A Calculus of Accountability: one language as a guarantee for another

For those readers willing to sort through the theoretical rhetoric of the European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies website,  the documentation of the institute’s ongoing project Europe as a Translational Space is worth a look, if only for the marvelous insights it provides into the nature of the translator’s task of bringing a text to a new audience.

Among the articles to be found in the EIPCP website is “Translation as Culture” by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who makes the wonderful, universal observation “The verbal text is jealous of its linguistic signature but impatient of national identity. Translation flourishes by virtue of that paradox.” Whether Spivak work is shuttling back and forth between idiomatic speech and standard structures in the same language or translating between one language and another, she describes her work as transcoding “the uncountable ethical structure of feeling” into “a calculus of accountability.”

The website also includes an interview with Stefan Nowotny, a translator who works from German into French and English and contributor to the research project Translation: The Mother Tongue of a Future Society? In response to the question “How do you start work on a job?” Nowotny stresses the social aspects of translators’ work:

This is a question I find difficult to answer in generalised terms. After all, a whole series of factors impact on a translator’s work: factors connected to the relevant text and the translation at hand, but also factors linked to the form and context of the job . . . Despite the theoretical interest that the phenomenon of translation has attracted in recent times, when it’s seen as a concrete job, translating is still regarded as a simple task of reproduction and the transference of a given meaning from A to B — expressed within an allotted timeframe, economic framework etc.

I am not only mentioning this because it is all too often ignored. It does, after all, have a lot to do with my approach to issues related to translation in theoretical and practical terms. This approach can probably best be summarised with a question formulated by the translation theorist Naoki Sakai: “what sort of social relation is translation in the first place?” So the most generally applicable answer to your question about starting off would perhaps be: I start by asking myself what the social relations are that I am dealing with each time . . .

The points mentioned above are elements of this. But so too are, of course, a whole series of subsequent questions: From where and to whom is the text speaking? What is its tone? What are the things and worlds it is talking about, some of which I sometimes have to explore (and not only in the text itself, as I might miss what it puts at stake)? How do I make myself the addressee of the text in order to then, for my part as the translator, engage with new addressees? From where and to whom am I speaking? etc. etc. — so it is about developing the most varied of sensitivities, without this process’ adhering to any specific scheme that would enable me to begin in the same way each time.

Nowotny is correct in pointing out  that translators need to reorient themselves every time they undertake a new translation. As a bridge between cultures, they need to situate themselves between two distinct cultural realities; the path between A and B is never as direct as it might seem to someone who has not made a similar journey. I’m aware that my work involves transforming documents written in Spanish for a Spanish-speaking audience into texts in English directed toward a specific (or general) English-speaking audience. Apart from the correct translation of terms and the choice of an appropriate style of spelling and grammar (British or American), I have other tasks to carry out. For example, I must look for ways of opening the text to an audience that utilizes different codes of perception and expression and search for the nearest equivalent for ideas and concepts that may not exist in the target language. If the text is intended for an international English-speaking public, conveniently “localizing” it for one segment of a wider, more diverse, international public may be counterproductive. Unlike an author writing for a native audience, a translator—especially one translating into English—cannot make vast assumptions about the depth of a target language audience’s cultural understanding of the topics being discussed. Many of the questions I pose to authors about a translation concern the public who will be reading, listening, or working with the document in English.

Translators like to repeat Umberto Ecco’s claim that “translation is the language of Europe,” but precisely which languages will predominate in the interchanges that make daily governance and business possible in a unified Europe is a subject of constant debate. Things do get lost in translation. One of the institute’s more interesting projects is a map of words that are untranslatable from one language to another. I thoroughly enjoyed Barbara Cassin’s article “The Untranslatables and their Translation,” in which she debates the various possible strategies for mapping the semantic cracks, crevices, and overlaps of Europe’s many languages. She uses the word “pravda” as an example of a translation dilemma: in some cultures it would be translated as “justice”; in others, “truth.” This difference is important in international forums where one language must be a guarantee for another. It is this sort of recurring problem in translation that prompts Nowotny and Sakai to consider the social relations that underpin any translation project. Cassin also uses her article to point out the problems inherent to the adoption of English as the dominant lingua franca in European affairs:

The first catastrophe-scenario only lets one language subsist, without author and without oeuvre: Globish (global English) and dialects. All the languages of Europe, French, German etcetera, would only be for speaking at home (dialects, then), and for preserving like endangered species via a politics of the patrimony. The English of Shakespeare and of Joyce belong to these dialects that no-one understands any longer. Already today, in the international colloquia where everyone speaks globish, the only speaker not understood is the one who comes from Oxford. Globish is a language of pure communication, which serves for ordering coffee from Tamanrasset to Peking and to make submissions to Brussels by proposing issues and deliverables in the framework of a programme of ‘governance’ in a knowledge-based economy. The difficulty evidently results from the relationship between Globish and the English language. It is even that which makes the threat so intense: the risk of collusion between a pragmatic Esperanto and the language of a culture. On the one hand, in effect, a certain analytic philosophy advocates the angelic innocence of the universal: what counts is the concept, not the word – Aristotle is my colleague at Oxford.

Cassin’s comments do not constitute an attack on the English language per se. She probably speaks and writes Globish every day in her communications with non-francophone colleagues. As she says, although it’s light years away from being the language of Shakespeare, Globish (or what I would prefer to classify as Euro-English) is “the language of pure communication.” It is a rapidly growing, lowest common-denominator cousin to the language of the King James Bible, whose speakers, as Cassin astutely notes, often have trouble understanding the speech of a well-educated Englishman. Even worse, an Oxford-educated colleague at times may have problems understanding a conversation in Globish. For example, the verbs pretender (Spanish) and pretendre (French) both signify  to intend in English. However, Spanish and French speakers of Globish often forget this case of linguistic false friendship and blithely affirm that they are “pretending” to do this, that, and the other thing—a gaffe that may go unnoticed among continental Europeans, but  may leave a native English speaker who does not speak either French or Spanish either condescendingly amused or sadly misinformed. At the same time that Globish is threatening the integrity of the Queen’s English, it is facilitating an exponentially growing number of international treaties, unilateral agreements, educational and business opportunities, medical and scientific research projects, and human rights initiatives. Therefore, bringing Globish up to  some internationally accepted standard has become an imperative. Various organizations have come forward with a range of initiatives to  help both native and non-native speakers and writers express themselves more clearly in English.

In  what was a very practical application of  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “calculus of accountability,”  the European Commission recently launched a clear writing campaign meant to establish guidelines for communications written in all the languages utilized by the EC and translated from one of these languages to another. According to Emma Wagner, an editor working in the Commission’s Directorate General for Translation, although 95 % of Commission’s members and staff draft the majority of their documents in English, only 13 % can state that English is their mother tongue. A study undertaken by the Commission also revealed that 54 % of them—more than half of the Commission members and staff involved in drafting documents—rarely or never have their documents checked by a native speaker. Although some communication professionals have branded the campaign as simplistic, it has proved to be a good vehicle for training staff how to create documents that will serve as a source of information for different types of audiences. The author of almost any EC document must take at least three distinct groups of readers into account when he or she begins to write: EU insiders, external specialists, and the general public. The pamphlet “How to write clearly” (the lowercase title style is theirs) emphasizes the importance of publishing clear and readable documents in all official websites (the decision  to render this word with a lowercase “w” and without a space or hyphen is my own), advocates the use of the active voice rather than the passive voice, provides a short list of the most common “false friends” (assist in English does not mean the same thing as asister à in French), and encourages the use of concrete language over abstract language.

Various organizations offer technical help in achieving clear, concise communications in English. Britain’s Plain Language Commission, headed by Martin Cutts, author of The Oxford Guide to Plain English published by Oxford University Press and co-author with Emma Wagner of Clarifying EC Regulation, offers affordable online courses and a clear language certification service for individual documents. The Plain Language Commission website also provides a very useful list of links to other clear language resources. Although designed to support civil society organizations in the Balkan countries and Turkey, Technical Assistance for Civil Society Organisations (TACSO) provides free downloadable manuals in its website that may be of general use to translators and other communications professionals.