The progressive translator

The purpose of this blog is to provide a forum, a clearinghouse, where progressive translators and other interested persons may discuss issues of concern, including, but not limited to, political aspects of translation, translation theory, the policies and structure of the ATA, and activism at the local group level.


Ken Kronenberg is a German translator specializing in medicine, patents, and 19th- and 20th-century diaries and letters. The views and positions taken by guest bloggers are not necessarily those of Ken Kronenberg or the Progressive Translator.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Analysis of the ATA antitorture resolution

In response to the strongly-worded antitorture resolution that Aaron Ruby brought before the voting membership, the American Translators Association (ATA) recommended passage of an alternative resolution at the recent conference in New Orleans (November 1-4, 2006). The ATA's resolution is extraordinarily weak; it seems mainly to serve the purpose of warding off accusations that the ATA is doing nothing. Yet as we know, nothing is precisely what it at first intended to do when it advised the membership to defeat the Ruby resolution. Let's take a look at what was actually passed:

From the Preamble:

the infliction of torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment is abhorrent to all civilized societies and has been condemned by national governments and international organizations, including the United Nations in its Declaration and Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment ;

interpreters and translators strive to facilitate communication in the service of humanity, to create understanding and respect between speakers of different languages, and to break down linguistic and cultural barriers in order to ensure equal rights to all regardless of language; and

members of the American Translators Association, in accordance with the Association's Code of Professional Conduct and Business Practices, commit themselves to the highest standards of performance and ethical behavior,

The first clause is fine as far as it goes.

However, the second clause refers to a principle so general that it might itself be used to justify torture. Practitioners of torture frequently claim in effect that they do what they do "in the service of humanity." The current US administration asserts that it is attempting to bring democracy to Iraq, and as such it may be seen as trying "to break down linguistic and cultural barriers in order to ensure equal rights." There is nothing in the ATA's statement of principles that contradicts, for example, the use of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.

The third clause refers us to the ATA's Code of Professional Conduct. Yet there is nothing in this code that precludes participation in torture. After all, the current US administration claims that information gained by torture serves the common good. Does that mean that torture competently executed meets the “highest standards of performance and ethical behavior"?

In other words, having started out reasonably well, it goes on to gut its own stated intent!

What about the substantial or operative provisions?

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT THE AMERICAN TRANSLATORS ASSOCIATION condemns and deplores torture in any form, anywhere;

explicitly defines knowing participation in, facilitation or countenancing of, cooperation with, or failure to report torture or other mental or physical abuse or degradation of any human being as unethical behavior that violates ATA's Code of Professional Conduct and Business Practices;

requires that its members who become aware that torture has occurred, is occurring, or is intended, promptly report those facts to a person or persons capable of taking preventive or corrective action;

expects governments and other national and international entities to refrain from retribution or other punitive action against interpreters and translators when they refuse to participate in or cooperate with the torture, abuse, or degradation of any human being; and

urges schools and programs responsible for the education and training of interpreters and translators to include in their curricula training in ethical behavior and in internationally recognized codes of professional conduct.

Again, there is nothing wrong with point 1 as far as it goes.

However, point 2 refers us once again to the ATA code of professional conduct. Because there is nothing in the ATA code that condemns torture outright, it cannot be used for this purpose. On the contrary, as we have seen, the ATA code as it stands can even be used to justify torture.

The third point goes to the heart of what is wrong with the ATA resolution. Rather than condemning outright any participation in torture, in keeping with the promise of the first paragraphs of the preamble and operative provision, the ATA rejects an organizational stance in favor of a vague retreat into "personal responsibility." This is a pure copout. Having purged its resolution of any mention of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, and having declined to condemn the use of torture by the powerful governmental forces behind those atrocities, the ATA merely says that its members must report incidents of torture to "a person or persons capable of taking preventive or corrective action." Who might such persons be, when the US government itself sends its highest-ranking military personnel to establish its torture facilities? That is what this administration did when it sent General Geoffrey Miller, the architect of the abuses at Guantánamo Bay, to Iraq to "Gitmoize" Abu Ghraib and the other facilities, some of which continue to be secret? Nor does the ATA resolution hold responsible and condemn those who profiteer from torture, such as the civilian CACI and the Titan Corporation, which have contracts with the military in the hundreds of millions of dollars to supply linguist services. Instead of an outright condemnation, what we get is pap about personal responsibility, and reports to those responsible. What sort of resolution is that?

Instead of establishing solidarity with its members in rejecting torture, or offering them aid and solace in resistance, in point 4 the ATA begs unspecified "governments and other national and international entities" not to punish interpreters and translators who refuse to participate. This is an antitorture resolution in name only, a fig leaf. Any impulse to grapple with the issue head on is immediately turned into empty words.

There is a great concept in German: etwas totschweigen; literally, to "death-silence" something. It is a transitive verb much like "to disappear" someone, and it implies a deliberate act. This weak ATA resolution will do little more than "death-silence" the issue of torture and encourage its disappearance down the memory hole.

Let's hope that doesn't happen.

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