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Confidentiality and Google Translate


Ethical principles, rules and conventions distinguish socially acceptable behaviour from that which is considered socially unacceptable. However, in social science research a few workers consider their work beyond scrutiny, presumably guided by a disinterested virtue which justifies any means to attain hoped for ends.

Ethical problems can relate to both the subject matter of the research as well as to its methods and procedures, and can go well beyond courtesy or etiquette regarding appropriate treatment of persons in a free society. Social scientists have often been criticized for lack of concern over the welfare of their subjects. The researcher often misinforms subjects about the nature of the investigation, and-or exposes them to embarrassing or emotionally painful experiences. [...] It was found in a survey by the British Psychological Society that the two major areas of dilemma for members were confidentiality and research. Issues reported in this later area included unethical procedures, informed consent, harm to participants, deception, and deliberate falsification of results. 

The above is from a textbook I used in my applied linguistics studies, "Introduction to Research Methods" by Robert B. Burns. It is a very useful manual for those who wish to conduct research in education and in the social sciences. When I had to interview some subjects for my research, this book was my bible.

I was recently talking to a fellow member of IAPTI about confidentiality issues in translation, and how disconcerting it is that many --for the most part inexperienced-- translators use online automatic translation tools such as Google Translate without knowing that they are breaching confidentiality between themselves and their clients. The concept of confidentiality between a translator and his client made me think of confidentiality between a researcher and his subject. I went back to my old textbook. Please humor me and reread the above quoted passage, replacing "social science" with "translation", "social scientist" and "researcher" with "translator", "investigation" with "translation method", and "subject" with "client". It would go something like this:

Ethical principles, rules and conventions distinguish socially acceptable behaviour from that which is considered socially unacceptable. However, in translation a few translators consider their work beyond scrutiny, presumably guided by a disinterested virtue which justifies any means to attain hoped for ends.

Ethical problems can relate to both the subject matter of the text as well as to the methods and procedures used to translate it, and can go well beyond courtesy or etiquette regarding appropriate treatment of persons in a free society. Translators have often been criticized for lack of concern over the welfare of their clients. The translator often misinforms clients about the nature of the translation method, and-or exposes them to embarrassing or emotionally painful experiences. [...]

Let's look at that last sentence for a minute: Does the translator misinform clients about the nature of the translation method? One might argue that the translator doesn't even discuss his translation method, he just agrees to do the translation. Well, we can play with words and use lawyers' tricks but if we really want to be honest with ourselves, the truth is that when we say "I will do the translation" we are telling the client that "I will do the translation"; I, the translator. And before arguing that it's not necessarily what we mean, let's put ourselves in the client' shoes. What does the client understand when we say that, and what does he expect? 

The sentence mentions embarrassing or emotionally painful experiences. Does this apply to us? Let me give just a couple of examples from personal experience:

Recently I translated some academic transcripts from Greek to English for a direct client, let's call him "Yannis". Along with the transcripts, I had to translate a long list of engineering course descriptions and a couple of cover letters. I had to rely on my own knowledge (I had taken many of those courses some years ago), on university websites, reliable engineering dictionaries, and my old textbooks. (Who would have thought that my 50000-lb thermodynamics book, also used as a very effective doorstopper, would come in handy after all these years?) What would have happened if I had used an online translation application, say Google Translate? If you think that a lousy translation is the only thing I would have gotten, think again. (And it would be lousy indeed! It turns out that before hiring me, Yannis had tried to do the translation himself, using Google Translate. I guess he didn't get very far, so he decided to hire a professional. When I sent him my translation he took a quick look and immediately wrote back to thank me and tell me that now he understood why professional translators are so indispensable. I wanted to give Yannis a virtual hug.) Anyway, let's say I had considered using Google Translate to do this job. First of all, I would have no right to put Yannis'  transcripts on a public domain. If Yannis wanted to do so, that would be his right, those were his grades. I would have no right to share Yannis' grades with anyone, nor would I have the right to share his personal cover letter with people who are not the intended recipients. Maybe I could remove information that could be used to identify him? His name, address, title, affiliation, all the grades -I'm sure I'd miss something- maybe I should remove the name of the university as well, and the department, and the year of graduation, and the title of the degree. What's left? Right, the list of courses. But then, would Google really be able to give me a good translation of the description of that specialized course on the dynamics of Diesel engines or the one on welding and soldering techniques? What else would be left? The main body of the cover letters. Again, I have no right to share a letter written by someone other than me with people to whom it is not addressed. Plus if Yannis wanted the letters to be translated by Google, he could have done that himself. If Yannis ever decided to do an online search for some terms or sentences appearing in those cover letters, he might have found the entire text online. Talk about an embarrassing and emotionally painful experience! And of course he'd feel cheated. And if he then mentioned it to me, the embarrassing experience would be all mine.  Now is that the kind of relationship we want to build with our clients? Does the use of an online automatic translation tool reflect the respect and confidentiality that they deserve and consider a given when they hire us? Is that how we make sure they are satisfied and would hire us again or recommend us to others?

Now if a simple document such as an academic transcript is confidential, think about medical records. Or press releases. Or private-meeting minutes.  Or advertising campaigns. Or private correspondence. And yet there are translators who use Google Translate, oblivious to the fact that Google is not Mother Teresa, doing your translation for you asking for nothing in return, out of the goodness of its silicon little heart. "I'm doing this for the common good," you might say; "if other translators ever need that information, they can find it easily online thanks to me". Well, the problem with this concept is that the data you are sharing is NOT yours to share! 

This brings us to a fundamental difference between the researcher-subject scenario (case A) and the translator-client scenario (case B): In case A, the study is conducted by the researcher, it is his own work from beginning to end; he chooses the topic, he designs the study, he collects and analyzes the data, and he is the one to present the work, for his own benefit (and in the long term for the benefit of the scientific community or perhaps society in general). In case B, the case that concerns us translators, we are given temporary access to work that is not ours. The topic of the document we are to translate, the content, the layout and the presentation all belong to the client, not to the translator, and they are to be used for the client?s benefit. So if confidentiality is such an important concern in case A, think how important it is in case B, i.e. in translation.

To the embarrassing or emotionally painful experiences, as mentioned by Burns, add "professionally detrimental" ones. Here's an example: I am often asked to translate research articles to be published in American scientific journals. Again, this is research, to be published. Sometimes these papers describe many years' worth of research. The authors have chosen specific journals through which to make their work known to the scientific community. They have not chosen Google's database, they have not chosen forums of online translation portals (where translators ask for term advice, and for context they give entire paragraphs that often include highly sensitive and confidential information), they have not chosen anything other than those journals, and it is those journals that will have copyright. Imagine how professionally detrimental it can be to an author of such a paper that describes his work if that paper -whether in its entirety or partially- appears online before the author even has the chance to submit it for publication. 

In the same chapter about ethics, privacy, and confidentiality, Burns goes on to say:

The right to privacy is an important right enshrined now in international (UN Declaration of Human Rights) and national legislation. [...] Individuals should decide what aspects of their personal lives, attitudes, habits, eccentricities, fears and guilt are to be communicated to others. [...] This does not mean that personal and private behavior cannot be observed ethically; it can, provided that the subjects volunteer to participate with full knowledge of the purposes and procedures involved.

The above applies to us as well. Our clients are the only ones who have the right to decide what aspects of their life or work are to be communicated to others, and they must have full knowledge of the procedures involved in the translation. If you plan to outsource the work or if you plan to use an online automatic translation tool or use any other method that might compromise privacy and confidentiality, you should tell your client and obtain his permission. If you are not telling your client because you think it doesn't concern him, based on the above you're wrong. If you're not telling him because you might think he won't hire you if you do, that means you are knowingly doing something wrong, i.e. you are aware that you are compromising privacy and confidentiality and still choose to proceed. You proceed until a client finds out and complains, or until a client takes legal action against you, or until the translators' association you belong to tells you that you have violated its code of ethics, or until you simply realize that professionalism in our field of work goes well beyond delivering a good translation.

Ref: Burns, R.B. (2000). Introduction to Research Methods, 4th edition, Pearson Education Australia

María Karrá (President of IAPTI's Ethics Committee)

Illustrated by: Juan Manuel Tavella