Lost in translation?

As the Connectors Study team reflect on the In Common exhibition which took place last week and prepare highlights from the week on the blog, today we have a guest post from our colleague at Flensburg University, Germany, Martin Bittner, who spent a week with us back in October. Martin reflects on his own research and experiences of working across cultures, experiences and thinking that resonate with our own.


I had a wonderful week in Sussex this month. As part of the EU-Erasmus+ programme (STA) I spent a week in the School of Education and Social Work, and alongside colleagues on the Connectors Study. During that week, I taught on UG and PG module contributing content from my own ethnographic research in educational settings in Germany and India, as well as more theoretical material on the work of Michel Foucault. Probably, the highlight of the week for me was a lunchtime seminar I was invited to give by the Centre of Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth, on a paper I’m writing ‘on translation’.

My thinking about translation started during a cross-national European project I was involved in that looked at the biographies of young people with a migration background who were growing up in Germany or in France (Project funded by French-German Office of Youth from 2007 to 2009). This is a project that I was involved with a while ago and, at the time, I would not have imagined that my experiences and the methodological reflections I made back then would still resonate and influence my thinking now. But I continue to think about and experience ‘translation’, sometimes quite viscerally: during the week at Sussex I often caught myself looking for the adequate term/sentence-structure of a German word or syntax and then wondering how I would translate that in English. Some concepts or ideas often seemed untranslatable without going into a longwinded explanation about the historical-cultural background of a word. In Germany, for example, I’m an “Erziehungswissenschaftler” and an “Ethnograf”. In English, we might say an educational scientist (or should that be educologist?) and an ethnographer (or should that be anthropologist?). These then become more than questions of translation, they are also institutional questions.

It’s easy to think about getting lost in translation. Getting lost in translation is a popular cultural trope to communicate the experience of cultural contact. But my thinking and experiences have led me elsewhere. In the paper I’m developing, I argue that it’s not about getting lost but about staying tuned. I argue that theories of translation fit perfectly not only to addressing the challenges of language and cross-cultural research but also to thinking about the struggles involved when different institutional practices, e.g. from school or the family, intersect.

Translation happens all the time in everyday life and is not only a question of language. Translation happens at the level of practices and discourses too, it is a question of knowing a practice, having power over a discourse and being able to produce educational spaces. By translating something we go beyond borders and limits; these are borders and limits of ourselves, of institutions, of methodologies. Seeing translation as a methodology of its own means that we cannot remain on the target-side, that is the culture we are encountering. Translation is not a case of singular trespassing, a one-way crossing of borders [that would be a conversion (of faith), assimilation (of culture) or violation (of nation and law)]. Instead, we need to relate the target-side back to the culture of origin, and in so doing put origin and target cultures in interrelation to each other. In this ”conversation”, the translator and the interpreter have to be aware of processes of domestication and foreignization. To overcome difficulties of finding an adequate and appropriate translation, translation has to be described as a movement; it is part of ethnography, and calls for our (institutional) active participation.

This idea of combining methodological questions of knowing with theoretical questions of institution is not new. Mary Douglas in her book “How Institutions Think” writes about institutions and the potential of a shared knowledge of a community instead of an individualistic view in politics and society. She discusses the approaches of Thomas Kuhn and Ludwig Fleck. What interests me are Douglas’s arguments that questions in epistemology have similarities to questions of perceiving institutions.

For example, during the cross-national project of migrant youth biographies I found that the challenge of interpreting data from another language (e.g. French or German) surpasses issues of communication and readability. The procedure of translation and interpretation is interwoven with the process of understanding in a very particular way. Thinking about translation allowed us to gain insight into the very practices that the young people with a migration background engaged in on a daily basis to communicate, fit in and belong. In particular, it allowed us to grasp the challenges that children and young people growing up with a migration background face, it is a struggle of being recognized, perceived and treated equal as an inhabitant in France or Germany. Importantly, it enabled us to think of these challenges not just as individual experiences related e.g. to language competency, but to understand these challenges as expressions of institutional patterns of belonging, affiliation and recognition.

More recently, and in work that I am doing on how people in different institutions respond to heterogeneity and difference, I further develop this idea that translation is no longer about the essentialities of language but takes into account a direction of a multi-dimensional space of culture. A methodology of translation allows us to describe the social challenges that are expressed in current key-concepts of multi-culturalism, hybridity, diversity, transgression, and social inequality. A theory of translation enables us to grasp the experience that practices and discourses are not fixed but get stabilized by translation, while moving and wandering between families, schools and the local and regional administrative structures. To date most research has looked at different educational institutions separately – either focusing on families, on schools, or on regional or local states. Translation in its wider sense of translation of practices is a fruitful perspective to unravel how policy-makers and officials, schools and families respond to heterogeneity in their everyday practices. In so doing, a theory of translation helps us to overcome a restricted perspective of institutions as separate entities and explains how educational practices are interchanged between institutions.

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