two talks at Heriot Watt

for the
Centre for Translation and Interpreting Studies in Scotland, Heriot Watt University & the
Translation Studies Graduate Programme, University of Edinburgh
Fishing for Culture and Missing Language:
Interpretation and Organizational Creativity

Culture(s) and discourse(s) are among the most unmanageable elements of international business. “You can’t model panic.” Patterns of cultural interaction and, especially, the range of interpretations of these patterns, have profound effects on the design and implementation of business plans. For instance, are differences of language a problem or a benefit? Do the homogenizing effects of using English as the language of international management outweigh the constant adaptation required by working multilingually? Discourses about simultaneous interpretation (SI) at the European Parliament (with its 23 working languages) pit danger and loss against loss and resignation. “Loss” of fluency and clarity worries professional interpreters at the European Parliament (EP) and “loss” of direct contact between interlocutors (users of interpreting services, in this case Members of the EP) seem – counterintuitively – to express anxieties about multilingualism and the possibilities for control. Understood as a practice of intercultural communication, the tensions made evident when simultaneous interpretation is used are a vital source of creativity typically overlooked because of conditioned (monolingual) preferences for using a shared language.

for EdSign33
The Department for Educational Studies, University of Edinburgh;
the Centre for Translation and Interpreting Studies at Heriot Watt University; and
Speech and Hearing Sciences at Queen Margaret’s University.

Social Interaction, Simultaneous Interpretation, and Shared Identity

Contemporary social theory can help us understand participation in dialogue interpreting as a cultural form of communication. In addition to transferring information between people who do not share the same language, using an interpreter is a type of communication practice with implications for identity. The roles and norms for participating in simultaneous interpretation constitute social rituals that contribute to the maintenance of linguistic and cultural difference. To the extent that participants are aware of the significance of participation, the stronger a contribution can be made to creating more just and equitable global societies.

transdisciplinary micro-macrology

The Fulbright Commission celebrated sixty years in Belgium and Luxembourg with a prestigious academic panel at the Palais de Academie in Bruxelles. I got to tag along with the more recent Schumann-Fulbright program that sponsors study of European Union institutions.
Professor Francis Balace complemented the education I gleaned a few days earlier at the Atomium’s fiftieth anniversary exhibition by describing the dearth of practical knowledge about the U.S. that most Belgians had until after the second world war when, he repeated several times, Belgium was “a good pupil” by negotiating specific policies regarding education in order to be included in the Marshall Plan. Two comments in particular caught my attention, both in the nature of an aside: one regarding the linguistic divide and another about war graves.
In the heat of WWII, and on the basis of prior history, no Belgians expected to be rescued by Americans; it was an article of faith that the British would prevail against the Nazis on Belgian soil. For whatever military and political reasons, part of Belgium was eventually freed by the U.S. and the line distinguishing those parts rescued by Britain and those by the U.S. “corresponds exactly,” Professor Balace emphasized., “with the Belgian linguistic division” of today. This is a matter of curiosity to me, as are the reasons why the Flemish Deaf Community dispensed with an umbrella label for all regional varieties of sign languages in Belgium that were once recognized as distinct from Dutch Sign Language, now describing a (supposedly) distinct Flemish Sign Language. Are the language politics of signed language communities being dictated by the language conflicts of spoken language communities? I do not know enough except to express sadness if this is the case. (See the last two paragraphs of this brief history by an external, non-deaf researcher.)
Someone in the audience felt it necessary, during the question-and-answer session, to expound upon Belgian reverence at U.S. military cemeteries – a theme that has been repeated at every official event I’ve attended since arriving here last month. The discussion that followed introduced some nuances, such as differences in memory and sentiment according to generation. The historical tidbit Professor Balace contributed was the fact of the United States government’s purchase (near the close of WWII) of “an extra five hundred graves in preparation for the next war.” This confirms the critique I offered of the U.S. Embassy film, An Invisible Bridge, of an underlying attitude of nationalistic preparation for institutional violence that might also be fed by the pomp of standing for both country’s national anthems. I did stand, of course, but uneasily. Such ceremonial prelude for an academic session felt awkward. (I find it similarly so at U.S. domestic sporting events.)
Professor Luc Reychler‘s topic echoed Minister of State Herman de Croo‘s introductory veneration of “fundamental connections” generated by the vision of J. William Fulbright, whose scholarships have enabled academics to reach high levels of influence in diverse communities across the globe. Professor Reychler described the network of 600,000 Fulbright scholars as an international brain trust, whose collective wisdom is needed to extract us from “the media crisis,” which, among other faults, promotes a counterproductive division between politicians and academics. The basis of Professor Reychler’s presentation concerning the present was a critique of the “unadaptive responses” of the U.S. government to a series of shocks since 2000. (9/11, evidence of our rich lifestyles adversely affecting the rest of the world, and the “inconvenient truth” of climate change – no doubt he used that phrase deliberately.) He summarized the cumulative effect as a “negative synergy” but sought to counter the inevitable gloominess of current global dynamics as “an unprecedented challenge” which can be successfully engaged.
Professor Reychler’s basic prescription includes a number of specific initiatives aimed collectively at improving relations and collaboration between academics and politicians. The usual dichotomy cannot be allowed to persist, regardless of whatever seeds of truth there may be in politician’s accusation that academics lack practical experience and academics tendency to cloister in the realms of teaching and research. (Just for the record, I’m adding a bit of emphasis to this critique of the academy, probably because I am operating right at that wall Professor Reychler described as the “talk about” transdisciplinary research and the effort to achieve it.)
Specifically, Professor Reychler described the 85:1 ratio of investment in military research versus peace-oriented research. Eighty-five to one!Peace building,” he explained, “requires a combination of multiple, coordinated initiatives.” Not unincidentally, Professor Reychler noted declines in academic freedom, a trend that is apparently not even being tracked. (Although it is certainly a topic of conversation in my graduate program and others, where graduate students are coached to adapt our actual interests to the narrow parameters established by funders in their attempt to guarantee that research results generate profitability and/or contribute adequately to their own predetermined purposes.)
The final panelist, Professor Alison Woodward, spoke with an eye toward the future, describing the juxtaposition of migration with our so-historically-recent ability to maintain intimate connections with family and friends in geographically distant places. Drawing upon work in the sociology of intimacy, Professor Woodward noted how emotions are entering the realm of political discourse: even in the formal academic setting of this talk (attended by U.S. Ambassador Sam Fox) “love” had already been mentioned. This “rediscovery of the personal” is interwoven and interactive with the new age of migration that is in radical contrast with migrations of the past in which intimate ties were necessarily cut.
Others are also showing ways in which communication networks challenge international politics, matters of citizenship, and “the larger political economy of design,” simply put by Saskia Sassen as “the work of making“. Professor Woodward argues,

Globalization is not only a macroproduct,
it reaches down to the level of bonds

– among families in particular, and (I would add) between friends. What so many feel as a threat of interdependency need not be perceived as an ill, rather, the increasing ability to keep bonds and forge bridges (the two types of interpersonal networks that compose society, as defined by Robert Putnam) bodes well for international relations.
The first question of the open Q-and-A session concerned the problem of dragging publics into policies before they understand them. The speaker was critical of European organization, describing it (presumedly the EU) as “weak and disorganized,” with “the European population 20-30 years behind events,” a condition which forces progress to be made “ad hoc without popular support.” I would characterize the phenomenon of knowledge lag as, at least partially, an element of the media crisis that Professor Reychler named. I am not a technological utopianist (however much I tend to come across as one), and there are problems with blaming social ills on the media, however the rituals we engage concerning what is produced, seen, heard, and distributed – whether as entertainment, advertising, infotainment, documentary, or incisive fact-based and contextualized journalism – are problematic. Surely we can do better than we are.


I cannot disclose the location, nor can I say under what auspices I came to be here (with a small group having lunch with the CEO of an important multinational corporation). I can say the meal was delectable all the way through, from aperitif to braised scallops to the main dish and dessert.
main dish.jpg
The conversation was lively, from a comparison of the Belgian and U.S. educational systems to the creation of market practices in financial services to the role of citizens and businesses in social justice. For instance, which has the better curriculum for today’s world, the U.S. that allows such range of choice, forcing one to decide an academic path (and potential career) at every turn, or the intensive specialization in Belgium, that drives one deeply along a prescribed path until the achievement of a certain level of expertise? And, what of the drive to establish sweeping standardization such that translation between various software platforms becomes moot? And, not to be left out, how far should businesses go in contributing to righting the world’s wrongs?
I refrained from asking as many questions as I wanted; my mind will muddle along here by metaphorical comparison. Drawing a comparison between computer ‘languages’ (I know I oversimplify) and spoken languages is easy enough. There are times when generating common meaning (i.e., “understanding”) is tricky enough between speakers of the same language, let alone between speakers of different languages. There are also the gems of phrasing and imagination that one language captures that another is ill-or un-equipped to handle. Hence, interpreters always consider context and precedent – but do the people who use interpreters know that this is part of what is going on? Do they value the intelligence and creativity of this attempted mind-reading or perceive only concerns with control and error?
The drive to standardize reduces the chances of a miscommunication by limiting the parameters of operation and fixing (i.e., making permanent, solid, inflexible) the code for representing these parameters. This is valuable, a good, when the information being standardized is itself fixed, inflexible, not subject to interpretation. My U.S. dollar has its value; the Euro has its own. There may be a relative comparison and some complicated system of equations that determine the actual ratio of value from one to the other, but these mathematical formulations adhere to unvarying principles: the structure that determines what qualifies as wealth may change, but the math used to count it probably will not.
Standardization in and of itself is . . . a very mixed bag. Inevitably, the creation of a standard implies its imposition. By definition, a standard establishes the non-standard and makes it “other” = less desirable, penalized… a whole series of consequences – intended and unintended – issue forth, like water seeping through a dam: inexorable, unavoidable, serious.
But we need standardization, this much is obvious. The questions of interest to me are, where do we need it, how extensively do we need it, when do we need it, and how can we ensure we can change it if/when such becomes desirable or even imperative?
The assumption guiding my research at the European Parliament is that language is NOT the place where standardization is desirable. Yes yes, it is one thing to be painstakingly articulate with precise diction for legal documents that institute the sociopolitical and economic structure, but it is another to assume communication occurs best when people speak the same language, and only then. My assumption may be wrong, of course. Or it may be wrong under certain conditions, with particular people seeking specific aims. If so, what are these conditions, who are these people, and what are these aims? Because if we define these parameters, then we can begin to design language policies that are not based in forms of elite cosmopolitanism.
This is what I think, now, before embarking on the research project per se. I am open to being proved wrong. I am open to being shown that it is always better for persons to use a lingua franca (if they have one) no matter what disparities in fluency, unfamiliarity with the social system and/or jargon of the specific situation, similar or different desired aims of interlocutors, or variations in knowledge of the particular content area under discussion. My action research hypothesis is that, in arguing these stances, an articulation of the vital criteria indicating the need to provide simultaneous interpretation will emerge. Likewise, guidelines for the kinds of situations and circumstances which enable interlocutors to be effective via a lingua franca will also be made more clear.
Such knowledge will, I propose, enable more efficient, efficacious, and effective use of simultaneously interpreted language as a creative resource, rather than as a perceived barrier to intercultural, inter-institutional, and interdisciplinary understanding.


Yesterday will be remembered fondly by many. I received the wonderful news from Maria Claudia:

8:24 AM maria: alf was released

Today there are photos on Facebook. Joy in the morning! I would say Alf does not appear any worse for the wear, but no doubt changes have been etched into his character after nearly five months in captivity. Although I do not know him personally, choosing to care has constituted some of my own always-in-process character, too.
The kidnapping of Alf and his girlfriend, Ana, occurred just two weeks before the beginning of the spring semester. I wrote:

“Violence creeps closer, no matter how hard we try to keep it at bay, no matter how thickly we deny that it could happen to us or those we love.” (the bubble thins)

At the time, just two months back from visiting Israel and the West Bank, I imagined some parallels between FARC and Palestine, between the Colombian government and Israel. This view was refuted or met with silence: uncontinued. (Perhaps I could have remained more involved in the conversations that I did have access to?) I was not (and am still not) invested in proving such a claim, only in thinking through how violence gets perpetuated by unyielding stances on both/all sides. Uribe (for instance) is not without fault (no government is); and the people born into life with FARC are not essentially evil.

“…in the end it’s the Colombian political will — one, to make these steps, and two, pay for them — that has made this happen,” said … a [US] deputy assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere.”

That’s from a story in today’s NYTimes about the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and other hostages yesterday – a coincidence of timing reminiscent of Alf and Ana’s capture at nearly the same time as a massive global protest against FARC was being organized on Facebook. I spent some days working through a range of thoughts and emotions: grim realities & the force of spirit , weird twist of synchrony , and hyperempathy. Somewhere in the course of all that I decided to invite students to consider involvement.
They were (understandably) confused (!), however they rose to the occasion with a series of blog entries about deciding not to attend. Meanwhile, I read Gabriel Garcia-Marquez (News of Kidnapping), considering the long trip home,

“trying to imagine a way out for the millions of Colombians who only want to go about their daily lives, rather than being pawns in someone else’s brutal “game” for wealth and power.”

Perhaps it is apparent (but maybe not) that I consider average Colombians to be representative of average human beings – the great grand masses of us subject to the machinations of gargantuan social institutions and historical habit. What befalls them could confound us, too, and certainly is representative of occurrences and happenings to normal, typical folk in most countries around the globe. And there are, indeed, more organized and increasingly large protests developing: persistence will win the prize!
Ana was freed the first week of March. I mused then about coincidences of timing in-and-at the swirling center . In this situation – the random/chaotic juxtaposition of my friends, my passions, my ambitions – synchronicity abounds! I name (by choice, for the purposes of design) such events as centripetal dialogic force.
Yesterday’s headline, which I saw mere moments after reading Maria’s glorious announcement, read: Colombia Plucks Hostages From Rebels’ Grasp. I only know a few Colombians, but they have enhanced my life in a million ways. I agree with today’s NYTimes’ featured journalists, Simon Romero and Damien Cave,

“the Colombians
performed like stars.”

juxtaposition: riding walls

Within minutes of each other I watched and listened to Steve’s rousing (northern) seasonal greeting from (as he says) “a happier time, before Vietnam, the Civil Rights, and all the “horrors” of our “modern” world,” and Tamer’s reminder of other realities: snapshot of a modern horror.
Meanwhile, the economic news is better in Bethelem this year, tourism has increased since a sharp dropoff after the second intifada in 2000. The increase of visitors is, however, a qualified “good”: the occupation is as real as ever.


Spark posted a great summary of a book I think I’d like to read. It critiques the role/rule of experts, a phenomena which caught my attention when a history professor whose class I interpreted frequently mentioned the rise of experts with disdain.
I tried to post a comment but my Korean is insufficient for decoding the directions:
“Great summary! I’m intrigued, especially by the conditioning of excess, the separation between reality/representation effected by the new logic of economy, and its location/operation as a source of power.”


Uttered in at least five languages (Arabic, Spanish, English, Japanese Sign Language, and Japanese), this film plays with the stereotype that different languages are a problem. As we follow the stories of four families, one realizes the source of confusion is not “in” the language; rather, it is the challenge of interpreting language in the context of a given person’s life story.
The relationships and connections among members of these families range from the incidental to the intimate. “May I speak with you, sir?” inquires a police officer? “There’s been an incident.” “I have raised these children, fed them breakfast, lunch, and dinner their entire lives, can’t you tell me if they are alright?” “That’s none of your concern,” replies the immigration officer.
There are two threads linking these families, two factors that bind them together tight: violence and the law. More specifically, a rifle and the institution of law enforcement, with the manipulations of politics hovering in the background. Acts of innocence and practicality unfold in scenarios of accident and opportunism. Babel exposes the vise of circumstance and consequence: in Morocco suspects are brutalized by military police, in Japan interviews are civil and police officers humane, in the US physical violence is replaced by emotional and psychic violence: ” I guarantee that if you pursue legal action you will simply postpone the inevitable.”
The systematic (peaceful?) order of Japan and the US masks the random unpredictability of sudden death; the apparent chaos and wildness of Mexico and Morocco highlights the human urge to seek experience in order to feel alive. Help appears as a rare offering in either place.
Language difference has nothing to do with these dynamics. Indeed, in Babel, the fact of linguistic diversity enables core commonalities of human suffering and ambition to be revealed.

voices and home

“A voice belongs first to a body, then to a language” (52).
Negar told me about an Iranian saying, that learning another language adds a new person to your self. Yes, new capacities, new zones of expression and perception, yet what Berger says is also true, the voice &emdash; in its emotion-inducing physicality [my qualification] &emdash; remains the same. This use of the word “voice” is different than Blommaert’s conceptualization of “voice” as the operationalization of intersubjective, discursive power. The intersubjective part is the part between real individuals engaged in real time (face-to-face synchronic time or asynchronous technologically-mediated time &emdash; as in the turn-taking among myself, Yasser, Jeff, Amanda, and . . . you? wink! Why not?!!)
The discursive part is the larger framework of relationships in which each of us is embedded and all of us partake. Every time we speak (via our physically-embodied voice or through written text), each utterance spins forward along a dialectical trajectory as an outgrowth of previous exposure and knowledge. Simultaneously, each utterance opens onto a potential new vista, an unknown dark zone. “Dark” because not yet lived: unexperienced, and therefore unknown. (Thanks Negar; and original thanks to Chris Baxter, who played with calling me a “dark ally” during the 2005 Supporting Deaf People Online conference.)

sea reaches.JPG.jpg

I read Berger and translate his words into mine. “It is prudent to believe that the large is more real than the small. Yet it is false” (53). He is discussing the myth of scale, the myth that suggests that the macrosocial is more real (e.g., more powerful) than the microsocial. “If we are trapped, my heart, it is not within reality” (53). He writes to his love as I wish to write to mine. ­čÖé The point, however, has wider application: let me attempt to articulate it precisely.
If we &emdash; for instance Muslims, Christians, Palestinians, Israelis &emdash; are trapped it is not exclusively because of impersonal institutional forces grinding out grim realities such as the devastation in Lebanon. We are “trapped” also within our own individual, personal and private (dialectical) trajectories. Our “hearts” (our loves, passions, dreams and visions) are constrained by “a vestige of the fear reflex to be found in all animals, in face of another creature larger than themselves” (53).
A major factor that feeds this fear is the loss of home. Berger ties the loss of home explicitly to emigration. More words about emigration are necessary, Berger claims, “to whisper for that which has been lost” (55). Emigration can be understood as the driving feature, the essential characteristic, of global transnationalism. Whether one chooses to move to another country temporarily or permanently, for purposes of education or work, or is forced to move for literal survival (to work or to seek asylum), what is threatened by this move is home. Edward Said discusses this too, in the extraordinary re-ordering of his conception of self that was required when he was sent to boarding school in the US.
“Originally,” Berger explains, “home meant the center of the world &emdash; not in a geographical, but in an ontological sense” (55). He continues, “To emigrate is always to dismantle the center of the world, and so to move into a lost, disoriented one of fragments” (57).
When the physical site of home is lost (left, taken away, inaccessible) one resorts to “the habit which protects” (64) and “the psychic level of turning in circles in order to preserve one’s identity” (63).
”Home is no longer a dwelling
the untold story of a life being lived” (64).

In the absence/loss of my own home, I turn in circles to preserve my identity as a lesbian (resisting being positioned by others as a heterosexual woman), and for some years now I have tried to tell the story of my life being lived. This is the other side of de-centering fragmentation: “Not out of nostalgia, but because it is on the site of loss that hopes are born” (55). “The very sense of loss keeps alive an expectation” (63). Berger argues romantic love is one of the things that can grow from this soil. Meanwhile, “we live not just our own lives but the longings of our century” (67): “the century of banishment” (67).
I embody these longings, as do many of my friends. It is evident in their/our words. What shall we together make of them? Berger is optimistic:
“Eventually perhaps the promise, of which Marx was the great prophet, will be fulfilled, and then the substitute for the shelter of a home will not just be our personal names, but our collective conscious presence in history, and we will live again at the heart of the real. Despite everything, I can imagine it” (67).