Frames of translation: reflections from a conference trip to China

Avos, sometimes called a Russian shibboleth, is a tricky concept to translate into English, but it refers to underestimating the obstacles and overestimating your abilities since, in the end, the situation is never fully under your control. The literal translation would probably be something like “why not”, “let’s see”, or “give luck a chance but don’t overwork yourself”.

Although I’m Polish, not Russian, avos seems to adequately describe the strategy I followed during my recent conference trip to China. A few months back I was invited to give a plenary speech and a roundtable presentation on European liberal arts Education in the Zheijang Financial College in Hangzhou by the Chinese Association of Suzhi Education. Without too much thinking, I said yes.

Here I won’t focus on my topic (European liberal education), however, but on translation and interpretation instead. Higher education researchers are communicating less and less in languages other than English. What we don’t usually think about is what it means when our audience doesn’t speak any English and/or comes from completely different cultural settings.

Enter the translators

Benson, my translator, contacted me before the conference to hear my intentions and to clarify potential conceptual pitfalls. He also explained to me some of the reactions, discussions, and links between my speeches and the presentations in Chinese afterwards.

Conference interpretation can be simultaneous or consecutive. I thought I would get the former, but last minute I found out I was to get the latter, which meant that my speaking time would be halved. I knew I had to focus on the big picture, so I was worried that the quotes I had selected from my data wouldn’t make the cut. Yet I felt they were the heart of the matter, as I really wanted to bring out the visions of the founding fathers of European liberal education. It felt both more interesting and more right in this way.

At this point I decided to have some of the quotes and the conceptual abracadabra of liberal education on my slides translated into Chinese. The content of the quotes ranged from Russia to the UK and from employability to metaphysics, which made the translation even more complicated.

Luckily, it turned out I had not one, but two interpreters. The second was He Shanshan, or Iris. Iris was meant to be a tour guide, as she had done her degrees in management, and knew very little about educational philosophy and theory before. Faced with the otherwise difficult and time-consuming task of translating 20-odd sentences from English to Chinese, we had to translate contexts, backgrounds, and assumptions as well.

Translation and interpretation are a difficult art of the possible and approximate. Thanks to Iris, the essential part of my slides was no longer only “the best of” my interviews in English. There was something symbolic and heartening in the translation below, a result of our cooperation. Not ideal to be sure, but so much better than what I had originally planned.

In hindsight, I truly believe that if it wasn’t for translating the quotes, the whole endeavor – including carbon emissions from the long-haul flight ­– might not have been worthwhile for all those involved. The organizers shared my slides and the remarks with all interested participants, which is both reasonable and underused practice.

Where credit is due

I wanted Iris’s name included on the slides because, in my opinion, translation and interpretation should be credited. But when I proposed this, Iris refused. Her first reaction was that interpretation isn’t a real contribution, certainly not big enough to warrant putting it up on the slide alongside the one of the presenter. And secondly, if she made a mistake, it would not be pinned on her. I honored her choice, but I still felt really bad about it. If there were to be any mistakes, it would be because of me and the situation, not her.

For me, academia was always about a collective search for truth stretching across time, space, and people. But how we attribute credit for our small contributions towards this goal does not really reflect this. My whole research is the result of support, facilitated by, and getting traction only because of my academic significant others whose names are not listed next to mine on the product. Even more so, if someone asks me a question, in what sense the answer is even “mine” if I might have never thought about the answer without this question?

It soon dawned on us that we weren’t only translating concepts; we were translating cultures and traditions even if we pretended to stay at the abstract or conceptual level. I was perplexed by the lack of balance – between the credit given to me and Iris, and to Benson – the author and the translators. Growing up as a researcher in Poland, I saw the credit for translations evaporate from performance assessment of researchers. What counts is the original contribution, not translating somebody else’s thoughts. The result is not just a bunch of people left behind because they could not access original texts, for linguistic or financial reasons. It also limits our understanding of the things we pretend to care about as researchers.

Gratefulness, guilt, and the moral ambivalence

As I attempted to explain my ideas to a cultural and disciplinary stranger, I finally saw the many hidden assumptions running through my argument. They were all misunderstandings in the making. But through working with Iris, I felt true inspiration and satisfaction hidden in the act of translation.

When discussing the potential significance of what I do to what my audience does, I declared flatly: I really don’t know. My limited understanding suggests some ideas, but I’m not sure they are of enough value to use my speaker’s platform to preach them. The results of my research, and perhaps some nascent cultural reflexivity, told me to avoid this. The questions which I offered instead were all reflective of my biases and what I found interesting. Maybe they were based on a misunderstanding that would be interesting for them in some way; maybe not even that.

So perhaps I feel guilty because I believe that I learned more than my audience did. While public speaking is known to require and reinforce clarity, doing so in the bilingual conceptual landmine really put my understanding on the new level. And it wasn’t an individual endeavor, though I’m the only one to directly benefit from it.

To the standard question “What did you get from this conference?”, I’ll answer “moral dilemmas and epistemic humility”. Cross-cultural comparisons offer us a mirror to see who we really are. While higher education research has much to learn from those reflexivity exercises, the question is, how to create the space for them to happen without the moral ambivalence.

Daniel Kontowski studies liberal arts education in contemporary Europe as a PhD student at the University of Winchester (UK). He is a co-founder of the European Liberal Arts Initiative (ELAI). You can follow Daniel on Twitter.

Photo credit: 浙江金融职业学院

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