"it must be unforgettable!"

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on the train from Luxembourg-Brussels
9 December 2008

Fog shrouded my arrival in Luxembourg, persisting through the first day. The second morning dawned grey but sparkling.

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What a treat to listen through headphones to an interpretation into English of Professor Joanna Nowicki's talk on intercultural communication, or - as she prefers to label it - intercultural mediation. Her critique of 'the American way [of teaching about] intercultural communication" was quite sharp: it "becomes one dimensional very fast." She generalized about management programs that simply direct their students: "with people of this nationality, do that, with people of that nationality, do this." I am not convinced that my friends in the School of Management at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst are receiving so stark a reduction, but I am familiar with trends in my department (Communication) that could lend themselves to such simplistic categorizations. No doubt Professor Nowicki's critique applies in general, if not to every case. She also describes "the American way" as "very pragmatic," explaining that, for Americans, the results of research must be useful.

Research and the real world

Personally, I am inclined to agree with the goal of research needing to have practical use: theory alone is dancing in air. Beautiful, yes. And exclusive. Again, however, it is unclear to me how generally this categorization applies to all American research, as there is only one official pragmatist in the UMass Communication Department and the critical emphasis leans strongly toward the theoretical. Application to the real (not abstract) world receives rather short shrift. Perhaps I am a bit more European in style, as I conceptualize theory and practice as blended in actual experience. Where Professor Nowicki did nail me in my American-ness was with her characterization of American researchers of intercultural communication moving quickly to "giving advice." ☺ Uh oh!

At the end of the seminar on "Communication and its languages," I ventured to pose a question. The topics of the day reflected my skills and interests: from

  • the ways human beings imitate each other in communication (taking on the body language or mannerisms of the other, as illustrated by Guy Bilodeau), to

  • reframing the language of disability away from individual subjectivity to the environmental conditions that inhibit accessibility (as explained by Pirkko Mahlamäki), to the

  • questions of power and distance raised by Juana Lahousse in her talk on the connections between written translation - i.e., translators - and science and knowledge).

Matters of power, distance, and the construction of knowledge are constitutive elements of simultaneous interpretation as a communication practice. The way these elements are handled by all participants in a simultaneously-interpreted communication event generate rituals which can be understood as cultural.

Participant-observation and a ritual view of communication:

In the spirit of participant-observation as a touchstone of my action research methodology, I asked if the idea I have makes any sense: Can we imagine simultaneous interpreting as a cultural practice that retains difference while creating a shared communication ritual, thus contributing to a sense of common identity? I mapped out two drafts in my notes before asking in order to be as clear and direct as possible. I considered that the interpreters would have no background on my wild notion and sought to chunk the components concisely. I was puzzled by the two responses I received. True to the dictates of the generally negative discourse about interpreting (shame on me!), my first thought involved some problem with the interpretation. The second thought was that I had transgressed - as an American outsider, I should have just kept my mouth shut. :-/ (Gauging the proper limits of social etiquette in specific instances has been a lifelong dilemma, alas!) As luck would have it, a few participants from the seminar approached me during the cocktail hour and I was able to inquire about their view.

"You asked a science question and got a heart answer."

sun LUX train station SM.jpg moon LUX train station ceiling SM.jpg Dialogue takes time

Aha! Of course - my formulation of identity, dialogue, and the role of language stated "identity" first, necessarily relegating "dialogue" to the background. I did not consider the cultural mediation necessary to convey "identity" as the minor objective contingent upon the major goal of "dialogue." Now, after the fact of the exchange, time joins the play. Professor Nowicki emphasized that the key to intercultural mediation (which she may have been using, at least sometimes, as a synonym for dialogue) is to maintain enough difference so as to keep interest, but not so much as to promote fear.

At the break, Lena, Mary Jo, Laura and I talked about this notion of emphasizing the relational - the links and connections between oneself and the other - as Professor Nowicki advises. We started speaking of the idea of a neutral descriptive language - wondering how such words look and feel, what they convey. Some illustrations were provided of words that offend by accident. These can be things one says simply as the word one knows while being unaware that the word has strong negative associations for others. "Comrade" used by west Germans with Germans of the former East Germany was one example. Laura relayed a story of a classmate from one of the Baltic countries rejecting writing on the chalkboard in red because "that's the color of communism." In such instances, I mused, is where the relational enters. Lena clarified with an aphorism:

"It depends if you listen with the ears of a giraffe or the ears of a coyote."

Listening like a giraffe

A giraffe, goes the logic, has the largest heart of all animals on earth. Coyote (poor feller) got chosen by someone as the bad counterpart, the predator who scavenges for that which gives offense. If your heart is big enough, then you engage the relationship with the other. Even though offended, you take the time and put your energy toward not allowing the offense to define the interaction. Instead, you find another way to make a link, you find another way to pursue connection. I teased about being the one to lay that long neck out on the line . . . ! Meanwhile, listening like a hunter suggests the barbarian inside that Professor Nowicki mentioned. (Hopefully someone will provide me with the list of authors/titles so I can reference properly - and see if there are translations!)

This internal barbarian is one element of the "hot" European heart I touched with my question about identity. The shared history of Europeans with each other is not pretty, a fact still viscerally alive in the memories and consciousness of these people with whom I interact everyday as a relatively innocent American. The violences I have known are not the horrors of war; my insensitivity to the problematics of a common European identity got put on display. And yet . . . I defend the proposal, because constructing participation in simultaneous interpretation as a cultural communication practice is an activity that anticipates a shared identity in the future rather than seeking transformation in the roots of the past.

Anticipating the future

I agree wholeheartedly that I have no business meddling in the historical foundations of when, how, why and which Europeans become European. My own opinion is that engaging in those debates will keep the divisions real, rather than actually resolving them. (Which is not a full-blown endorsement for not talking about them either - it's rather that how the talking gets done matters more, in my view, than the contents of what actually gets said - at least in principle. Part of the how is that an outsider ought to steer fairly wide of the mark until invited. Unless ;-) one is an American culturally prone to giving advice!)

Speaking about the lessons and potentialities of simultaneous interpretation, however, is something I actually know a little bit about. So I hope (!) I'm not completely off my rocker suggesting that the kind of infrastructure of professional training and provision of quality services that exists for the American Deaf Community is an example of what could be created in Europe to address some of the complexities of intercultural mediation. This, afterall, is what simultaneous interpreters are professionally trained to do, and - going on the testimonies of everyone associated with simultaneous interpretation at the European Institutions, trained professionals actually do a mighty fine job of it.

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I regret that I was unable to stay for the second half of Professor Nowicki's lecture, and missed Guy Bilodeau's session entirely. The primary subject of research calls. Snow began blowing shortly after the train began the journey to Brussels; it looks like it might stick. This quick first trip to Luxembourg was indeed unforgettable: from the pleasure of being allowed to attend, through all the intellectual stimulation, mutual curiosity ("Infiltration?" Me? Never!) and heartwarming hospitality. For the record, I do not believe for one minute that Clare has led a sheltered life!

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