Ethics in translation and for translators

Dorothy Kenny
Table of contents

Ethics as a branch of philosophy is concerned with how we make decisions as to what is morally good. It covers a vast territory that moral philosophers further divide into the sometimes-overlapping areas of meta-ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics. Meta-ethics deals with questions about ethics itself. Such questions are often quite abstract and seemingly far removed from the moral decisions people need to make in their day-to-day personal or professional lives. They include: Who or what is the source of morality? One person might believe, for example, that moral values like truth and honesty exist because that is God’s will, while another person might hold that moral values are based on human conventions. We might also ask whether there is a single set of moral values that applies to all humanity, or whether it is reasonable for each society to develop its own values, its own ideas of what is good and should therefore be promoted and defended. Meta-ethics thus touches on issues that pervade the study of translation: What, if anything, is universal? What is particular? Who decides? Such questions have typically been asked with regard to “meaning” in translation studies (TS). And in much the same way as contemporary, and especially postmodern approaches to translation reject the idea of universal, objective and transcendental meanings (see also Ethics and translation), they have also come to reject the idea of a single, unchanging source of truth on what is good. As Kaisa Koskinen puts it: “The contemporary world view has little space for any preordained conditions, stressing issues like individuality and the plurality of choices” (Koskinen 2000: 13). What is more, globalization, technological change and increased interconnectivity – and the concomitant need to work with differing conceptions of moral values like privacy – have also contributed to a situation in which ethical pluralism, defined as the “acceptance of more than one judgment regarding the interpretation and application of a shared ethical norm” (Ess 2006: 215; emphasis in the original), has become compelling. In a similar way, the rise of what has become known as the “ethics of alterity” means that for many theorists, ethics is about responding affirmatively to difference, rather than expecting to understand everything and everyone on one’s own terms.

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Further essential reading

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