problem definition (an instance of pattern recognition)

European Court of Justice
European Court of Auditors

The Fulbright Commission has arranged a week of seminars for us on the European Union institutions and NATO. The first question to our first presenter, the Legal Secretary to the President of Chamber at the European Court of Justice, involved human rights. The second was from Jacob:

    “Is language ever a major problem with all of the interpreters and translators?”

    “Yes, of course. It is always a disadvantage if you cannot work in your own language. There are also matters of terminology. For instance, each language has their own connotations on what is ‘a market’. This is also a problem.”

    “Are there any prominent cases of misunderstanding at the end of a case when language was the cause?”

    “No, not like that.”

“Not like that.” In other words, just like between people speaking the same language with each other, misunderstandings get cleared up along the way. Comments about language and languages in the European Union, however, are nearly always framed in the same way. Language itself is labeled “the problem.” However, this seems to me a matter of mistaking the symptom for the source: the problem (if there is one) is difference. Languages provide the means for recognizing the presence of differences in a communication event, enabling the identification of key differences, especially in the realm of culture (e.g., traditions, history, and connotations of logic or belief). Rather than being a barrier between people, different languages are the bridge – even (possibly most importantly) when the first stones in the bridge are premised upon misunderstanding rather than the automatic sharing of assumptions.
Everyone was intrigued by the simultaneous interpretation (English, French, Italian, and Slovene) during our observation of an appeal. “I think its so strange,” exclaimed Jamie at one point, “how you can talk in two different languages to each other. It’s hilarious! With the numbers, she asks in German, he answers in French, and they understand!” This form of multilingualism is only possible with simultaneous interpretation, a cultural communication practice that preserves difference while constituting relationship across that difference at one and the same time.
It was a treat for me to sit with Jamie in the courtroom because he knows German. “Can you hear the different fluency between them?” he asked me, comparing the defending advocate and the prosecutor from the European Commission? No, I couldn’t, but his identification of structural and grammatical errors made by the prosecutor made me wonder why she made the choice to use German instead of her own national language. Could it be because the lead judge spoke German? (This is a logic popular in the European Parliament – to make the polite gesture of speaking directly in the language of the person you wish to address.) Later, someone (Colin?) suggested it was because she works for the Commission and may be under pressure to use one of the standard working languages. No one was sure of her mother tongue, but it was guessed to be Slavonic . . .
Both Mai’a and Scott commented that I seem to be working against the grain of the official EU language learning policy, which is for everyone to learn at least three languages: their mother tongue (presumably the official national language), a vehicular language – such as English, French or German, and a third language for pleasure or personal reasons. I would like to dispel this perception. I am not against language learning; never have been and never will be. I do, however, think language learning is only one way to achieve the stretching of consciousness that enables a person to interact peaceably across a wide range of cultural, religious, language-based, ideological, and socioeconomic differences. It will be decades and a generation or three before the goal of minimal trilingualism is achieved throughout Europe, and then it will only be achieved by citizens who grow up within the EU’s educational system. What about everybody else?
My argument is that having only one strategy for producing a pan-European sense of identity is itself monological, and that its programmatic outcome is a kind of parallel monolingualism. The goal of being able to speak directly with those persons who know one of the same languages as you do neglects the situation of needing to communicate with those with whom you do not share a common language. There are now and will always be situations in which there is no common language; people need to know how to deal with this circumstance too – and perhaps even more urgently. I am not posing an either/or dichotomy – that would be another instance of a monologic. I am suggesting a supplementary and complementary policy based on the cultivation of a common cultural communication practice of using simultaneous interpretation.
The logic is counterintuitive because the predominant experience of the cosmopolitan elite involves a highly-technological style of simultaneous interpretation (and their own pleasure in the joys of linguistically-expanded consciousness). There is nothing wrong with the style, per se, except for some potentially limiting assumptions such as, this is the only way it can be done, or the only purposes, or the only places where it is important enough to matter. Yet it is possible to see simultaneous interpretation in three-dimensional terms. One Member of the European Parliament described it as a layer cake during a conversation last week, gesturing with both hands from top to bottom:

There’s the layer of language,
a layer of politics,
interparty infighting,
playing to the gallery,
booing . . .

As we departed the courtroom today, people commented on the interpreters – how they “really got into it” as evidenced by gestures, how the gesturing varied by language, how the interpretations captured not only content but also tone. Stephanie said, “You could tell the first lawyer was irritated at the beginning of his speech and you could hear it in the interpreter’s voice, too.” The best moment for me was when the head judge asked the prosecutor a specific question regarding one of the points made by the defense. She responds and the judge asks again. They are both speaking German. At one point she answers before the interpretation is completed because she has understood the question directly. After three attempts, she gives a response that satisfies the judge. “Ah, that’s the way you meant it.”
Meaning is never as clear cut as we want it to be. Tim nailed this when we were talking about the utility of quantum mechanics to provide a metaphor for processes of making meaning. As we were talking, I said,

    “We’re both making meaning of this conversation.”
    “But is it the same meaning?” he asked.
    “Exactly!” I responded, delighted. “But we assume so, and call that understanding.”

Misunderstanding is also a legitimate way to begin a relationship, but we (particular in the West, see Chang, Deconstructing Communication) tend to valorize understanding. In the layer cake of communication, we are constantly selecting this layer over that one, but what if interlocutors choose different layers? If there is a pattern in the selection, we need to be able to recognize it. One way to do so is to do something similar to what Nandita is doing in molecular biology: overlaying, transcribing, and translating the DNA-RNA alphabets of different species to see what comes to the foreground.

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