Sunday, 30 December 2012

Small business solutions

I like thinking about language. I like thinking about it in all kinds of ways as thinking about it is not only my job but also, and more importantly, it is a subject that takes me up (to paraphrase Frye) to the dizzying heights of that dreamed of world (Pink Floyd, high hopes).

The other day I was thinking about the cultural, technical and aesthetic issues of translation that invariably come up in the email of a distribution list of translators at work but are never really alluded to, let alone talked about, explicitly. Again, quoting Pink Floyd's High Hopes:

Looking beyond the embers of bridges glowing behind us
To a glimpse of how green it was on the other side
Steps taken forwards but sleepwalking back again
Dragged by the force of some inner tide

there is always this tension (and I'm not talking about emotional tension though it definitely exists) between literal translation and meaning-based translation that I think we can all acknowledge but never can succinctly articulate. It is complicated...

I was in that blessed state of intellectual free association that I can only describe as being in a zen-like space when a commercial came up (like all commercials, it has come up many times before) when the announcer said something that struck me as odd: why would a postal/courier service talk about "small business solutions"? - is it to justify how other "services" it has to offer subsidize this special kind of service directed only to small businesses? -isn't that somehow ripping off other customers? -small business solutions; how does one translate that into Inuktitut?

I don't have the presumption to tell others how to think and interpret these sorts of things (actually, I do and I do because it's my job) but I highly doubt many translators think about such things; it's a highly politicized affair this ritual of asking for help without appearing to be in need of help. It's highly politicized because it cuts right into the heart of identity politics.

I'm re-reading this book right now written by Edward T Hall called, Beyond Cultural, in relation to another project that I've been asked to review. Hall has many things to say that are completely relevant to my review and great many aspects of my main job, and, though I have some technical issues with what he has to say, he provides insights beautifully and is the only credible source I have for my review. I, personally, think that Hall should be required reading for those who work in fields that touch upon inter-cultural relations. But his work will only work if people are willing and able to talk about and discuss his work seriously even if only as a starting point.

Hall has this concept he calls "extension transference" (an extension is something like tools we use; the language we speak; theories we construct to explain and reconcile our realities):

It is [...] paradoxical that extensional systems - so flexible at first - frequently become quite rigid and difficult to change. Confusion between the extension and processes that have been extended can explain some but not all of this rigidity. Older readers may remember when English teachers tried to convince them that the real language was the written language, of which the spoken language was merely a watered-down, adulterated version...The fact that the written language is a symbolization of a symbolization does not mean that the writing system is not something in its own right, just as mathematics is a system in its own right, independent of computations in the head.
Extensions often permit man to solve problems in satisfactory ways, to evolve and adapt at great speed without changing the basic structure of his body. However, the extension does something else: it permits man to examine and perfect what is inside the head. Once something is externalized, it is possible to look at it, study it, change it, perfect it, and at the same time learn important things about oneself. The full implications of the extension as lesson and extension as mirror have yet to be fully realized.

The extension can also serve as a form of prosthesis when something happens to the processes that lie behind the extension. (pp. 28, 29)

It is precisely the "prosthesis" stage where problems in translation arise. Without a viable cultural context (ie, without first defining what a concept is) phrases like "small business solutions" are seen clearly for what they really are: utterly meaningless phrases a bureaucrat/corporation would say because the meaning is not something that has a physical or factual reality but intended only to convey a vague sense of comfort and familiarity to the target audience - it is merely propaganda in the quick (ie, a slogan).

Havel and Orwell are two famous writers/thinkers who've talked about the effectiveness of such things by pointing out how paradoxically empty these types of memes really are because they're only intended to evoke a visceral reaction (both good and bad, and often at the same time). Memes are, by nature and design, extremely cultural and linguistic specific.

This prosthetic problem can also be seen in the current text-based (internet) society that humanity has achieved (or degraded to). The polarized and polarizing "politics" of our age demands that we either take a left or right position on even the most seemingly insignificant issue. Upon challenging the right (especially - but I have found much to my dismay the so-called progressive left is just as virulent) one hears either the deafening silence of the intellectual wilderness that corporatism (ie, the internet) has bestowed upon us, or extremely angry extistential angst that is prone to lashing out at any perceived threat, never mind the logical and ethical veracity of a well-meaning statement.

The prosthesis problem of extension transference cannot be underestimated nor overstated. It's both a fascinating and perplexing problem to which translators and language specialists especially are called upon to arise. But without awareness of socially-relevant literature to base a collective experience on (especially for Inuit of Nunavut) mass alienation prevails. Inuit are caught in some sort of limbo: its intellectual, linguistic and mythical archetypes have been denigrated and dismissed to such a degree a transition stage is utterly non-existent that any forward steps are negated by sleep-walking back again while the very institutions that are ostensibly set up to avoid mass alienation have the exact effect and affect of gross alienation.

I hope this entry provides more food for thought than confusion; we definitely need a serious discussion for so many reasons.


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