The Ethical Demands of Translating Gender-Based Violence: a Practice-Based Research Project

Image © Hui Yao

Gender-Based Violence (GBV) is a global pandemic with United Nations figures indicating that 1 in 3 women will suffer GBV in her life. This statistic sheds light on a disturbing escalation worldwide created by the social effects of COVID 19 and the refugee crisis in Europe.

Beyond those statistics are human beings, survivors, whose stories Dr Charlotte Bosseaux set out to explore in a multilingual documentary.

For the past 5 years, Dr Charlotte Bosseaux’s work has considered the ethical role played by translation when transmitting the experience of women survivors. The Ethical Translation project has focused on testimonies told by women survivors whose first language is not English and by language professionals working in the GBV/trauma context. Dr Bosseaux’s work with the Scottish based charity Saheliya has highlighted that women who do not speak English, or do not speak it well enough to explain in official settings what happened to them, need support in their first language within the charities and support organisations they go to for help. Moreover, they also need access to trustworthy language professionals when attending medical appointments, court hearings or speaking to the Police, for instance. The project has also considered the way translators cope with the translation of challenging sensitive material.

The Ethical Translation project’s primary goals were to establish which translation methods or strategies are the most ethical when translating audiovisual personal narratives and to provide good practice guidelines for translators, translation companies, filmmakers and charities.

Supporting survivors and the professionals who help them

Much of the translation process is invisible as translations are only thought of in relation to their original texts and produced after these have been published. It is also common to hear people say that they like a Japanese writer even if they do not read Japanese. Translation is thus an afterthought as well as an invisible activity. Yet, this perception of translation has moral or ethical consequences. Indeed, the status of language professionals is often precarious as they face decreasing rates of pay and tighter deadlines. For instance, film translators often report not having access to images when translating blockbusters.

Moreover, interpreters called on rape cases are given no background information and are expected to act as neutral conduits, even if it is impossible to achieve complete neutrality. Such situations put pressure not only on service providers (language professionals and charities) but also on service users (survivors) and charities have reported not being able to trust certain interpreters.

It is thus imperative to make sure that a survivor’s vulnerability is not propagated in translation, and also that language professionals are provided with the emotional support that they need. Indeed, in traumatic contexts they are offered little emotional support and the emotional labour attached to translation remains largely unacknowledged in professional settings and academia.

Photo © UoE LLC

An iterative and collaborative process

Charlotte’s 24-month project saw her work collaboratively with Saheliya, a Scottish-based charity supporting survivors, language professionals recruited via the specialist company Screen Language, a number of whom were surveyed about how they felt about their work, and filmmaker Ling Lee.

Crucially, with the help of Saheliya, she also worked with service users to understand their expectations before starting the filming, to incorporate their perspectives into the filmmaking process, and to make sure the filming and translation processes were undertaken ethically.

Photo © UoE LLC


The project has focused on the way sensitive material is translated in order to understand how best to respond to the ethical demand of GBV and trauma translation. Given the many myths surrounding translation and interpreting, it is certain that translators require additional guidance to assist them when translating GBV material, that survivors and charities need more support when working with translators, and that filmmakers need more guidance when working with survivors and translators.

The documentary focuses on the stories of survivors and the role translation has played when sharing them. It’s multilingual as survivors speak their mother tongue and translation was carried out as soon as filming started.

As documentaries are either subtitled or a voice-over is used, two versions were created and shown to audiences to ask for feedback on which techniques/strategies do the most justice to the survivors’ voices. A final version was then produced using this feedback. Feedback questionnaires were also used to understand how language professionals feel about their work. Ultimately, this project aimed at making sure that the voices of survivors are ethically translated and that we also listen to the voices of the professionals who make translation possible.


Dr Charlotte Bosseaux has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to consider the ways in which the voices of GBV survivors are translated for a practice-based, multilingual documentary underpinned by new research into the ethics of translation.