An ethical decision



                     [2009d. In R. Dimitrui and M. Shlesinger (eds), Translators and their readers. In homage to Eugene Nida. Brussels: ƒditions du Hazard, 347-354.]


Andrew Chesterman

University of Helsinki


The article presents and discusses a tricky ethical problem posed by the German translator of a Finnish novel. The case illustrates the complex ways in which potential reader reactions can affect a translatorÕs decision.  The discussion compares how different models of translation ethics would analyse this particular example. There are also implications concerning the translatorÕs visibility,  and the idea of translation as a kind of intervention.


Keywords: ethics, responsibility, reception, visibility, intervention.


Arto Paasilinna (b. 1942) is a well-known Finnish novelist who has a reputation for absurd humour and satirical social criticism. One of his novels, Ukkosenjumalan poika (1984), literally ŌSon of the Thunder GodĶ, is a satirical critique of the Lutheran establishment in Finland. The novel starts with a meeting of the pagan gods, who are worried at the way in which Finns are turning to the new Christian religion and thus heading for moral decline... The Thunder God, who chairs the meeting, decides to send his son down to Earth to check out the situation. The plan is that his son, Rutja, will change places with a mortal and thus be able to make his observations in disguise. The chosen mortal is one Sampsa Ronkainen, portrayed as a somewhat henpecked Finnish husband. During the course of many comic adventures, the son of the Thunder God, in the guise of Sampsa, falls for a Finnish lady tax inspector, and after nine months, on the last page of the novel, a son is born to her. The novel has not yet been translated into English, but here is how the story ends, in the German translation by Stefan Moster:


Im FrŸhling, am 19. April, gebar SteuerprŸferin HelinŠ Suvaskorpi einen prŠchtigen Knaben. Der SŠugling war zur HŠlfte der Enkel von Ukko Obergott und zur anderen HŠlfte vom GeblŸt der SteuerprŸferin. Ein gšttliches Kind! Durch dieses kleine Baby wurde das Geschlecht Finnlands mit der Zeit veredelt, aber bis dahin vergingen noch Hunderte von Jahren. Das ist eine Geschichte, die jetzt noch nicht erzŠhlt werden kann, denn wir leben erst am Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts.

Das Finnische Volk hat also nach wie vor seine Fehler. Es gibt ausgeprŠgte Genu§sucht, Habsucht und allerlei andere Schlechtigkeiten.

Aber dennoch sind die Finnen das einzige Volk der Erde, in dem es nicht einen einzigen VerrŸckten gibt. (Paasilinna 1999: 253)


[My English version: In spring, on April 19, the tax inspector HelinŠ Suvaskorpi gave birth to a fine boy. He was half grandson of the Thunder God and the other half came from the tax inspectorÕs lineage. A divine child! Through this little baby the Finnish stock became refined over time, but it took hundreds of years. That is a story that cannot yet be told, because we are now only at the end of the 20th century. So the Finnish people still have their defects: a marked craving for pleasure, greed, and many other kinds of wickedness. But the Finns are nevertheless the only nation on earth without a single madman.]


      This gives a good idea of PaasilinnaÕs ironic style.

      But: if you look at the Finnish original, you will notice something curious. The date of birth of this promising grandson of the Thunder God is, in Finnish, April 20, not April 19. Is this a translatorÕs error, a slip? No. The change is the result of a considered decision by the translator, who justified his change in public, in an article in the magazine Books from Finland (Moster 2003). This is a quarterly publication presenting the latest Finnish fiction and poetry in English, with news from the world of Finnish literary translation publishing. MosterÕs article is also available online (see reference).

      Let us examine the reasons for MosterÕs decision, and then see how they can be analysed in terms of translation ethics.

      First of all, there is an in-joke here, self-irony. The original date, April 20, happens to be PaasilinnaÕs own birthday, and so the date can be seen as symbolizing the comic claim that he himself has divine ancestry, being thus the original fount of the contemporary semi-divine Finnish race... I should think that very few of his Finnish readers would know this fact, but some might; the self-irony would thus be evident to only a small minority.

      But more importantly: April 20 was HitlerÕs birthday. Again, I imagine that few Finns would be aware of this – I was not, at least. What about the German-speaking readers of the translation? MosterÕs argument for changing the date is based on his belief that this birthday is an all-too-familiar fact to the majority of German and Austrian readers. So the risk is that these readers will take the date as a reference to Hitler, and interpret the ending of the novel as referring to a Nazi saviour who will improve the gene-pool of the nation...  Did Paasilinna know that this day was also HitlerÕs birthday? Was he suggesting an ironic attitude also towards the Nazi phenomenon? Even comparing himself to Hitler? We do not know. At any rate, Moster felt that, in NidaÕs terms, preserving the date would have sacrificed dynamic equivalence.

      This is how Moster explains and defends his decision to change the date:


[...] As the birthday of this bearer of hope Paasilinna cites 20 April. And at just this point I had to give up the translation. I rang the editor and informed her that I could not accept this date. Why?

     Well, 20 April is Arto PaasilinnaÕs birthday. The author had, then, permitted himself a little joke, one might say. But: 20 April is also Adolf HitlerÕs birthday, and in Germany everyone knows that. At least (ÔoldÕ and neo-) Nazis know that. And for them, reading PaasilinnaÕs novel would have made something click; I did not wish to encourage that. Simply by means of this date of birth, attributed to a saviour of the people, it would have been possible to read the novel as a parafascist fantasy, which in its narrative technique reveals striking similarities with propagandistic entertainment from the 1930s and 40s: denigration of the enlightened present as decadent and degenerate, linked with an apotheosis of the VolkÕs (peopleÕs) heathen heritage and the vision of a reconstruction of the old order by a chosen leader.

     Quite possibly, the book had what it took to become a cult novel in right-wing circles, and I did not want to let that happen to it – or, most of all, to me – for which reason I replaced 20 April with another date. And I did not actually ask the author, as I am wont to do in similar cases, for I wanted to avoid him disallowing the (to me) essential modication.

     In doing so I valued my stake as originator of the text more highly than that of the author. Is that allowed? Yes, when you think you have to do it. Is it a problem? Not really, when you know what youÕre doing. (Moster 2003: 60)


      There are a number of interesting aspects in this decision. Moster informs the editor of the change, he does not ask her for permission. He gives his reasons, which he feels are so compelling that he does not run the risk of asking the authorÕs permission (and perhaps being refused permission to make the change), or even informing the author. He admits this to us, the readers of Books from Finland, and thus steps forward into the limelight, visible. He still believes he did the right thing, and he is happy to accept responsibility for the final version. His stake in the translation is higher than the authorÕs.

      I have presented and discussed this case in numerous lectures and seminars, and asked audiences what they think: did Moster make the right decision? The results have usually been split. Some people think he was right, others that he should have checked with the author first (but suppose the author had said no?), or gone ahead without changing the date. One student said she saw nothing wrong with the date anyway, as it was also her birthday and therefore a good day! Personally, I agree with Moster. But the issues are not easy ones. It is precisely the complexity of the pros and cons that make this an interesting ethical decision. Let us untangle some of them, in terms of four models of translation ethics which I have presented elsewhere (Chesterman 2001).

      The classical model of translation ethics is based on the idea of representation: an ethical translation represents the source text, both in the sense of standing for it, as a proxy, and in the sense of bearing an appropriate resemblance to it (Hermans 2007). The dominant value here is truth: the translation Ōtells the truthĶ about the source text, does not misrepresent it. This has been the model underlying most translation of sacred texts. According to this model, MosterÕs decision was not ethically justified.

      My second model is the service model. Here, the translator is seen as performing a service for a client, and a leading value is that of loyalty to this client. An ethical translator pays attention to the clientÕs definition of the translationÕs skopos (purpose), and does what is required to meet the clientÕs needs, without wasting time or money. This model mainly applies to non-literary translation – which does indeed constitute the vast majority of all translation. In terms of this model, MosterÕs case seems to be more ethical, as he informed the client of his decision (although not the author); but he did not ask the clientÕs permission. So in some sense he was loyal to the client, in realizing the need for the client to be informed. He was not acting behind the clientÕs back.

      The third model is a communication model. Here, the ethics is based on the value of promoting understanding between the people involved. Pym (1997) sees this in more concrete terms: promoting cooperation between the two sides. In this perspective, Moster acted very ethically, since he took steps to avoid a likely misunderstanding on the part of the readers. (I am assuming, like Moster, that Paasilinna did not intend to express support for neo-Nazism.) PymÕs ethics of cooperation also gives priority to another kind of loyalty: the translatorÕs loyalty to the profession itself, his fellow-translators, the professional intercultural communicators and promoters of understanding. From this point of view MosterÕs action is particularly interesting. First, by avoiding a potentially destructive misunderstanding he preserved the readershipÕs trust in the profession. And second, by making his decision public, in the article cited above, he highlights both its difficulty and his own wish to act transparently. In this respect, he does his profession a great service, publicizing the image of a responsible professional able to reflect on, and justify, his own work.

      My fourth model is norm-based ethics. Here, ethical actions are those that conform to the relevant norms, so that peopleÕs expectations are not disrupted. Breaking these norms may well lead to a loss of public trust in the profession. There are several kinds of relevant norms here. Moster has followed the norm of accountability (carrying responsibilty), for instance, but evidently not the relation norm governing the required resemblance between source and target.

      Underlying these four models are different conceptions of how ethics is best defined. They also illustrate a broader distinction that is familiar in moral philosophy: that between contractual ethics and utilitarian ethics. In contractual ethics, a ŌgoodĶaction is defined in terms of existing duties, obligations, laws, agreements and the like. Service ethics and norm-based ethics are contractual: there exist conditions of service and agreed norms, which should be followed. The communication model, on the other hand, is utilitarian. Here, the ethical value of an action is determined by its results, not by already-existing conditions. The representation model seems to fall between the two: there is a strong assumption that translators should translate faithfully, but behind this there must be the belief that unfaithful translation may lead to undesired consequences.

      MosterÕs decision shows that he has given clear priority to utilitarian ethics, because his primary motivation was to avoid bad consequences. In my earlier article on these models (2001), I suggested that a translatorÕs duty could be described as inverse utilitarianism, as illustrated in the guiding principle of the Hippocratic Oath: Ōfirst, do no harmĶ. In this light, a translatorÕs task could be seen as the elimination or minimizing of Ōcommunicative sufferingĶ. This is precisely what Moster is evidently motivated by: the need to avoid serious ŌcommunicativeĶ consequences. At the same time, he has not totally neglected his contractual duties, in that he has indeed informed the client. He has perhaps also taken a risk here, put his reputation on the line, as it were. Maybe the client will never employ him again... But this too illustrates the well-known point that altruistic actions may carry a cost.

      MosterÕs decision has deeper implications for our perception of the translatorÕs role more generally. Traditionally, we have become accustomed to seeing the translator as a mediator, a bridge-builder between cultures. The problem with this view is that it looks at translation through rose-coloured spectacles, as if translators never acted as bridge-destroyers, as if translation could never be used for destructive ends. But there is no shortage of historical examples of translations that create misunderstanding, that mislead and distort, either intentionally or accidently. (See Baker 2006, and the interview reported in Chesterman and Baker forthcoming.) A translator is never totally neutral. All translation is also an intervention (cf. Munday 2007). Moster has indeed intervened, not only in the translation itself but also in bringing the matter into the domain of public debate.

      Intervention may have both good and bad consequences. Consider, for instance, the curious case of the Ōholy bookĶ Ruhnama, written by the late president of Turkmenistan, and now translated into several dozen languages. The translations have been sponsored by companies that wish to do business in Turkmenistan. Without arranging a translation and thus flattering the president, they apparently had no access to the market in this closed dictatorship. The companies themselves seem embarrassed by this situation, according to Arto HalonenÕs recent documentary film on the subject (see One also wonders about the motivations and ethics of the translators involved, who are thus implicitly supporting political and economic conditions in which they surely would not like to live themselves. Who gains what, in the short and the longer term, by such cooperation?

      MosterÕs decision reflects a political intervention of a different kind. He is taking a stand against the potential risk of encouraging neo-Nazi fanaticism. Both the decision as such and its defence in the public domain are evidence of what we might call his translatorÕs telos (Greek Ôend, goalÕ). Whereas the notion of skopos (since Reiss and Vermeer 1984) refers to the intended purpose of a translation (i.e. of a text), the idea of the telos could be a way of conceptualizing the ultimate goal of a translator, the source of personal motivation, values and priorities. OneÕs telos may affect oneÕs choice to translate a given text in the first place (e.g. in the case of voluntary translation), oneÕs attitude to tricky ethical problems (such as MosterÕs decision), and indeed oneÕs wish to work as a translator in general. The concept of a translatorÕs telos needs to be worked out in more detail, but it has clear ethical dimensions, and also reflects the ongoing shift in Translation Studies away from a focus on translations as texts towards one on translators as people: people who have their own goals apart from the purposes of the texts they translate, people who sometimes have to make difficult decisions. (The telos idea is introduced in Chesterman and Baker, forthcoming.)

      I referred above to NidaÕs notion of dynamic equivalence. The case of MosterÕs ethical decision also illustrates the way in which a responsible professional bears in mind the potential reactions of recipients. This, of course, has been one of the leitmotifs of NidaÕs work over several decades. Of all the places where he discusses this theme, here is one which I cite in conclusion: Ō[...] the role of the receptor is crucial, for a translation can be judged as adequate only if the response of the intended receptor is satisfactoryĶ (Nida 1969/1989:  94). I hope this contribution has helped to unravel some of the implications of that last word.





Baker, M. 2006. Translation and Conflict: A Narrative Account. London: Routledge.

Chesterman, A. 2001. ŌProposal for a Hieronymic OathĶ. The Translator 7(2): 139-154.

Chesterman, A. and Baker, M. (forthcoming). Ethics of renarration. Cultus 1.

Hermans, T. 2007. ŌTranslation, irritation and resonanceĶ. In Constructing a sociology of  translation, M. Wolf

      and A. Fukari (eds), 57-75. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Moster, S. 2003. ŌBirthday bluesĶ. Books from Finland 2003 (1): 59-60. Also available at


Munday, J. (ed.). 2007. Translation as Intervention. London: Continuum.

Nida, E. A. 1969. ŌScience of translationĶ. Language 45(3): 483-498. Reprinted 1989 in Readings in Translation

      Theory, A. Chesterman (ed.), 80-98.  Helsinki: Finn Lectura.

Paasilinna, A. 1984. Ukkosenjumalan poika. Helsinki: WSOY.

Paasilinna, A. 1999. Der Sohn des Donnergottes. (Translation by S. Moster.) MŸnchen: Ehrenwirth.

Pym, A. 1997. Pour une Žthique du traducteur. Arras Cedex: Artois Presses UniversitŽ.

Reiss, K. and Vermeer H. J. 1984. Grundlegung einer allgemeinen Translationstheorie. TŸbingen: Niemeyer.