Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving


July 28th, 2008

There are concerns being raised about translating the research invitation to Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). My friends and colleagues composing the Translation Team (!) are encountering the challenges of linguistic rotation. I am borrowing the technical term, rotation, from matrix algebra. (Disclaimer: four decades later I begin to learn math!)
Which should I write first: the metaphor (a three–by-three matrix) or the data (the questions and concerns)? Let’s go with the data.
Immediately the question was raised, “Why translate at all?” Alongside the deep philosophical implications (which I need another few decades to work out) are practical concerns. Isn’t the effort to generate a “single” invitation in twenty-three languages rather absurd?

  • unnecessary?
  • the production of more work?
  • impossible?
  • just a nice gesture?

Possibly. Depending upon one’s logic, certainly so; given an alternative reference frame, however, perhaps the benefit, in the end, will be worth the trouble. Crafting the translations has, actually, been a bit of trouble – not just time and effort, but a source of some consternation. Three versions have been completed to date: Bulgarian, Romanian, and Polish. A few potential translators have dropped out because of the terminology: as much as I try to explain what I aim to do in plain language, a few conceptual/theoretical terms keep sneaking in: words that are obviously labels for something, a shorthand way of referring to a specific set of knowledge or kind of experience, a code that stands for or signals something more, something else, something beyond what a dictionary provides.
Part of my rationale, going in to this study of simultaneous interpretation in the European Parliament, is that this is always the case. One of the intriguing dynamics that I hope to explore is the way people generally know (in every day use) that words can mean different things at different times in different contexts. This inherent flexibility of language is what makes, for instance, a double entendre possible. There simply could not be two simultaneous meanings for a word or phrase without language having the capacity to mean more than one thing – even in one utterance at a specific time in a given context with particular participants under whatever situational and cultural rules apply.

Somehow, though, when the topic/process of interpretation comes up, this rich capability of language “to mean” many things seems to become a liability – even a problem. Whether or not we want to reduce language’s ability “to mean” in general, the discourse about meaning when a translation is involved (the things people say about it) shows an attitude that wants to impose some kind of confirmation or guarantee that only one meaning will be allowed. Even trickier, a moral element often comes into play: not just any (of the usual or probable) discrete/unique meanings, but The Right One.
The specific problem with my invitation letter is jargon. Maybe I am being too stubborn in wanting to provide MEPs with enough information to suffice as “informed consent,” but there are bureaucratic procedures and ethical dilemmas that must be addressed. I do not anticipate in any way that harm will come to someone by talking, confidentially, with me about their views about and experiences with simultaneous interpretation (SI). Really, what I want to learn is when, how, and why do people make the choice to go with an interpreter (and then how skillful are they in the use of this communication process), and when, how, and why do persons choose to use a lingua franca, trying to forego interpretation. The “people” and “persons” are, in this case, Members of the European Parliament. I am assuming that

a) the choice between SI and a lingua franca is a real option: i.e., interpreters are available and lingua francas are known, and
b) the choices made by MEPs are indeed representative of “people” in general, although in this case actually of Europeans in general, or – even more precisely, of the choices that would be made by the citizens of the MEPs respective countries if they were in similar circumstances.

The dilemma of the official invitation is that it serve to entice MEPs to want to talk with me! I do, quite sincerely, believe that there will be tangible benefit to those who agree to participate, at least in heightening their awareness of language choice and (ideally) the relationship between their language use and how influentially they help design policy. Meanwhile, the official invitation also must fulfill the ethical principles of informed consent. I want the MEPs to say, “yes,” and arrange an interview; I need them to have some basis of knowledge about where I’m coming from – even if it is only enough to ask a question! So, in the invitation, when “co-productively,” “voice,” and “action learning” are used by me, deliberately, in order to establish boundaries and set trajectories, I think it is totally permissable that a given language may or may not have a readily-equivalent way to handle the task I want these words to accomplish. My thinking is based on a logic of simultaneous interpretation as an ongoing, continuous, complex process of making meaning together (paraphrased from the textbook I am currently using to teach Interpersonal Communication).
This logic of simultaneous interpretation is different than the traditional logic of written translation. A written translator (especially a professionally trained one), seeks to establish a record for all time. The intent of the translation is not to participate in an immediate give-and-take, but rather to cement a particular viewpoint or story into a permanent fixed form. A simultaneous interpreter however (especially a professionally trained one), is seeking to adapt fluidly within a moving situation whose players are themselves in flux. A previously written text does not change, one can come back to the exact same words as often as one wants, from the gut instinct of first reading to the reflective analysis provided by situating a sentence (as the turning point in chapter three, for instance) in relation to the entire novel. A spontaneous interpretation works in concert with interlocutors to create endings that are not necessarily pre-determined, because they have literally not yet been said – the conversation is underway and can evolve.
So, this is a long explanation to get to the notion that those pesky technical terms could simply be left in English: to be explained later. Equally well the attempt can be given to render them as faithfully as possible in the logic, diction, and grammar of the target language. Either way the possibility of a conversation about what those terms mean is laid open. Without including them at all? I can assume, from the beginning, that the people I am going to meet and talk with will not understand – and use this as a reason to exclude these terms; alternatively, I can accept that they probably won’t understand the terms but are capable of doing so, with a bit of effort on both our parts.
It turns out that I am, indeed, stubborn for the latter.

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Categories: Call this ACTION LEARNING!, Interpreting, Language
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