Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

dealing with challenging content

February 24th, 2006

“Wanda” and I have faced a couple of interpreting challenges recently. One is the perennial issue of not knowing the subject matter. “I feel like he’s poured out a bag of multicolored M&M’s with every sentence and I have to sort them.”
It isn’t that one has to know every subject in great depth and detail, but one does need to be conversant with the general types of thinking that go along with a particular setting. For instance, I think I was mistaken a while back when I said one shouldn’t take a job involving “gay history” without knowing gay history…it isn’t that the facts need to be known, but the general issues and concerns of the group should be familiar, as well as important terms commonly used in the community.
Similarly, interpreting for graduate level classes means one must be prepared for deep theoretical discussions. Of course we can’t know each and every particular theory, but the larger framework of concerns about thought, thinking, research, the construction of knowledge and questions about what it means “to understand” span most coursework at that level. These broad concerns may not come up all the time, but we ought not be caught off guard when they do. My M&M-sorting colleague had a bad day (normally she handles this stuff with aplomb). But the event clarified for me a way of talking about what “minimum qualifications” mean in a given setting or for a particular assignment.
And – speaker’s sentences can feel like multicolored M&Ms needing sorting for other reasons too: for instance, their own lack of organization! As Seleskovitch writes: “The message is naturally conditioned by the person who originates it”. If a speaker doesn’t provide a framework or fails to explain transitions from one topic/subject to the next, meaning is hard to grasp. In these instances, one has to wonder if the speaker themself knows what they mean or even has a point that they are trying to convey!
The worst situation is when both conditions collide.

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