Question of the Week: August 19, 2014

I think we are all learning new things from our new International Voices series.

One theme is that there are not enough resources outside of English, that we need more translation.  A second theme is that non-English communities simply take an American-based understanding and translate it, without taking the opportunity to develop their own concepts in response to their local culture, often resulting in ideas that are inappropriate or out of place.

At least superficially, these two themes are in conflict!  What are your thoughts–so far–on navigating the two issues?

About Siggy

Siggy is a physics grad student in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and makes amateur attempts at asexual activism. His interests include godlessness, scientific skepticism, and math. While not working or blogging, he plays video and board games with his boyfriend, and folds colored squares.
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7 Responses to Question of the Week: August 19, 2014

  1. Ace in Translation says:

    I think it’s very tempting to simply translate stuff word-for-word from English to another language. Especially when a culture seems very similar to American culture (ie. “the west”), or if you’re so familiar with English language discourse yourself – and that particular discourse works for you – , that you don’t stop to think how well that discourse fits into another culture. After all, why reinvent the wheel?

    I think the best response to the translate vs. create resources from scratch conundrum is creative borrowing. So instead of blindly copying everything, borrow what is useful, discard what isn’t.

    A few examples:
    In the replies to the interview with Robin on asexuality in Taiwan, there is some discussion on compulsory sexuality (and amatonormativity to some extend) and how that exists in Taiwanese culture, but it affects the asexual population there differently. I think it encapsulates the difficulties: on some level, concepts and discussions are useful (ie. the words “compulsory sexuality” and “amatonormativity” have some value as there are also norms in Taiwan which people are expected to conform to). On the other hand, you cannot take all the discussions in English on these subject and simply translate them. To solve issues like this, you can take those concepts, introduce them to the other language community with some basic definitions, and figure out how it applies to that particular culture.

    Second example: in Dutch society, you don’t really have a “sex positive” movement. There isn’t really a “sex negative” movement to rail against either (the abstinence-only, marriage-only kind … it’s very foreign to mainstream Dutch culture). So obviously, things work a bit differently in discussions about sex, sexuality and sex education. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a prevailing idea that sex is good and healthy for everyone (or that it’s even more enforced in certain feminist circles). So there’s still ideas and lines of argument from the English language discussions on these subjects that you can borrow and adapt to a Dutch context, but you need to be wary of word-for-word copying.

    This sounds pretty simple – but I think the complicating factor is that people are – to a certain extend – blind to the cultural differences. On some level, we understand and acknowledge that resources or discussions developed in an American context, but on the other hand, we’re not through-and-through familiar with that American context. So you see a discussion of x subject, and you go “well that’s also kinda true for me”, but it’s really hard to pinpoint where the differences and where the similarities are. On the one hand, you’re familiar with the discourse, but unfamiliar with the cultural context in which it was produced, and on the other hand, you’re familiar with the cultural context, but there is no discourse that applies to it. So how are you going to tease out which parts of the discourse you’ve got are a reaction to a particular American context if you might not be able to identify that context?

    • Siggy says:

      In these interviews, I feel like it’s almost too blunt to ask people, “What’s different about your culture as compared to American culture?” because it basically refocuses a non-American conversation onto Americans, and draws even more attention to the inherent asymmetry in the situation (a blog consisting of mostly American writers, featuring guest posts by non-American ones).

      But it is important to ask in any case, because as you say, the answers are very relevant to non-American readers. So far I’ve found that many non-Americans, even as they’re soaked in American culture here, can’t quite pinpoint what is different about it.

      • Ace in Translation says:

        hmmm yeah, it’s definitely hard to pinpoint. Like, if you ask me for differences between Dutch and American culture in general, I can easily give you a description (like the way the treatment of sex ed, gender, race, LGBT, religion, etc. is different – the kind of things which are relevant to asexual experiences). But if you ask me how that affects my experiences with regards to my asexuality? That’s really difficult. Our community is based around shared experiences. If I didn’t identify with the experiences of other asexuals, I wouldn’t be here. Humans are so used to thinking in black and white, so how are you going to do that balancing act of on the one hand identifying with the similarities in our experiences and on the other hand tease out how those similar experiences are different?

  2. sablin27 says:

    We need culture-sensitive translation? It may well still be imperfect, but little ever is, and it’s easier to rework imperfect resources than start from scratch.

  3. Carmilla DeWinter says:

    Difficult. I’d agree with Ace in Translation. When translating, you probably always need to think about whether what you’re writing is making sense in the country you live in, and then creatively add to or delete from the English resources as needed.
    Germany and the US are not all that different when it comes to the terminology and general expectations of a “healthy sexuality”, given how Freud’s ideas spilled from a German-speaking country across the ocean. That said, sex-positivity is a thing here, at least in queer feminist spaces.

  4. Sara K. says:

    One of my friends (who has spent two years in a Chinese-as-Foreign-Language-teacher masters program) says that Chinese and English are such different languages that a literal translation is almost certainly a bad translation, and that a translator will almost certainly need to make small changes in order to produce a good translation – the trick is in making small changes which do not violate the spirit of the original (though he claims that this is less necessary for English-Swedish than English-Chinese or Swedish-Chinese – he is fluent in all three languages). He would probably say that this is not a problem specific to asexuality, but is a problem in general with translating anything which is highly rooted in culture/society.

    Though I have never seen the Taiwanese version of the Simpsons, I have read that they do a pretty good job of localizing the scripts – they pull out the references which Taiwanese people would not get and the jokes which do not translate well, and make up their own references and jokes (apparently the Taiwan!Simpsons mention Taiwanese politics sometimes).

    Of course, part of a professional translator’s job is to have a high degree of cultural awareness so they can make this kind of judgement call, so yeah, this gets back to cultural awareness when translating resources.

  5. Arrela says:

    I don’t really think these are conflicting, or even seperate, issues. The problem isn’t that we lack translations, it is that we lack words and concepts in our own languages and cultures. Translation is one strategy to solve that problem, but it is often done poorly or with little cultural sensitivity. We create new Norwegian words for new concepts all the time, only rarely would I call those new words “translations” in the narrowest sense. “Motemolo” for instance, for catwalk or rumway (literally fashion molo), or “emneknagg” (=topic hook) for hashtag, or “nettbrett” (=(inter)net board) for tablet. I think we’re in trouble if we think the only way to create words for ourselves in our own languages is to translate, in the strictest sense, English words and concepts. But that is the easiest short term solution, and seeing as most of us only want to express our identity to our friends, not do a lot of linguistic innovation, that is what often happens, especially when both we and our friends are reasonably well acquainted with English words and American culture.

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