lost in translation

April 17, 2006

There are over 80 participants at this conference, complemented by a team of ten “staff”. All are drawn from the four corners of the earth. I’ve met people from France, the United States, Peru, India and every place in between. The working languages of the conference are English and French and for many neither of these languages is their mother tongue. To compound matters there is no formal translation service.
What this does is challenge us to look at dominant discourses. How does one language (vernacular) get privileged over another? Who requires interpretation? And who offers to supply it? Each of these challenges evokes a response in participants. There are more than three languages. There is French, there is English and there is the interpretation in the middle. Those who offer to facilitate understanding hold a key position in the discourse. Often times, the consultant holds that position in organisational life. Today, I deliberately sought out a group in which everyone was an English speaker. I wondered what it would be like not to hear the negotiation of translation, not to have to wonder what was being said in a language with which I have a passing acquaintance.
I was surprised by my responses.
Today I felt more misunderstood and I think I, in turn misunderstood my colleagues in a group that, on the surface, offered more possibilities of what we had in common than not. As soon as we had negotiated a “sameness” (language of communication) other differences emerged – nuance, intention, conscious and unconscious projections and inferences. I realise that not understanding the language also offers a respite from the words and offers the possibility of playing with meaning, non verbal and symbolic communication. I ask myself – how is the discourse affecting me? Is how I am being affected useful in terms of what is transpiring? The advantage of exploring this in a group relations conference is that is precisely the kind of exploration, reflection and learning we are invited to participate in.
The learning for leadership is to challenge the assumption of common languages. What and who does it include? What and who does it exclude? When I say that I assist organisations to review, evaluate and strategise I am assuming a familiarity with the terminology. I assume that those I speak with understand my vernacular and when they approach me, they assume I understand what they mean. But there is also the possibility that the interpretation of each of these terms is contingent on what each brings to the table. And that’s where negotiation and reflection step in.
When a client approaches me to assist them draw up a plan or a strategy I can’t afford to assume we are talking the same language. Their need and my offering may or may not be congruent. Unless we explore the taken for granted starting points we may end up having misunderstandings as the process evolves.
When I am consulting with clients I build in time for reflection. How has this been working from both our perspectives? Do we need to challenge our assumptions? What value do our assumptions hold for the piece of work we are engaged in?
Sometimes talking the same jargon is a barrier to effective communication. Sometimes how that jargon makes me feel and invites me to respond can be a more authentic starting point for more meaningful connections.

2 People reacted on this

  1. Wow. You touch on so many issues, so many strands. There is so much potential for conversation in what you write in this piece. Probably means that I think there is just as much potential in everything you write.
    You provoke me to think about my experience, especially: why do I dislike using words like “strategy”, “vision”, “mission”, “planning” with people who are different from me?
    A common language? Can there be such a thing? Perhaps the best we can do together is construct approximate meanings, hope we mean roughly the same thing and then constantly look out for the difference. Perhaps we would be usefully employed seeking out differences between us? If I was a CEO, I might usefully spend time seeking out the differences between me and the board members?
    If I was a customer service person, I might be usefully employed seeking out the differences between me and my customers?
    Out from these emergent differences might come insights and deeper rapport. Out might come the possibility of joint working… Blah, blah…
    I bet Beckett has something to say on this. Who can educate me on Beckett, please?
    Now what happened when you went into the French speaking group?

  2. Oh Beckett had it nailed…all of his work (in my humble opinion) is about the silences between the words!
    What happens for me when I’m in a predominently French speaking group is that (a) someone feels they “must” translate (I don’t ask that it be done) and (b) I focus on the sense of what’s happening. This morning for example, the consultant in the group made an intervention in French, three people jumped on him to interpret in English and I said what I thought he meant. It turns out that I was correct and yet I didn’t understand the technical details. I focus on the body language, the tone, the emotion, what’s happening. I’ve always said that group facilitation is less about the content and more about the process…that session this morning just proved it to me.
    Sometimes not understanding the “formal” language can offer a retreat to somewhere else…
    And yes, it’s fascinating…Thanks for your kind words about my writing, much appreciated and also reciprocated.

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