Corporate communication ethics

by Kristin Fehlauer

It was early in 2001. I was not quite two years out of college, working an administrative job in New York City. I had occasion to submit a question to “The Ethicist” of The New York Times Magazine, who at the time was Randy Cohen. I first received an e-mail reply to my query, but some time later, was contacted by the magazine because they wished to publish the question and answer. In the phone tag that followed, I was given a number to call. I phoned up, and a male voice answered. Assuming it was a receptionist or personal assistant, I asked to speak to The Ethicist. “This is he,” he replied, and proceeded to clarify some points prior to publication.

Kristin Fehlauer

The point of that long, rambling story is not my question or the substance of his response (easily googlable if you’re interested!). Instead, when I think back, my overriding thought was “Wow, I have a direct line to The Ethicist.” Imagine! No more anguished wrestling with tough issues, no more agonizing self-doubt, no more remorse over poor decisions – just a simple direct phone call to find out what I should do. Ok, I never actually did much of that anyway, but from then on I did find myself toying with the idea of calling Mr. Cohen whenever an ethical dilemma arose…

How often do we wish we had a direct line to someone who could tell us what to do? Ethics and compliance are big topics nowadays in many fields, no less so in the wake of the credit crunch and the revelations of the Panama Papers. The world of translation and corporate communications is no exception – although perhaps not always in the way you might expect.

Corporate responsibility

At BVIW I come across a lot of sensitive information. This can range from news of changes that will affect employees to M&A to new products and technologies. It can be difficult sometimes to remember not to openly share information like that, especially when it’s an exciting innovation. One of the things I love about my work here is seeing what kind of research is currently being done all over the world. The only drawback is that I have to double-check and make sure the information is already public before sharing my enthusiasm with friends.

Confidentiality is part and parcel of translation and interpreting work. I suppose you could phrase it as “whatever’s on the page, stays on the page,” or “what’s heard in the booth, stays in the booth.” This issue is covered in degree courses in these disciplines, where we have it drilled into us: under no circumstances should you talk about the subject matter of a translation, unless the information has already been made public.

Naturally, we discuss points of language at BVIW, and we share general information concerning our clients internally in the interests of consistency and understanding. Context and background can be crucial in working with texts, and so if a coworker tells me that Company A is planning a round of layoffs, my knowing that can help me when I’m working on a text that refers vaguely to personnel issues. But we are very careful to handle all material that comes across our desks responsibly and with the level of confidentiality our clients have a right to expect.

This is an area where I can safely say I don’t ever get the urge to call The Ethicist for guidance! My training in confidentiality has been very complete, and I know to err on the side of caution. And even if my background hadn’t given me a solid grounding in this issue, I’ve translated enough corporate texts on compliance topics to have an inkling of what’s expected.


Personal feelings

When I edit a text or translate, my responsibility is to the author. I need to put my own thoughts and feelings aside so that I can convey what he or she wants to say. Yet as much as I may try and remain neutral and objective, I can never be wholly successful. There is simply too much that happens on a sub- or unconscious level. For example, I remember coming across the term “Besatzungstruppen” in an assignment I was doing while studying for my translation degree, sometime around 2005-2007. It was used in reference to American military forces in Iraq. The literal translation – and more importantly, what the author wanted to say – is “occupation forces.” But I had never thought of the American troops there that way; to me, they were most certainly not an occupying force. I thought for a while, trying to come up with something more neutral, before realizing that that was my own bias speaking. My duty was to convey what the author wanted to say, and he or she most definitely intended to refer to them as occupying troops. A good lesson to learn.

And although I’m not an interpreter, anecdotes abound where the interpreter hesitated to be as blunt and as critical as the speaker. One of my professors recalled a time early in her career when she was interpreting for a German group that was in a meeting with American politicians. The German speaker referred to the head of the American delegation as an “Arschloch” (means exactly what you think it means). My professor hedged a bit, phrasing his statement as “I don’t agree with you at all,” but the German speaker realized she wasn’t being strictly accurate. He broke in in English, correcting her: “No, I mean it: you’re an asshole.” Although this didn’t happen to me personally, I still remember it as an excellent example of the importance of being true to the source.

Here again, overall, my inner ethicist is comfortable with my approach. Would love to hear what Mr. Cohen would have to say, though, if an interpreter broke off negotiations to call him: “Is that The Ethicist? Just need to run a few epithets by you…”

Personal convictions

Some language professionals actively choose not to work on jobs for particular industries or that deal with certain subjects. They may avoid texts or clients having to do with weapons and defense, for example, or genetic engineering or animal testing. It’s a tough call. On the one hand, I completely understand not wanting to participate in or contribute to a field or activity you have a moral objection to. On the other hand, I truly believe that misinformation is one of the plagues of our times.

Thanks to technology, more people have access to more information now than at any other point in human history – and yet those same technologies are used to promote propaganda, misperceptions, and distortions of the truth. Often there’s so much misinformation and disinformation, it threatens to drown out the facts. But opposing sides of an argument deserve the opportunity to be heard. It’s all too easy to ignore opinions we don’t like – but if they haven’t even been presented in my language, I don’t have a chance of engaging with them.

I can view my role, albeit a small one, as being to faithfully render facts, reports, and opinions to improve transparency and further dialogue. Information is key to understanding, whether between two individuals or on a grander, even global scale. If I can help provide accurate information to further that understanding, then that’s my ethical part to play.

Your turn

What about you: have you ever been confronted with an ethical dilemma in your work? Did you seek advice from anyone? How did you decide what to do? I’d like to hear your thoughts!

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