Lesson 111: Business ethics: what’s ethical and what’s not in a freelance translator’s business

Lesson 111: Business ethics: what’s ethical and what’s not in a freelance translator’s business

Ethics seems to be discussed these days mostly in reference to “agency unethical behaviours” or unethical treatment of translators by other entities. The argument of ethics, professional or business, is often brought up when comes to rates, agreements, terms and conditions or the use of technology. And of course it’s good that these elements are discussed, but as usual, I’m more concerned with what we, freelance translators and interpreters, can make out of business ethics.

In this article, I want to encourage you to take a look at a range of elements of business ethics and apply them to your own freelance translator’s business. Have you ever considered how ethical your own business is, and what are the elements that matter?

Ethics of finance

It’s easy to think that moral or ethical issues in finance apply only to huge companies, while freelancers concentrate on making enough to cover their own needs. While we’re hardly ever exposed to bribery, anti-corruption laws or tax avoidance, we’re still facing a number of ethical challenges in finance. Careful budgeting is, in my opinion, a matter of ethics. For me, having a proper budget incorporating CPD and business development is a matter of ethical growth. Any business oriented primarily at money-making, without regard to its other elements, is ethically imbalanced, be it an international corporation or a freelance gig.

Ethics of human resources

It’s easy to talk about the ethics of human resources with regard to huge corporations: it’s about how well they treat their employees, how they take care of them and how they motivate them. It’s becoming a bit more complicated when we try to apply the same thinking to a freelance business. It took me a while to start seeing myself-translator as an employee in myself-business and it took even longer to realise that I wasn’t the most ethical of employees. In my opinion, it’s essential to take an ethical approach towards oneself as an employee and make sure that working hours are not abused, overtime is properly rewarded, there’s a good development plan in place and incentives are given out. I’m serious here. Isn’t that what we’d expect from an ethical employer?

Ethics of sales and marketing

Again, looking at the big guys, we’re able to quickly tell ethical sales and marketing from unethical or deceitful behaviours. But do we apply the same rules to our own freelance businesses? Are we really only marketing the services and skills that are top notch, or do we sometimes fake it until we make it, promising the client something we can’t be sure of? Is the approach of always saying yes and never refusing to take any job on really ethical? Have you ever had an ethics audit of your marketing materials?

Ethics of production

Perhaps most difficult to transfer to the world of services, the ethics of production usually concerns the quality of materials, processes and final outcomes. But the process of translating or interpreting itself can also be exposed to unethical behaviours. What about confidentiality, impartiality, or using Google Translate in this boring agreement? Is using a free online OCR tool just a matter of convenience, or is it becoming an unethical behaviour exposing client’s files?

Ethics of property, property rights and intellectual property

With the recent incidents of the web copy of a translator colleague scrapped and used on two other pages or a pseudo-agency copying Proz members’ profiles and using them to solicit work, the ethics of property is becoming ever more important. Drawing inspiration from another translator’s website or slogan is one thing, but when does it become unethical? Is using copyrighted photos on your blog ethical or not? Or even, is a colleague writing articles for translators or running courses for them without actual individual success ethical or not?

Ethics of technology

Outside of my translation-related work, I’m always researching and learning about technology. One thing is certain: neither the law nor the ethical standards have figured out how to treat technology yet. We could start from a very theoretical argument: is using any technology on texts without the client’s knowledge ethical? Or does it become unethical only when the client’s files are exposed? If your technology isn’t protected (e.g. you don’t have anti-virus software), is that only dangerous or also unethical?

I hope that I pointed you to some relevant questions here. What I propose is as follows:

  • Carry out a thorough ethics audit in these six domains
  • Mark areas for improvement and write down how you’re going to work on them
  • Write up your own business code of ethics


  1. Yulianus Harefa , on Mar 26, 2015 at 17:52 Reply

    It’s nice to know you, Marta. Let’s keep in touch. I’m an ELT Consultant as well as a Freelance Translator & Interpreter for Indonesian-English-Indonesian. I hope you can come to my hometown, the 3rd largest city, Medan, Indonesia some day as a Speaker for an int’l on Translating and Interpreting. I’m looking forward to hear from you asap.
    Best regards, Yuli.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on May 14, 2015 at 16:31 Reply

      Thank you, Yulianus 🙂 If you’d like to keep in touch all the links are below this post (or just shoot me an email through this site).

  2. Felice , on Sep 14, 2015 at 20:09 Reply

    Thank you for the article, especially the part “What’s ethical and what’s not in free lance translation’s business.” However, as a translator and the owner of a translation business, I believe that we need to address the unethical behaviour of “some” translators. I am referring here to those who agree to the terms of the project and then over charge the translation company. What do you think?



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