June 9 – 13, 2010

2010 Summer Doctoral Seminar at Wayne State University


Disaster is non-discriminatory; it does not care whether the people affected speak the same language or not. Recruiting and retaining qualified language interpreters and learning to utilize rudimentary machine translation are first steps in a comprehensive systemic solution, involving training of all members of rescue and support teams, their supervisors, funders, policy-makers, the media and the public to understand how to cooperate in highly-charged intercultural communication requiring simultaneous interpretation.

The desire for instantaneous and unproblematic use of language is culturally conditioned. Most people’s experience of social interaction occurs in a language that is mutually understood. The desire for fast and fluid communication in a shared language is a common human experience. In the rapid flow of responding to an emergency, who will pause to focus on the skills of patience and attention needed to navigate non-shared meaning structures? Not knowing another’s language stymies the onward rush of establishing security and problematizes efficiency, upending reasonable assumptions of easy understandings.

A certain level of skill and commitment is required to investigate the orientations of culture and language-based meaning systems in order to gauge whether words and concepts describe the same referent or different realities. For instance the work of the United Nations Security Needs Assessment Protocol (SNAP) demonstrated conclusively that what the UN means by “security” and what villagers in affected areas in different countries mean by “security” are entirely different. The practice of ethnographers and interpreters tests and validates the limits of theory. This seminar will allow me to explore the relevance of interpreting theory to practices of thinking clearly in dangerous situations.

Rapid response is a necessary characteristic of dealing with emergency situations. Well-trained teams can both integrate interpreted interaction seamlessly into their operations and participate in generating a new kind of cultural bond. Interpreters are certified, as it were, not only to transmit information, but also to build relationships. The intercultural experience of being in each other’s presence without knowing what is going on is a natural setting for the facilitation of the exact skills of tolerating difference that are required in situations of crisis.

My dissertation research, which was funded by a Fulbright Grant in 2008-2009, explored the bases of shared identity among Members of the European Parliament, who routinely use interpreters among 23 different languages. That “total institution” (in the sociological sense) is contrasted with my professional experience as an American Sign Language interpreter for the Deaf community in the US. What is common to each setting is the need to learn how to orient differently to time in order to co-create an effective process of intercultural communication. The necessary adaptation suggests that learning how to use an interpreter well is a single skill with profound implications for conflict resolution, disaster management, peacekeeping, and any other situation in which safety is under threat.

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