How Translators Contribute to Human Rights – Whether They Realize It or Not

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For Blog Action Day in October, I wrote a little post on how translators can help fight inequality. Equality is a human right; and much of our contribution to eradicating inequality has to do with making knowledge, information and educational resources available to people in their own language. Knowledge is power, thus by helping people acquire knowledge in their language, translators help empower them to obtain necessary tools and resources for overcoming certain types of inequality.

I just finished translating a UN human rights review document and it dawned on me that, whether they realize it or not, translators contribute to human rights in at least five ways.

1) Translators help ensure non-discrimination in the exercise of the rights contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by providing a level playing field for individuals to exercise and enforce their rights. Per article 2 of the Universal Declaration, all individuals are entitled to exercise the rights therein contained without discrimination based on language.

2) Translators help ensure social, cultural and economic rights by building linguistic bridges for the exercise of those rights, such as the right to housing, to adequate standard of living, to health and to science and culture. (Universal Declaration and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, among others)

3) Translators and interpreters help serve justice by ensuring due process in court. Per article 10 of the Universal Declaration, all individuals are entitled to receive a fair trial; and that is generally recognized to involve the right to an interpreter. In jurisdictions where proceedings are mainly written, that also involves the right to a translator.

4) Translators help facilitate freedom of expression, which also relates to the exercise of civil and political rights. Per article 19 of the Universal Declaration, all individuals have the right to freedom of expression, including the right to choose any language as the medium of that expression. But freedom of expression is also essential to exercising other rights, such as the right to freedom of association, thought, conscience, and religion.

5) Translators help ensure access to education. Per article 26 of the Universal Declaration, everyone has the right to an education, with relevance to the language of medium of instruction.

Every time a translator makes any verbal or written piece of information available in another language, that translator is helping someone, somewhere, exercise at least one of these rights, if not several simultaneously. So whether translators know it or not, by doing something as mundane as simply doing their job, they are making a significant contribution to human rights on different levels.

Four Ways Translators Can Help Fight Inequality


Today is blog action day. It’s a day when millions of bloggers worldwide come together to discuss a particular topic and try to contribute to social change. This year’s topic is inequality and being as this is a blog about translation, I’ve decided to list how translators can contribute to fighting inequality worldwide.

1) Inequality in access to information

When used properly, information is empowering. In fact, under international law, freedom of information is a human right. According to IWS, more than half of the information available online (55.7% to be exact) is in English, while English speakers only represent 27% of internet readers. This informational gap directly relates to income, education, and among other things, inequality in access to necessary resources and information. One of the many ways that translators can contribute to eradicating inequality in access to information is by volunteering to make important information available in other languages.

2) Inequality in education

It has long been said that education is key to combating inequality. Yet, while the majority of the world population is not made up of English speakers (according to Ethnologue), approximately 80% of all educational resources are still developed in English (according to the NEA). This is another gap translators can help to bridge.

3) Gender and racial inequality

Gender roles and racial stereotypes can be discursively constructed through language and, thus, also through translation. Gender and race definitions interact constantly alongside other similarly constructed parameters like sexuality or ideology. Translation can not only be viewed as the mechanical linguistic shift from one language to another, but as a source of mediation between languages, cultures and values, contributing to healthier linguistic constructions of common discourse in society aimed ultimately at gender and racial awareness.

4) Income inequality

There is income and wage inequality in translation. When outsourcing to developing countries, many companies have “first world” demands, but are only willing to pay “third world” rates. Such practices are abusive and are not an inherent or necessary part of outsourcing. It is possible to profit from outsourcing while still paying reasonable rates, and doing so helps fight income inequality for translators in struggling economies.