I am a student of a swashbuckling and sometimes dizzying mix of Social Sciences and wonder if there lies the reason why I am always so slow on the uptake of my therapist’s explanations of seemingly common – though not trivial – terms (e.g. freedom, identity, ‘you’, ‘me’): Different backgrounds, different languages, different positions mean different realities. During a short research project on ‘The Role of Orthopedagogues in the Realization of the Inclusion of People with Disabilities in The Netherlands’, I encountered this problem of – I call it – ‘translation’ between my respondents’ realities and mine on different levels: Language, Discipline, and Position.
The process of ‘translation’ can be seen, as Zwingel (2012) does, through an anthropological lens and can be defined as the conversion of cultural concepts and transmitters of these concepts such as language and customs into one’s own system of meaning to enable understanding (Rubel and Rosman 2003, in Zwingel 2012: 124). Her idea is intriguing as she opens up a debate on both dimensions of translation: (1) the mutually enriching encounter and transmission of meaning; and (2) the manipulative dimension of adaptation, assimilation or appropriation of meaning through an uneven power hierarchy between the differing systems.
The first level of translation that I encountered during the interviews I conducted with orthopedagogues for the project was language. Wittgenstein said: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Proposition 5.6 in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1921) – discussing translation will inevitably open up a discussion of limits, borders, boundaries. Being a native German speaker and having lived in The Netherlands for a significant amount of time, the interviews – although mainly held in English which for both researcher and researched was not the first but second or even third language – would sometimes also rely on a language switch to make one’s meaning heard. However, for there is no absolute correspondence between languages (Rubel and Rosman 2003: 8) but “the theme of untranslatability in translation theory” (Venuti 2000: 218) and – in the words of Bakhtin (1981) – “heteroglossia” (i.e. diversity of meaning even within one language system), translation does not only enable the crossing and bridging of boundaries but also their construction. Instances where sentences of interview partners, being at a loss for the ‘right’ word (first in their native language, then in English), were completed by the other, or instances where the knowledge of English did not suffice to explain one’s ‘actual’ meaning and more complex perceptions, did not feel right for me as a researcher. Boundaries were rather built at that moment than crossed.
When I launched myself into the project at the beginning, I was thrilled by how interdisciplinary work could actually come about. Interviewing orthopedagogues – they get their training in multiple areas such as Psychological Development, Education and Pedagogics, and Diagnostics and Therapy – as a Social Scientist who went through the study of Political Science, Economics, Sociology, and International Development, seemed to be a motivating combination of disciplines. Bakhtin (1981) says that culture (of disciplines, I would add) and language transact with one another. With my enthusiasm for interdisciplinary attempts, I wasn’t the one who would “assume that ‘insiders’ automatically have a more sophisticated and appropriate approach to understanding social reality in ‘their’ society (…) (and) fall into (…) a potentially reactionary relativism” (Sidaway 1992: 406). My experience in those interviews did not lead to “a reactionary relativism” but still to a mere ‘juxta-disciplinarity’ as dynamics of insider-outsider did develop, and both interviewee and interviewer were encountering problems in translating disciplinary meaning. But instead of throwing in the towel, I – unconsciously, I have to admit with hindsight – started playing Games People Play (by Eric Berne, 1964).
Eric Berne, Canadian psychiatrist, is the creator of the Transactional Analysis – a “theory of personality and a systematic psychotherapy for personal growth and personal change” (Stewart and Joines 2008: 3). Transactional analysis, however, can also provide a system for analyzing the process of communication by relying on the so-called ‘ego-state model’ which is a set of related thoughts, behaviors and feelings manifesting a part of our personality: the Child, the Adult, and the Parent. In my research project this happened as follows: During our conversation, I took the role as a little child who is new to the topic and new to the discipline of orthopedagogics, and hence knows nothing and needs to be taught by my informants. Taking this role, I pushed my informants into being like a parent who would explain me things, who would be patient with me if I didn’t understand immediately, who would slowly invite me into their world. Please note here the important matter of ethics and power differentials: Kapchan (2003) states that the translator is in a sense a “trickster” who can clarify and obfuscate, and can be a person of greater or lesser authority in the translation process. So I became a ‘trickster’ obviously and apologize for any inconvenience. However, looking at this process with hindsight, I came to realize that researchers won’t only explore reality as it is already ‘out there’. Viewing the research space as a dialogue between human beings, it became possible to act as human being and not as an ‘outsider’ researcher: Meanings and understandings are constructed through interaction and communication.
Now I feel the urge to discuss questions of equivalence, or of representation. But I have to stop here. And because this was not a nice conclusion, I will adhere to one of my professors in France who always hated conclusions: ‘You should have said everything that is important already, so why repeating everything all over again in a conclusion?’ I think he had a point there.
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Zwingel, S. (2012), “How do norms travel? Theorizing International Women’s Rights in transnational perspective”, in International Studies Quarterly, 56, 115-129.
Rubel, P. G. and Rosman, A. (eds.) (2003), Translating Cultures – Perspectives on Translation and Anthropology, Oxford: Berg Publishers.
Wittgenstein, L. (1921), „Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung“, in W. Ostwald (ed.): Annalen der Naturphilosophie, Band 14, 185-262.
Venuti, L. (ed.) (2000), The Translation Studies Reader, London and New York: Routledge.
Bakhtin, M. M. [1930s] (1981), The Dialogic Imagination: Four essays, Ed. by M. Holquist, Austin and London: University of Texas Press.
Sidaway, J. D. (1992), “In other worlds: On the politics of research by “First World” geographers in the “Third World””, in Area, 24, 403-408.
Berne, E. (1964), Games People Play: The Basic Hand Book of Transactional Analysis, New York: Ballantine Books.
Stewart, I. and Joines, V. (2008, first published in 1987), TA Today – A new introduction to Transactional Analysis, Nottingham and Chapel Hill: Lifespace Publishing.
Kapchan, D. (2003), “Translating Folk Theories of Translation”, in P. G. Rubel and A. Rosman (eds.): Translating Cultures – Perspectives on Translation and Anthropology, Oxford: Berg Publishers.