Ethical Stress in the Translation and Interpreting Professions

Hubscher-Davidson, Severine (2021). Ethical Stress in the Translation and Interpreting Professions. In: Koskinen, Kaisa and Pokorn, Nike K. eds. The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Ethics. Routledge Handbooks. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 415–430.



Translators and interpreters suffer from an onslaught of job stressors. In a working context where time pressures, technology, and competition are increasingly threatening professional linguists, and where translation and interpreting can be transitory, low-status, and poorly-paid occupations (e.g. Dam and Zethsen 2016), it is not difficult to conceive that stressors can impact the productivity and well-being of translators and interpreters. But while a certain amount of stress can be healthy and enhance translation performance, occupational stress that results from disparities between one’s ethical values and expected behaviours—known as ethical stress—can have nefarious consequences for individuals and even lead to burnout.

Ethical issues can occur in any translation or interpreting situation where profound moral questions of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ underlie professional decision-making. For example, Hermans (2009, 93) recounts the case of the interpreter Günter Deckert who was convicted for interpreting a lecture in which the American Frederic Leuchter denied the existence of gas chambers in Auschwitz, something which is forbidden by law in Germany. Although in this instance the interpreter agreed with Leuchter’s claims, Hermans questions whether the conviction was morally justified and whether interpreters assume responsibility for the speeches they interpret. Should they faithfully interpret a speech they consider morally dubious? Interpreters are likely to ask themselves this very question when they are sent out on challenging assignments that conflict with their personal goals, values, or beliefs (Bontempo and Malcolm 2012). Similarly, translators can find themselves in situations where they have to translate texts whose ideological content is offensive to them or situations where they have to compromise their professional ethics (Abdallah 2010). Otherwise they may face loss of employment, disgrace, or worse. Making ethical decisions in these contexts can be particularly challenging, and this is exacerbated by the fact that ‘it is not always possible for the translator to know to just what ends their translation will ultimately be put’ (McAlester 2003, 226). Translators and interpreters are part of a complex network of people (or ‘agents’) who can be affected by the ethical decisions they make. As a result, ethical decision-making can be stressful, mentally draining, and even impair our progress to becoming human beings in an existential sense.

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