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Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

People who speak different languages cannot understand each other without benefit of translation. A related problem, which may be more insidious, arises when two or more people think they're speaking the same language when they're not. "Languages," furthermore, are of various types, in addition to what we usually think of — English, Japanese, or Hindi, for example. Some people seem to speak only "Technical" or "Post Modern Academician" which can be incomprehensible from outside those cultures. Finally, there is often an implied "pecking order" in which one language (and its speakers) are viewed as dominant or more important while other languages (and its speakers) are devalued and bear an unequal share of the burden of understanding.


This pattern applies in any situation where two or more languages are employed. Here "language" is applied broadly. For example, with global climate change looming, scientists must be able to engage in two-way conversations effectively; social scientists must be able to do the same if their work is to have relevance and resonance. Translation takes place when any two worlds of discourse are bridged.


This includes translation between systems of knowledges (e.g. theorist to practitioner) as well as translations between different languages.

"A text is a machine for eliciting translations." — Umberto Eco, Translating and Being Translated

Although cultures are maintained through a variety of institutions, the use of a common language may be the deepest and most abiding tie that binds a culture together. Language is a reflection of, and a window into, culture.

Of course people speak many languages; children may invent secret words to describe the world they see and would like to see, Slang is shared by youth culture, academic disciplines use certain phrases, neolisms etc. to participate in a shared intellectual pursuit, while religious communities have expressions of sacred and profane ideas of special significance.

If, however, every person in the world spoke only one language, a language that had no words in common, then each group would be, in essence, a group by itself cut off from the rest of the social world. Trade would be virtually impossible as would diplomacy and sharing of intellectual creations, technological and artistic. War is one social activity that probably would not be hampered by this barrier to communication (although negotiating an end to the hostilities would be extremely difficult, if not possible.)

Thus translation is a bridge that connects two or more cultures or two or more people. Translation allows two or more groups or people to come to a common understanding and it allows them to take advantage of the special or expert knowledge of the other.

Translation is also a social process that is embedded in particular social contexts and is subjected to the dictates of that context. For example, the burden of translation is often expected to fall upon the lower status or less dominant group. Thus, many Spanish speakers in the U.S. are "expected" to learn English (majority rules — in more ways than one). People who lack fluency in the dominant language (English, BBC English, or Techno-speak, for example) are often considered ignorant.

Umberto Eco captures a key difficulty in translation:

"Equivalence in meaning cannot be take as a satisfactory criterion for a correct translation, first of all because in order to define the still undefined notion of translation one would have to employ a notion as obscure as equivalence of meaning, and some people think that meaning is that which remains unchanged in the process of translation. We cannot even accept the naïve idea that equivalence in meaning is provided by synonymy, since it is commonly accepted that there are no complete synonyms in language. Father is not a synonym for daddy, daddy is not a synonym for papà, and père is not a synonym for padre."
 — Umberto Eco (2001).

As Eco makes clear in the quotations above, words in languages don’t have one-to-one equivalence. For that reason successful translation relies on a reasonable yet partial solution (actually a type of negotiation) to a number of interdependent problems. Totally accurate translation is impossible but imperfect translation is ubiquitous — and essential. Moreover, the context of the words in the sentence, the sentence in the paragraph, etc. etc. that is being translated, all within the context of the inspiration and intent and audience are all relevant when translating.

Translation, therefore, is not a mechanical act, but a skilled and empathetic re-rewriting or re-performing of a text or utterance or intention in which an understanding of the two cultures being bridged is essential. More precisely, an understanding of the two respective audiences, intended and otherwise, the vocabulary they employ, their education, biases, fears, etc. are all central to a good, solid and mutually satisfactory translation.

Although the following quotation is specifically examining the differences of psychology and sociology by their focus of individuals and collective bodies respectively, it captures a central question in translation.

To address the problem of different and incommensurable perspectives in the human sciences, two issues need to be considered. First, we must find a way to link perspectives without simply reducing one to another. One guiding assumption of this volume is that attempts to account for complex human phenomena by invoking a perspective grounded in a single discipline are as unlikely as were the attempts of each of the three blind men to come with the true account of an elephant. The goal, then, is to arrive at an account — a kind of "translation at the crossroads" — that would make it possible to link, but not reduce, one perspective to another.
   — James V. Wertsch (1998)


Think about the critical role of translation and, if possible, become a translator — or at least when the need arises where you can help bridge a gap of understanding. From the point-of-view of social amelioration translations between two particular cultures may be of more immediate than two others. On the other hand, all cultures must ultimately have connections and mutual understanding is necessary, but not sufficient, for a positive future.

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