Interpreting for Accuracy

As interpreters and translators, our goal is to be both accurate and precise, however I suggest that the material with which we work – language – is inherently not amenable to the achievement of both goals, simultaneously. It seems to me that what interpreters do (in the face of uncertainty about a particular meaning in a specific social interaction) is select the highest probability ‘meaning’ for the context of the situation and according to the character (if known) of the speaker. I am not versed enough to know whether translators rely on established discourses to the same extent, but my suspicion is that they do: on what other basis can one decide among the range of potential meanings for any given snippet of text?

…calibrating…
follow-up to UMass Translation Center


Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off.

Build your wings on the way down.

~Ray Bradbury

Meaning(s) of Action Research

I got closer to an actual definition during the blog commentary that followed my first talk on paradigm consciousness.  Julian provided a terrific stimulus when he wrote, “I get the feeling you are discussing the research of a system with the consciousness of being within that system.”

What keeps returning to mind is Edwin’s German translation, “All scientific research is action research.”  He utilized one of German’s functional strengths to establish a context of comparison, yet he remained uneasy with the need to invent a new term. I have felt uneasy with de-limiting the notion of ‘research’ only to the scientific, as the broader motivation is to show all uses of language (in any sense, research or everyday living and working) as a force that generates effects. The entire discussion of all the translations has continued to percolate: what do such translational moves accomplish?

Two weeks later (!), I finally had the aha about the meaning of “all research is action research.”  Where we got hung up, I think, is because of the focus on translating, instead of on interpreting. Julian’s insight struck such a responsive chord in me because of the ever-present challenge of distributing one’s attention: if you’re looking to the left, for instance, you simply cannot also see what is happening to your right. In group dynamics, this plays out most starkly at the division between “content” and “process.” The whole notion of paradigm consciousness is to develop the perception to recognize the juxtaposition of different frames and – ideally – begin to learn how to tack back-and-forth among them as suitable for one’s aims.

All research has consequences.

Or, to put it more neutrally: All research has effects. I’m willing to bet (and I invite everyone to try!) that this interpretation of the claim, “all research is action research” is easier to work with, and more clear to convey, than the tight linguistic mapping attempted during the workshop.

I am not forgetting that I offered no help! The honest truth is: I did not yet know – myself – the most concise way to convey the meaning of the claim! And here you see the heart and soul of action research as always-and-forever in motion. This understanding provides the criteria, I believe, to distinguish the essential difference between “translating” and “interpreting.” Translation presumes a static target, and its goal is precision (in the engineering sense). Interpreting, however, presumes a dynamic process (at least relatively so, I know we can quibble!), and thus relies on the possibility of iteration (i.e., turn-taking to build clarification and mutual understanding) in order to generate greater accuracy.

Engineering precision vs engineering accuracy

I am finding the language of engineering quite useful to muddling through some bits of the tangled morass of social theories – be they critical or otherwise.  This site illustrates the distinction between accuracy and precision very well. As interpreters and translators, our goal is to be both accurate and precise, however I suggest that the material with which we work – language – is inherently not amenable to the achievement of both goals, simultaneously. It seems to me that what interpreters do (in the face of uncertainty about a particular meaning in a specific social interaction) is select the highest probability ‘meaning’ for the context of the situation and according to the character (if known) of the speaker. I am not versed enough to know whether translators rely on established discourses to the same extent, but my suspicion is that they do: on what other basis can one decide among the range of potential meanings for any given snippet of text?

My observation is that if you listen carefully to how interpreters and translators talk about our work, it winds up – more often than not – that we privilege precision over accuracy. I would describe this as an empirical feature of our professional discourse. I suspect we do this because it is reassuring to interlocutors, who are generally even less inclined to consider the trajectories of their utterances (written and spoken), if they are even aware of communicating in patterned ways.

And herein lies the power of interpretation and translation: we know these patterns – even if we have yet to figure out the extent of our own participation in them!

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