Have you read your Code of Conduct?


Professional codes of conduct set the standards for our profession. They establish the rules that govern the quality of our work, our integrity, work ethics and competence. We proudly claim to abide by them and this is intended to allay the fears of any potential clients. However, how many of us who do belong to professional associations have actually read the codes of conduct and when was the last time we did so? Or do we simply treat them in the same way we do terms and conditions that we blindly tick every time we buy or sign up to something online? Have we in fact agreed to a Herod clause or do we simply assume that everything in a code of conduct is acceptable and must be there to protect the profession and our clients? A closer examination reveals some worrying undertakings.

Variously named “Codes of Professional Conduct”, “Codes of Conduct”, “Codes of Ethics”, “Codes of Ethics and Professional Practice” they are all basically the same thing. I’ll refer to them here as the “CoC” and I shan’t be naming any specific associations.

Firstly, the positives, and there are many. I think it would be safe to say that all CoCs require their members to exercise professional judgement and only accept work for which they have the language and subject competence; in other words, if they are certain that they can deliver a quality product. Professional competence is the most fundamental requirement and what separates us from fly-by-night translation businesses. CoCs contain other important information about confidentiality, collegial behaviour, honesty, conflicts of interest, objectivity and so on.

What does concern me are the terms intended exclusively to protect the associations themselves. Many of them require that one refrain from criticising the association, which seems to me to be an unreasonable request, particularly if the first port-of-call, i.e. approaching the association itself, has fallen on deaf ears. One institute, while stressing the need for impartiality, also requires its members to engage in questionable behaviour and help boost its membership numbers: “Members acting as clients shall wherever possible give preference to members of the Institute” and “encourage and assist non-members employed in any capacity…to seek membership of the Institute”. I’m not accustomed to a hard-sell on anything, least of all my professional association and while I don’t outsource, if I ever needed the services of a fellow translator or had to recommend one, I would opt for whoever I felt was the best person for the job, regardless of their membership of a particular group. To do otherwise would be tantamount to discrimination and implies all other associations aren’t quite up to scratch.

Some associations are quite specific in their demands regarding unfair competition. One international association requires that their members “not favor unfair competition by offering or accepting fees below those generally considered to be proper and fair in the market”. How is one to determine what is “proper and fair” in the age of globalisation? Moreover, in a profession where fees can often be kept under wraps owing to strict antitrust legislation, how can translators who find it difficult enough to research what fees are being charged in their own country let alone elsewhere, be accused of undercutting? As an aside, I haven’t seen anything in any CoC about not over-charging a client. Admittedly, this is not a misdemeanour translators are renowned for.

Then there are the undertakings that would be nigh on impossible to fulfil, such as: “All [association] members shall [note: no mention of “endeavour to”] keep up-to-date and well informed with regard to everything that has to do with the proper performance of their profession” – that really is a big ask; keeping abreast of “everything” pertaining to our languages, specialist areas and developments in our profession is something that I doubt any of us could claim. Another unrealistic requirement is that members competing for work should “not seek to gain unfair advantage with the client to the detriment of other competitors (particularly members) nor attempt to influence the client to show favour or bias”. What exactly is an “unfair advantage”? Would this also apply to all marketing material or websites?

Another impracticable demand is: “Report to the [association] or to any other relevant organization on any colleague whose conduct APPEARS TO BE DETRIMENTAL [my caps] to the profession and, furthermore, contribute toward the investigation into such conduct”. Now that’s an association with time on its hands! One assumes they have the wherewithal and procedures in place to handle such grievances.

One could write a dissertation on this subject and this is evidently not intended to be an exhaustive appraisal just something to get us thinking. I personally believe that if we’re to have our Ten Commandments, then our CoCs should be brief and they should guide members in the professional judgements they make concerning their competence; in other words, they should uphold standards in the profession and ultimately protect our clients. Should prescriptive rules aimed at recruiting members and policing other translators fall within the remit of a CoC? Perhaps it is time we all had a closer look at our respective CoCs and refreshed our memories on what, beyond professional good conduct and best practice, we have undertaken to adhere to.

Oliver Lawrence
You’ve raised some useful issues here.

I tend to agree with you about the requirement to refer to fellow members of the same institute – it betrays a slightly narrow world view, as if the “other lot(s)” couldn't cut it. I’d draw a distinction, though, between referring to members of an institute like ITI or CIoL (who have to demonstrate competence before being awarded qualified membership) and to members of a general translator association or portal that does not have that requirement (i.e. that anyone can join).

I think that some of the other seemingly dubious points are probably meant in the right spirit, although the phrasing doesn’t accurately reflect that. Exhortations to keep your skills up to date and not to charge too little seem fine in principle, although the wording could perhaps be clarified. Obviously (surely?) marketing isn't intended to be equated to seeking an unfair advantage.

And encouraging colleagues to report “bad” behaviour sounds well meaning, but the policy IMHO needs to be thought through pretty carefully, with plenty of guidance and examples / case studies. Just the sort of thing that I called for in the conclusion to my own post on ethics last week (http://incisiveenglish.pro/translation-ethics-an-experience-at-the-wordface).
Lisa Simpson
Thanks for your comment Oliver.

I must say that I know top translators who aren’t members of any professional associations. I think membership is mainly of interest to those who are self-employed. Yes, if someone asked me to recommend a translator in a particular language pair and subject area and nobody came to mind I would refer them to the CIOL. However, what concerned me about that particular CoC was the fact that it seemed to be aimed at boosting its own membership numbers, not only by requesting that members proselytise on its behalf, but also by trying to create a network in which members would primarily promote one another. While that's all well and good in principle, it's not good for the client who might otherwise have been referred to a more suitable translator outside the association.

You’re right that some requirements are well-meaning enough but the ones I quoted are so badly worded as to be open to all manner of interpretation, and in some cases would be impossible to implement. This is a CoC not a wish list.

I’m not sure about the case studies you refer to in your own blog post. I think that would have the potential to lead to a whole raft of convoluted issues. In your situation, I suspect I would either have turned down the work or done as you were advised and added a disclaimer.

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