Towards an Ethical Code in Bible Translation Consultation

Werner, Eberhard 2012. Toward an Ethical Code in Bible Translation Consulting. Journal of Translation (JOT) 8/1, 1-8. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics. Also Online: URL: [PDF] [accessed 2015-01-02].

Eberhard Werner


1. Introduction – Difficulties caused by Lack of Ethical Standards. 1

1.1 Regular Problems faced in Consulting Translation Projects. 3

1.2 Ethical Standards in Linguistics and Translation. 3

2. Towards Ethical Standards. 4

2.1 Inner Aspects and their Influence on Ethics. 4

2.2 Outer Aspects and their Influence on Ethics. 5

2.3 Loyality as an Ethical Benchmark. 5

3. Proposal towards Ethical Standards in Bible Translation Consulting. 6

3. Summay. 7

References. 8



One of the great unknowns in Bible Translation consultation is still the question of the ethical foundation for a consultant. This covers consultants in anthropology, linguistics and translation. The same goes for ethical standards in Bible Translation projects and for the parties involved. To whom are they responsible? Is it to the initiating institution or organization, to the individuals or a people group’s conscience, to God, to the translation team or to the translation project? Another question is how do all parties know about their ethics? And at least how do the parties involved handle ethical considerations, such as disagreement, mutual aversion, rejection or cross-cultural differences? Because there is a blank space in this area, consultants and other parties involved often experience a lot of misunderstanding, distrust and thus the quality of the Bible Translation or the consulted product is at risk. This has to do with cross-cultural subjects, diverging expectations about translation issues, vague job descriptions and understanding, lack of frameworks and planning etc. To address some of the difficulties that Bible Translation projects face, and how this could be overcome by some general ethical statement for consultants, will be discussed. The term “loyalty” from functional translation approaches will be introduced to consultation in Bible Translation.

1. Introduction – Difficulties caused by Lack of Ethical Standards

The subject of this article is about the consultation process in Bible Translation projects. Those projects cover Bible Translations, as well as other language development products, such as grammars, lexicons, and folk tales books that are consulted. Recently Consultation and consultants are focusing on the areas of translation, linguistics, anthropology, missiology, theology and social sciences. This wide range of involved disciplines comes from the interdisciplinary approach of Bible Translation. In most projects one will find only the first three areas covered which are recently addressed as the most central ones. However this does not mean that the other areas are less important, but it is suggested that they go “somehow” with the translators or the consultants work, although those could also be improved by consultation.

Ethics is not a static issue given to all people in the same way. Ethics is culture bound and reflected in behaviour, language and customs and traditions. Thus ethical standards are defined by either a people group as their acculturated property or within an individual project based on agreement.

Consulting is an etic – that is from the outside – approach. An experienced professional in the above mentioned areas comes in and supports the translation team and the project management about the checking and improvement of a translated Bible text. In best case, and recently preferred, the consultant supervises the translation project from the beginning by giving his translational, anthropological, linguistical or social advice. The goal of consulting is to guarantee high quality products.

Unsolved problems in consulting are:

  • the power flow and the question of responsibility,
  • how to improve “quality” in translation by the involved parties,
  • the handling and resolution of personal and or work related differences, disagreements or aversions.

Starting a Bible Translation project does involve different parties. There is the project manager(s) (management), who invited and trained the team or take responsibility for the funds, the planning and the process of the project. Then there is the national or mother tongue translation team, which works together with churches, exegetes or theologians of the people group. More on the periphery of such a project stands the funding institution, the wider community of the group for whom the Bible Translation is and local or national organizations interested in language or translation issues. But often key persons like consultants are not considered to be part of the project. They come in temporarily and because of a lack of preparation and training about the role of consultants in the process of Bible Translation projects, the translators and their managers regard them as intruders who cause additional work. This additional potential of disharmony is worsening the process as consultants are expected to give final approval to the products. This recent state of consulting has to do with the fact that a product is close to finishing and consultation checking is just one of the very last steps. Best practice would incorporate the consultant as soon as possible in a translation project. The best moment is right after the formation of a translation team. The planning of the translation progress in the foundational project plan will then be set up to include the consultants, the project manager, the funding institutions, the translation team and possible other parties. This functional translation principle (Nord 2003) would give all parties a say and the opportunity to work towards a common Skopos which is formulated in the plan. The project plan includes different breakpoints at which the whole assignment is evaluated, based on the progress and the targets reached. These evaluations leave room to corrections and bring about sustainable corrections or realignment (principle of reciprocal feedback mechanism). Translation and project quality assessment is thus possible (ibid.; Reiss 1971).

One of the tasks of such planning will be the evaluation of ethical standards in the translation project. Ethical standards refer to the ethical foundation of:

  • the translation team the consultants
  • the translation project management
  • the funding institutions or organizations
  • other involved parties.

Why does this represent an essential part of planning? Some generalized experiences from the work on the field will demonstrate the need.

1.1 Regular Problems faced in Consulting Translation Projects

This overview intimates just a few difficulties that are experienced during consultation in Bible Translation projects either from consultants or consulted parties.

A Bible Translation project is normally initiated by a very small group of people or a single person. She or they are gathering a group of interested parties. All of them have a high interest in the cultural and linguistic setting of the people group to whom the Bible Translation as a product is addressed (view from inside – emic). So besides the pure translation activity all parties show, more or less, a personal interest in doing Bible Translation as a means to this specific people group’s Language Development. Also the motivation to do a Bible Translation project is based on a high value of Christian Development Aid. Thus the socio-economic situation of a people group or microculture acts as a trigger to the project. The consultant on the other side comes from outside (view from outside – etic), he/she does not know the specifics of the people group and he/she has worked and works on other projects too. His/her vision is mainly on the academic translation issues, such as translation style, accuracy, text fidelity to the biblical base texts and issues of formatting and publication. The responsibility is often towards an academic department or institution. Yet his academic reputation and his stance in his organizations have a high value for him and therefore a high influence on his decisions. At least four areas of conflict are bound to occur:

The question of final approval or final responsibility in a Bible Translation project?
How do parties interact with each other when there is no common mind or mediating institution in the project?
Is there the option for the parties involved to leave or align without losing face, which is easily the case in shame oriented cultures?
Who will approve the stages of a Bible Translation project plan and who will manage its improvement, in a case where alignments are necessary?
In general those four areas are traced to the ethical foundations of a Bible Translation project and its participants.

1.2 Ethical Standards in Linguistics and Translation

Consultants, translators, and linguists are not left without any advice about ethical standards in their disciplines. The American Anthropological Association in their Code of Ethics (1998) laid out essential principles of responsibility for academic professionals (see Spradley 1980:21 for ethnography). This focus on responsibility will be followed up in this article. In the francophone area the Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs produced similar standards. Chesterman introduces a Hieronymic Oath for translators. He follows the Hippocratic Oath of medics by referring to the patron of translators Jerome or Hieronymus. I will later give similar guidelines for consultants leaning in the same way towards common ethical standards. There is no global institution that is in control of such ethical standards. This is why they mainly speak out to the conscience of professionals. These statements are made to be followed by national organizations. Although such statements do not reveal new ethical concepts, they do offer guidelines for a general agreement of involved parties.

Besides such general statements every discipline refers to moral principles that are acculturated and follow inner-scientific structures. Yet natural sciences follow the ethics of the Greek philosophers or pedagogy ethics from Christianity or sects deduced thereof. So to who is a consultant ethically responsible? In Bible Translation it is assumed that a translator follows Christian ethics, and the same goes for the consultant. But what if the translator is either a non-religious professional or from a different religious background?

With the recent fragmentation of Bible Translation approaches, caused by postmodernism, a homogenous unit’s orientation, and the general tendency towards individualism, produces a variety of interests in consulting and translation efforts. Nowadays a Bible Translation is not expected to be done (only) by Christians. People with a high value of linguistics, translation or anthropology and low interest in theology or Christian sciences do translations also. What will the common ethical base for a Bible Translation project then be?

2. Towards Ethical Standards

Approaching ethical standards asks for a differentiation of inner and outer aspects of a Bible Translation project. Inner aspects are those that form the foundation of the project. Outer aspects will be more on the surface level but they are also important.

2.1 Inner Aspects and their Influence on Ethics

Foundational to a Bible Translation project is the attitude towards the subject: Bible Translation. How do the involved parties relate to the content of the Christian message? The ethical stance hereby relates to the inner attitude. No matter how, the subject needs to be addressed on a basis of high motivation, since the task is a huge and long enduring translation project. The consultant’s motivation comes from a different level as he is interested in the quality of the product. If this clash of attitudes is not countered by an in-depth project plan for the shared task, then it will cause conflicts. This happens if, for instance, the consultant follows a literal approach towards text fidelity but the translators are focusing on dynamic equivalence or free or communicative translation principles. Both motivations can seldom be yielded or combined and at the end the question of authority or power play controls the proceeding. The understanding and mutual agreement on translation principles, technical issues and the process of translation and checking is essential towards a firm ethical foundation.

Another inner aspect is the interaction of the translation process and the checking procedure of the consultant. Sometimes the consultant expects immediate corrections and implementation of his suggestions, having in mind to improve the translation quality. Contrary to this attitude the translation team expects only minor changes. General alignments are only expected from the project manager and not from the consultant. At the end another power play between consultant and other parties is launched.

One of the big inner aspects concerns “time”. Different worldviews or perceptions of time management about the individuals work load, the duration of translation projects, and the time frames for checking are leading to unreachable expectations.

2.2 Outer Aspects and their Influence on Ethics

Outer aspects in Bible Translation projects are performed by parties such as funders, close project partners, the consultant’s organization and other involved institutions. The consultant belongs to an academic department to which he is responsible. Responsibility lies in his/her and the department’s reputation to the outward. Also the departments are a part of a wider set of academic departments that somehow work together and stay in competition with each other. Often this becomes perceivable when departments of different organizations, like SIL, UBS, universities or institutes compete with each other. The pressure is on the consultant to present his work with as much quality as possible for his reputation. Such an attitude causes conflicts with the lay translators and their understanding of the production of Christian literature or tools to present the message of the Christian god to their people group. A common suspicious about the academic influence or a general understanding of the Bible translation task as a lay work supported by the Holy Spirit leads to additional tensions.

Another outer aspect goes with funds and funding. The consultant has either an independent budget from his department or he is funded within the Bible Translation project. The former setting guarantees the consultant more independence but also less participation. The latter is an idealized setting and it would include him in the planning process and the project as a whole. Still his motivation would be at some points different from the translator’s task (see above).

In general it should become clear up to this point that a common agreement about power play, authority issues, translation principles and the timeframe of translating and consulting should be agreed on with a dynamic and flexible plan that offers opportunities for alignment and reciprocal feedback mechanisms.

2.3 Loyality as an Ethical Benchmark

Loyalty coined by translation theory (Chesterman 2001:140) was reviewed in functional translation approaches. There it became one position of ethical standard for conflict prevention, the climate of confidence, professionalism and veracity (Nord 2004:236). These principles that apply for the translator are also relevant for the consultant in Bible Translation.

The goal is to avoid any miscommunication or tension caused by his/her work (conflict prevention). In some cases he/she even functions as a sort of mediator or counsellor between the translation team, the team and the manager(s) or parties even further apart. Conflict caused by consulting needs to be mediated through persons from outside (see Nr. 3: 6-7).

A consultant works in and provides a climate of confidence to all parties. Therefore he/ she has to state explicitly any academic expectation, the standards (translation principles, theology and exegetical position) and has to be flexible to adapt those to the Bible project’s needs. For instance if the consultant thinks about working on a literal translation out of the base text and the translation team works towards a contextualized and communicative translation a compromise has to be found before both parties work together.

On the level of professionalism the parties involved state what they expect. The education of the translators, the academic standards and the target audience play an essential part in this. He and the team are striving for excellence by improving their translation task during the whole production process.

And lastly the consultant has to be in favour of full disclosure to give the other parties enough freedom for feedback and bilateral alignment for the good of the Bible translation. The consultant’s veracity has to be proofed by word and deed.

Loyalty is directed towards the product, the parties involved and the task of consulting. This means that a consultant does not always have to please those involved, but sometimes needs to refer to his professionalism and smoothly introduces those parties to new concepts or ideas. For instance in the case of a religiously contextualized translation there may be principles of adaptation that move away from some language in the base text: here the consultant as the professional can introduce the new concepts but it will be up to the mother tongue translation team to decide how far they would go and which terms to use.

We will now consider a proposal towards an ethical statement about consulting in Bible Translation.

3. Proposal towards Ethical Standards in Bible Translation Consulting

An ethical standard for a consultant includes the issues of authority, responsibility, and the interplay of the parties involved.

As an ethical imperative “loyalty” incorporates conflict prevention, a climate of confidence, professionalism and veracity.
Consulting performs a mixture of support and advice to a Bible Translation project.The consultant is responsible for supporting the translation team towards their goal of producing a high quality translation (see Nr. 8).
At the same time he/she takes a stance as advisor under the supervision of his institution or department. In undefined authority circumstances the last say or final decision should go with the mother tongue translators and the central figures from within the people group. Any colonialist approach has to be avoided by giving full authority and responsibility to mother tongue translators.
All involved parties follow a functional approach by setting up a project plan. This project plan includes:The Skopos of the translation, that is for whom, what, when and how will the translation be done (Lasswell 1971).
The responsibilities and authority of:

The translator team and the project managers,
The consultant(s), his role and final agreement,
The organizations and institutions that are funding, organizing, supervising or connecting the project to others.
The time frame regarding the  expectations of all parties with regard to time in relation to a mutual response system,
The lines of communication between the parties and the mediator’s role in case of miscommunication or disharmony.
The consultant’s organization and other involved institutions are responsible as stakeholders to support the translation project to their best. They avoid any direct intervention, but work through the translation project management. They are responsible to introduce and promote the task of consulting and the pool of consulting services to the person in authority on the field. Consultants proactively promote their services to potential translation projects, and will be sensitive to investigate whether they fit in the given team setting (personality, interest in this people group, workload).
The best quality product will be achieved through a close interaction of the consultant(s), the mother tongue translators and the translation management. Ideally all of them agree to a clear allocation of power, responsibility and authority.
In cases where there is no initial consensus a neutral mediator from outside is taken into account. Such a mediator is focusing on the needs of the translation project and the central figures such as the translators and the translation project manager(s).
The consultant works towards full consensus and should avoid any confrontation based on translation principles, cultural- or linguistic- understanding (consultant’s ethnocentrism) or temperamental differences. A mediator will be employed to intervene in case of dissent.
High quality translation products are the result of qualified and academic work. The consultant as a professional is responsible for avoiding any arrogance. He/she will present his work in a fully communicative way on a language level that suits the translators and the translation projects management. He/she supports the translation project by a serving attitude (but see Nr. 2)
Consulting is always directed towards multiplication. The role of a consultant develops the more experience one gains. For this reason he is an ongoing learner and a trainer to new trainees. The position so to say takes the motto, “to work yourself out of a job”. Every consultant job thus includes a temporary orientation towards learning that lasts and training others.

3. Summay

During this paper it became obvious that consulting in Bible Translation has to do with power play. The consultant comes as an outsider into a project. Often the translation work in a project has already started and the consultant joins for checking sessions. So the experience and knowledge is not needed for the project itself. Recently the concept changed due to this shortcoming to include consultant’s right from the beginning of a project. In either case the process of asking for a “backtranslation” as well as the role of a consultant in itself causes additional work load which is sometimes not viewed positively by the translation team.

All these circumstances ask for an ethical foundation of consulting in Bible Translation. It will not be enough to follow Christian ethics and morals to face the specific problems of a Translation project. The specific task of this work needs to be reflected by the ethical standards that all parties need to agree on. Looking at some of the difficulties in Bible translation projects I came up with an ethical code for consultants in relation to their organization or institution, the Bible translation team and its management and other parties involved. The code mirrors the questions of loyalty, which is echoed in the ethical imperative of a standard about conflict prevention, a climate of confidence, professionalism and veracity.

Concerning the authority and responsibility that goes with consultation we should note that in an epoch of postmodernism, postcolonialism and globalization the mother tongue translation team owns the final authority. The consultant has to be considered a supporter to the project. He has an advisory role, with some authority to generate new developments or alternative ideas about translation style, exegetical considerations or linguistic and anthropological insights. However he does not hold the responsibility for the project. In consequence to avert misunderstanding or conflict about the time frame, exegetical, translational, linguistic or anthropological or personal or cross-cultural differences, two things are necessary.

An in-depth project plan for the whole Bible Translation setting, including the authority and responsibility of all involved parties. The plan is set up in consensus and in the beginning phase of the project. The plan is flexible and introduces a reciprocal feedback mechanism which supports the ongoing improvement of the translation process.
A neutral or outside mediating institution or person which is supervising the program and the plan, and which holds the authority to intervene in conflict situations.
Other areas of responsibility that go with consulting are improvement in experience by ongoing learning and multiplication of knowledge and experience to trainees.

It is my hope that institutions and organizations which deal with consulting in Bible Translation and Language Development are becoming aware of the variety of difficulties that go with Bible Translation projects. They are often caused by a lack of ethical standards that consultants and the other parties involved in a project face. To avoid such tensions these institutions need to train their consultants in an ethical code and involve them as soon as possible in a translation project.


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