When Vulcan Logic Meets Translation Ethics


Star Trek was one of my favorite shows when I was growing up. It was a little before my time, but that didn’t matter to me. The show aired in the US from 1966 to 1969, but they still played reruns on TV when I was little girl in the 1980s and I never missed an episode. At age six, if you asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, the answer would have been “a voyager on the USS Enterprise… and I’m going to marry Captain Kirk.” Kirk was my first innocent childhood infatuation; but my true hero was Spock.

I could never have rationally explained my connection to either character had it not been for later discovering philosophy; particularly moral philosophy and within that area of study, consequentialism and deontologism. In dangerously broad terms, both philosophical traditions strive to rationally explain any judgments on the rightness or wrongness of an action. From a consequentialist point of view, an action will be morally right if it produced a good outcome or consequence. Deontologism holds instead that an action is morally right in and of itself. Deontologism is most often associated, though not exclusively, to Kantian ethics. Consequentialism is most often associated, though also not exclusively, to Utilitarianism.

Spock encompasses utilitarian ethics in its purest of forms. His famous phrase, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” perfectly captures the ethical principles set forth by Jeremy Bentham and later developed by John Steward Mill in Utilitarianism (extrapolating, of course, Hume’s belief in the “natural” human interest in utility). Spock is an emotionless being of sophisticated taste who –when faced with tough choices– is able to rationally weigh the situation against “the greater good,” putting “the needs of the many” before his personal preferences. He is the guy that will let a few innocent people (perhaps even children) die in situation X, to save a bunch of other people in situation Y if there is no way to save both.

Kirk on the other hand is more heart than brains. There are no super smart Kirk quotes because Kirk is depicted as essentially human: flawed, emotional, slave to life’s pleasures and human desires, but ultimately good at heart. Kirk is the guy who will try to save both the innocent people in situation X AND the one’s stranded in situation Y, even if that means risking his life. When asked why risk everything to save both, Kirk would have resorted to a simple explanation that roughly encapsulates Kantian ethics, “because they are people,” recognizing that there is something inherently good that is worth preserving in humanity itself. Kirk is a deontologist.

Together, Kirk and Spock made a great a team and embodied the best of two traditions. The tension between Kirk and Spock, heart and mind, was the tension between consequentialism and deontology; and in every episode both turned out to be right to some extent. In the Star Trek world, ethical dilemmas could be overcome when utility found its limit in recognizing certain inherently good principles that could not be overturned by the needs or desires of the many, no matter how much that increased overall “happiness.” The ends can justify the means if and only if the means never lose sight of certain basic principles: respect for human autonomy, dignity, and integrity.

In translation, we find a lot of consequentialist reasoning, especially in the purest business side of the translation world (and particularly when resorting to the principles of capitalism to justify “business as usual”); and there is nothing wrong with that per se. Consequentialism has proven over and over again to be a valid and valuable worldview, provided we recognize its limitations.

In practical terms what this means is that there is nothing wrong with increasing your profit margin from outsourcing translation work, provided you are not exploiting or taking advantage of other people to do so. There is nothing wrong with employing effective sales techniques and strategies, provided you are delivering what you promised and not crippling others in the process. There is nothing wrong with conducting yourself as a business person without caring much for the philosophical or romantic side of translation, provided you are not harming others or undermining the profession in any way. This rationale can be extrapolated to any business aspect of translation. There is nothing wrong with being Spock, provided that when making important decisions, you also listen to Kirk a little bit.

At a time when we seem divided between those who advocate for translation as a cold hearted business and those who advocate for translation as a somewhat romanticized labor of love, between those who speak of sales and those who speak of craft, and those who see the future of translators like word factories and those who reminisce of the days of St. Jerome, perhaps we can learn a thing or two from Spock and Kirk about finding the middle ground.

8 thoughts on “When Vulcan Logic Meets Translation Ethics

  1. Paula I love this article! Emily and I have been life long StarTrek fans. I agree with you that in most cases there is balance to be found by listening to other view points instead of taking a dogmatic stance on things.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mercedes Guhl says:

    Loved this post! Couldn’t read it earlier, though. I was also a fan of Star Trek when I was growing up, in the 70s, and found Spock weird… I guess I am more the Kirk type, and the love’s labor translator. What I enjoyed more was this philosophical take on Star Trek. We often forget, when reading or watching Sci-Fi that quite often those futuristic fiction worlds are departures of philosophical systems.
    But I have to say that my attraction for Star Trek was more the astronomy part and any biological bit that could be lost in the plots. Still, I ended up doing a minor in philosophy…


    • I’m not the least bit surprised you’d identify with Kirk, Mercedes. You strike me as a person with a tremendously big heart! 😉

      One of the reasons why I’ve always loved Sci-Fi is that it provides a creative venue for exploring the big questions; but it’s also true that it lets the imagination fly in terms of what is biologically possible, how far the universe goes, what else is out there… alas, no matter how we look at it, it connects us with what, to me, is arguably the best human quality: creativity!


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