle’s job is to evaluate grant proposals from various groups that seek funding from the United Nations.  The proposals that she receives and reviews are for new programs that are meant to promote global good.

While proposals are meant to contain factual information and be transparent, sometimes the writers see proposals as a marketing tool that can convey exaggerated promises, silenced risks and huge rewards. As a result, some proposals are almost entirely based on fabricated research results.  One inherent problem becomes obvious when proposals are written to generate funding for additional research and additional funding is recommended in previous research results. Generally speaking, the more successful the previous research has been, the more likely that large donations and grants will be awarded for additional research.

Because Dawson is a noted social scientist and professional translator, she has strong knowledge in conducting research, applying statistics correctly, stating realistic objectives and writing honest and ethical recommendations.  As a translation service provider and research analyst, her job is to evaluate the merit of each proposal.  Her current project involves reviewing and translating the proposals for a project that has a goal of bringing clean drinking water to people in Africa’s most polluted nations.  The first proposal that she reviews and translates from French to English is from a prominent United Nations ambassador and a professor at a Nigerian university.  The ambassador wants to implement a portable water filtration system that he had previously been awarded money to develop.  While independent research from world renowned testing laboratories confirm that his filtration system is completely ineffective, the ambassador attempts to mislead reviewers by including contrived charts from ambiguous and suspicious tests and making unfounded claims.

While reviewing the ambassador’s proposal, Dawson notices that the details contained in the proposal don’t match the findings that findings that he had recorded in the field.  In fact, the ambassador has skewed the data to make his water filtration system look successful.  Upon further review of the ambassador’s records, Dawson determines that the ambassador has underlined findings that make his invention look wonderful and has crossed out findings that detail huge and potentially dangerous flaws.

Dawson must now make an ethical decision in translation and decide if she should confront the ambassador, mention something to her superiors or simply overlook her findings.  By announcing her findings, she could be viewed as a whistle blower and face acts of retribution from everyone in her office.  She might even be forced to quit her job or worse.  Based on the two ethical frameworks that we discussed previously, what would you do?

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