Saturday, 22 November 2014

A case for meaning-based translation

As a linguist I am constantly floored by the genius of the human language. In its un-self-conscious state (ie, without the pressure of translation), all human languages epitomize Leo Tolstoy's opening line in Anna Karenina:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The extremely robust structure of the human language is information-rich—meaning that, if a particular language is structured in such a way as to preclude one way of expression, it will always find a way to express that self-same semantic content/grammatical motive by other means, all this in a meaningfully explicable way.

There is such a thing as an "Anna Karenina Principle", which (in part) states that:

All well-adapted systems are alike, all non-adapted systems experience maladaptation in their own way. (

The use of unconventional English has become the norm in many aboriginal communities especially among those individuals who've never been exposed to "well-adapted systems" to begin with—external factors such as abject poverty, lack of sustainable role models (both literary* and social role models), unresponsive institutions (school, families, society, church, government programs, criminal justice and health services, etc.): any single one of these factors would have a heavy toll on anyone so, as a complex, it is a wonder that anyone even survives.

*I mean here not just the written word but also the oral traditions.

Linguistic competence (in any language), then, is a serviceable measure of potential for thriving or suffering. A well-articulated expression of need (either by the translator or "client(s)" (for lack of a better term)) is often the single most important determining factor of a given outcome. As an advocate for Inuit rights and language (in general, human rights), I've always seen my role as a translator/interpreter as an ethical imperative.

Having a broad base of awareness and knowledge of the human experience (literary, technical, philosophical, cultural, etc.) is a fine and good thing, but it is often not enough without a workable conceptual framework behind it. What I have found that seems to work beautifully (at least for me) is the notion of Jungian archetypes, which, at the end of the day, is really about cultivating semiotics sensitivity.

Semiotics is the science of interpreting signs within a constellation of factors that determine the meaning(s) of a sign. The beauty of signs is that they are not language-specific but productively open to anyone who bothers to acquire the perspective with which to receive and interpret them.

I recently had the privilege of participating in a learning experience of a group of professional interpreters who specialize in medical interpreting (Inuktitut and English). Many did not know all the medical terminology we touched upon, but does that mean they didn't know what they were doing? Au contraire! Some had worked for years as medical interpreters and their knowledge was impressive (both in Inuktitut and English).

Where I saw issues arise was in the quality of (the Inuktitut) teaching material and assessment tools which consisted almost entirely of word lists (ie, with no thought given to context, description and definition) and unrelated comprehensive tests. The students did much better, on the main, in the English portion where they could actually demonstrate their knowledge and understanding at the conceptual and practical levels.

In one particular instance, we spent an afternoon talking about blood types and some students had knowledge not covered in the material, and offered knowledge of the concepts more detailed than the material itself. But this did not guarantee any opportunity to demonstrate that working knowledge in the Inuktitut final exam where the only reference to the concept itself was in the isolated word "blood group". Some got the translation right but many (even the ones who had offered details about the concepts in the classroom) literally translated the phrase. -I'd bet you dollars to doughnuts, in the English version of the final exam, they got the answer down pat.

The opportunity to engage the students thoughtfully, creatively and linguistically in a learning experience is a glaring, gnawing absence in most aboriginal classrooms. Prescriptive methods such as the so-called "whole language" approach where labeling of concrete, physical objects have preponderance over the interior realities of being human, and rote memorization of (spelling of) words in isolation without reference to how these concepts are actually used meaningfully in text, conversation nor even in the arts, make up the whole of academic careers and therefore social experience of its victims.

As an instructor of adult learners I'm trying my small part to "leave the world better than I find it" by advocating for reviewing and reforming the teaching and assessment tools. The notion of re-enforcement of the English and Inuktitut portions of teaching materials is a rare luxury afforded almost uniquely to interpreter/translator programs. It is with that in mind that I've started on a mock-up demonstration by slightly modifying and varying questions and/or possible answers in the quizzes and final exams into the Inuktitut portion.

I think it'll work. It is, after all, a practical example of "meaning-based" translation.


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