Ethnology Crossroads

Reporting back from Ethnology Crossroads Conference

by Prof. Máiread Nic Craith, Anna Koryczan and Cristina Clopot

Ethnology Crossroads was a two-day conference organized by the European Ethnological Research Centre in collaboration with the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, held on December 5-6th in Edinburgh. The aim was to assess the current state of ethnology in Scotland but also discuss its possible future. This discussion was rounded over the publication of the 14th and last book from the Scottish Life and Society – A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology series and was dedicated to the memory of Alexander Fenton. The list of speakers of the day included two LINCS professors, Máiréad Nic Craith and Ullrich Kockel, and a couple of LINCS students in the audience.

Ethnology as seen and practiced by young academics

The second panel of the conference featured young ethnologists, who are either working on a PhD thesis or are aiming to start one in the future. Fascinating projects were presented by three speakers in connection to the umbrella theme of the panel ‘Ethnologists in the Community’.

The first speaker, Ella Leith, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, reasoned for recognition of Deafness as a cultural rather than a medical issue. In this context, she tried to raise awareness of Deaf disempowerment in higher education as well as to make a clear distinction with regard to ways the society engages with deaf communities, that is, through either taking a stance of ‘deaf wage’ or ‘deaf heart’. Concluding her talk, Ella urged ethnologists to take social responsibility towards minorities they study.

The second speaker, Alistair Mackie, an MSc student at the University of Iceland, spoke of his undergraduate project on the question of European identity in the context of multi-cultural Balfolk events. Alistair’s findings revealed that participants’ perceptions and attitudes towards such cultural encounters vary significantly, thus mirroring the diverse standpoints on European identity.

The third speaker, Carley Williams, a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen, gave an overview of her research project, which deals with the practice of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage (ICH) in Scotland, in the context of UNESCO 2003 Convention. In her research, Carley aims to develop recommendations that will help to empower and support practitioner communities, ensuring at the same time viability and sustainability of their ICH as a living tradition.

Ethnology of the 21st century – an engaged science reaching high

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The young scholar session was followed by a discussion between Dr. Gary West and LINCS Prof. Máiréad Nic Craith, designed as a freeform talk. Moving the discussion from ethnology in Scotland towards the broader European setting, the conversation assessed the current state of ethnology. Building up on the conclusions of the previous panel, the two academics discussed about the type of ethnology a researcher might strive for today, when the discipline is at a ‘crossroads’ moment. Far from being parochial, this ethnology is a lively area that includes both rural and urban areas, labelled as ‘engaged ethnology’. It is also led by daring objectives, as marked by the leitmotif of the day, ‘why not’, urging researchers to go further than the journal article to support change.

Other subjects were brought in as well, related to the topics of ethnological research. The ‘power of culture’ to divide but also to bring people together was among these topics, as well as heritage. Taking an example from material culture of a built environment, a suggestion was made to consider narratives of people, the stories and emotions they invest in these structures. Prof. Nic Craith argued for an inclusive consideration of the tangible and intangible aspects of heritage in a research projects, and together with Dr. Gary West highlighted the fact that U.K. has managed to build on its intangible heritage (ICH) better than other countries and that it might benefit from exposing this experience in the larger setting of international discussions around ICH. Ethnology’s role, in this case, is to help safeguard traditions.

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The final session looked at the issue of ethnology tomorrow and was chaired by Professor Edward Cowan. The panel included Prof. Andrew Blaikie, Prof. Ullrich Kockel, Dr. Mairi McFadyen and Prof. Stana Nenadic. The two ethnologists (Kockel and McFadyen) were passionate about the potential of ethnology to address issues in the 21st century and set the subject in the context of Patrick Geddes‘ approach to ecological, social and cultural development. While not ethnologists themselves, the other two speakers highlighted the relevance of ethnology for historians and drew many parallels between history and ethnology.

Pushing ethnology further

In line with one of the aims to reach further, the lively discussions of the day were not accessible only in the closed setting of the conference, but were opened to a larger audience through live tweeting. All resulting tweets are now available in this Storify feed.

With so many avenues opened and encouraged by the state of enthusiasm felt by participants, it was suggested that these ideas might actually be starting points for a longer discussion to be carried further in a series of meetings/potential events.

Welcome to the new LINCS blog!

Well, it’s not exactly new, but it’s had a bit of a face-lift. We may change a few more pictures and make minor aesthetic changes, but the content and purpose of the blog will still remain the same.

The most important change that will take place next week is the change of our domain name. Our domain will be changed to: 

http://www.lifeinlincs.org

so please add this to your bookmarks!

The About page has information about the blog and about the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies (LINCS) at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland.

The Research page has information on our two research centres, the Centre for Translation and Interpreting Studies in Scotland (CTISS) and the Intercultural Research Centre (IRC).

The Seminars page has a list of CTISS, IRC and EdSign Seminar Series.

The Postgraduate Programmes page has information on Postgraduate Taught Programmes in LINCS (MSc and PGDip).

The PhD Opportunities page provides information on research areas and categories in LINCS for prospective PhD students, as well as links on how to apply.

The Department’s contact details are under Contact.

We hope you continue to enjoy our blog and contribute to discussions and reflections on language and intercultural communication !

Can museums make a difference on public attitudes to identity, citizenship and belonging?

by Katerina Strani

I come from an ancient country, where museums are spaces filled with age-old artefacts that assert national (or regional) identity. They are there to inform, to teach, to educate in the broad sense. This is the role of museums, right?

Katherine Lloyd urges us to think beyond that monolithic perception. In her recent talk hosted by the IRC in LINCS, she explored the potential impact of museums on public attitudes to issues of identity, citizenship and belonging in an age of migrations. Katherine’s work, which focuses on Scottish museums, contributes to an emerging body of international research that interrogates the normative assumptions within heritage studies regarding the ability of museums to facilitate attitudinal changes to cultural difference.

The potential for museums to foster inclusive identities and facilitate intercultural understanding has become a pertinent issue for European policy makers in recent years, as evidenced in the aims of the EU-funded research programme MeLa*: European Museums in an Age of Migrations. The case of Scotland—where questions of national identity dominate the public sphere in the context of debates on constitutional change—provides a useful prism through which to consider these issues. Research undertaken with visitors at the National Museum of Scotland as part of the MeLa* research programme, in collaboration with ICCHS colleagues Chris Whitehead, Rhiannon Mason and Susannah Eckersley, has shown that while stories that highlight the historical heterogeneity of place can be found throughout the displays, these are often ignored, forgotten or overlooked by visitors.  A deeper understanding of not only how individuals respond to heterogeneous conceptualisations of place but the reasons why visitors may ignore or indeed ‘resist’ institutional representations of place as constructed and shifting is therefore needed if museums are to contribute to public debates about migration and identity.

Katherine’s talk sought to addresses this through bridging the gap between research on heritage, place and identity at the level of the individual with studies that focus on the institutional construction of identity within the museum. She analysed how young people in schools across Scotland utilised concepts of ‘place’ negotiated issues of migration, diversity, heritage and national identity and draws upon these findings in order to critically reflect upon the responses of visitors to displays at the National Museum of Scotland. The insights gained through this approach were then utilised to identify some of the potential challenges and risks that museums in Europe, and indeed further afield, may face when addressing such issues.

This research raised significant questions on the role of museum texts and museums in general in creating a dialectical space of exploring identity, belonging and cultural citizenship. The potential is vast.

Giving it away

by Jonathan Downie

Translators and interpreters know all about being passionate. Most of us arrived in this industry because we were passionate about helping people communicate. Many of us also carry a passion for the industry itself. We get into debates over conditions, working practices and clients. In two words: we care.

This “care” can and does translate into action. Translators and interpreters willingly donate their time, skills and money to helping charitable causes the world over. From refugees in the UK to Ebola patients in West Africa, there is hardly a crisis or cause that doesn’t need information to be passed from one language to another.

Until fairly recently, the idea that translators and interpreters can and should lend a hand went unchallenged an unqualified. As long as the goal was non-commercial and the cause seemed legitimate, there was little discussion as to where the work might end up. Pro bono translators and interpreters took it on trust that they were doing their bit.

All that has now changed. In discussions that have raged across blogs and forums, professionals have started asking big, hard and sometimes borderline aggressive questions about pro bono work. Clearing houses for such work, such as Translators Without Borders, now seem to be the subject of suspicion in some quarters. Increasingly, there is a desire to know who exactly benefits from the work, whether paying for the work might be a better option and to what extent local professionals might be losing out because of it.

These are good and useful questions. There are very good arguments for transparency and accountability that apply across all pro bono and charitable work. Yet, it is undeniable that, since we have the resources to ask such questions, our perspectives are skewed. I doubt very much whether a refugee cares too much about the remuneration of the interpreter who works with them. For them, a listening ear, a truthful representation of their views and a chance to understand and be understood trump any economic debates.

There is no doubt that we need to be transparent about how and when and why the efforts and resources of volunteers are used. In a current fundraiser I am involved with, which aims to raise money for anti-people trafficking charity the A21 Campaign by selling multilingual t-shirts, everything about the campaign from the people involved to the precise donation per t-shirt is online. The problem with this, of course, is that the more that is online, the more decisions are open to criticism.

A similar dynamic can be at work among new entrants to translation and interpreting who list all their volunteer work on their CV. While there are very good reasons for doing this, it is not unthinkable that certain clients may take exception to the precise causes chosen. Some electronics manufacturers might take a dim view of work for civil liberties or pro-privacy groups. Other potential clients might feel uneasy at evidence of campaigning for certain causes. While new translators and interpreters have always been advised to keep politics off their CVs, pro bono work can help it resurface.

Perhaps the solution is to be a bit more realistic. Pro bono work will always be important, both for those who donate their time and those whose lives are changed by it. The necessary transparency that goes with it, however, will always open up the opportunity for criticism. But then, as Andrew Morris points out, standing out and being different has always been a better business strategy than following the crowd and making no waves at all. Maybe the emphasis should be on the opportunities that pro bono work can bring and the lives it can change, over the people who might disagree with our decision to do it.

Russian Old Believers in Romania – Heritage Highlights

by Cristina Clopot

‘What is the future of the past?’ asked Christina Cameron, a prominent researcher within heritage studies, and she was not the only researcher to ponder on this question. An increased awareness of the richness of past inheritance is not directly linked with recipes to take these forward to be enjoyed by the next generation and to counteract globalisation backlash. Moving the discussion beyond internationally recognised ‘items’, with the trademark of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’, towards smaller communities, the question becomes even more intricate. It is in this precise small area dealing with the heritage of small-scale, minority communities that Cristina Clopot’s research fits in. And the question mentioned at the beginning of the article is central to Cristina’s PhD project centred on Russian Old Believers in Romania.

Old Believers have migrated from Russia in the XVIIth century to escape religious persecutions. They opposed the religious transformations of the Russian Orthodox Church insisting on keeping their centuries-old belief. Old Believers communities exist throughout the world (in places such as Canada, the U.S., New Zealand, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia), however, Cristina’s research is focused on Romania. A small community of about 23,000 people, the Old Believers (Lipovans as they are called in Romania and Moldova) represent one of the 18 officially recognized ethnic groups within the country.

In a country marked by increased globalisation and rapid transformations in the post-socialist period this community has managed to preserve its rich cultural heritage.

Cristina’s research thus engages with Lipovan heritage, both tangible and intangible. The two types of heritage are in a ‘symbiotic relationship’, as an UNESCO representative pointed out.  Themes such as continuity and innovation, authenticity or sustainability will be explored within this project through ethnographic methods. The research project is supervised by Prof. Máiréad Nic Craith, Chair of European Culture and Heritage and Prof. Ullrich Kockel, Professor of Culture and Economy, and fieldwork is carried with the help of Estella Cranziani Post-Graduate Bursary for Research.

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Old Believers Church (image taken by the author)

Part of Old Believers’ tangible heritage, churches, with arched domes and 8 cornered crosses exist in different areas of Romania, predominating however, in the eastern side of the country, where large communities of Lipovans reside.  Old Belief is a form of Orthodoxy, close to the Greek form of Orthodoxy, yet with essential differences: e.g. different way of crossing, or the use of Slavonic. Religion is still important for the community today as reflected by the numerous icons encountered in diverse houses and locations I have visited in Romania.

Clothing is another distinct element of their heritage. Once worn every day, traditional dressing is now mostly seen in religious services. The shirt (‘rubashka’) tied with a braid (‘pois’) or the colourful long skirts worn by women are part of the specific landscape in an Old Believer community.

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Borsch festival within a community of Old Believers in Romania (Source: Jurilovca village Facebook page)

Apart from crafts related to clothing, boats or house building, iconography is another axial craft within the community. Icons play a central role for the practice of Orthodoxy, acting as messengers between believers and the ‘divine prototype’ they represent. Lipovans have carried this craft from Russia with them and have passed it on from generation to generation.

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Image from an Old Believers Church (taken by the author)

‘What is the future of the past?’ remains thus an open question for this community and an interesting challenge to answer within this research project.

New project: RADAR – Regulating Anti-discrimination and Anti-Racism

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The RADAR project has officially started!

Funded by the European Commission Directorate General for Justice, RADAR (Regulating Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Racism) involves 9 partners including Heriot-Watt and it will be conducted over 24 months (November 2014 – October 2016). The  aim is to provide law enforcement officials and legal professionals with the necessary tools to facilitate the identification of “racially motivated” hate communication.

In European societies, increasingly reshaped by migration, the fight against racism and xenophobia is a key challenge for democracy and civil life. Despite anti-discrimination legislation that is in force in EU Member States, there is still a fundamental problem in identifying the different forms of racism and xenophobia. These may consist of physical attacks against people or of hate speech – ‘racial’ and xenophobic discourses “which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including: intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin” (Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers” Recommendation 97(20)).

However, it is not always easy to distinguish between, non-‘racial’ and ‘racial’ violence. Even though it is easier to prosecute cases of physical offences against people, it is more difficult – for judges, politicians and the public – to identify when there is xenophobia behind a physical offence, because it has to be interpreted within the context in which it has taken place. This interpretative work allows us to define such actions in terms of hate crime offences. Often ‘racial’ hate crimes are not recognised as such, and this leads to an underestimation of the phenomenon. Treating crimes that are motivated by ‘racial’ hatred as non-‘racial’ crimes leads to the violation of fundamental human rights. It is therefore essential that law enforcing and legal authorities, along with journalists and politicians, have tools for correctly identifying the motivation that underlies such a criminal act.

A hate crime is never an isolated act; it is usually triggered and fostered by hate speech, consisting of discourses that express disdain, hatred, prejudice, etc. Such discourses are performed not only in direct face-to-face communication through public and private conversations, but they also take place online, in political discourses, as well as in other institutional contexts. It has to be stressed that not only hate speech in the sense of verbal messages leads to hate crimes, but this is inspired also by other hate-oriented communication practices based on other communication levels, such as voice (paraverbal message), body-language (non-verbal message), images (visual message). Finally, the racist discourse often does not simply assume the forms of explicit hatred, prejudice and disdain, but it takes the form of an apparently benevolent recognition of the differences that, however, presupposes a stereotypisation of an individual’s cultural and social identity. It seems like a respectful recognition of differences, but it turns into stereotypes and prejudices that become labels and stigmas for the individuals.

Therefore, the overall aim of this project is to provide law enforcement officials and legal professionals with the necessary tools, mainly through open training activities, aimed at facilitating the identification of ‘racial’ motivated hate communication. For this purpose, a communication-based training concept is worked out, on the one side, for professionals and actual or potential hate-crime victims (national level) and, on the other side, for trainers (international level). Further learning resources and facilities are provided to offer online learning events. Finally the project aims at producing a publication with concrete tools, recommendations and best practice examples to facilitate anti-discrimination and anti-racist actions and regulations.

Watch this space for the project website and further details. For more information, contact Katerina Strani in LINCS.

Does culture make any money?

by Ullrich Kockel

“Sculpture, poetry, theatre – tell me,” says Didzis Meḷḳis, “does culture make any money?”

We are sitting in an office in the Latvian Academy of Culture: the International Editor of Dienas bizness, the business section of Latvia’s leading daily broadsheet, and I, Professor of Culture and Economy at Heriot-Watt, having just delivered a keynote at the Academy’s Cultural Crossroads conference as part of Riga’s year as European City of Culture.

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“It depends,” I say, “what you mean by ‘culture’.”

If we think of it merely in terms of the cultural industries that since the mid-1980s have been seen as having replaced the money-spinning manufacturing industries of an earlier age, then it depends indeed on which part of the cultural industries we are looking at: some are lucrative cash cows, others are more like bottomless pits.

But that is not the best way of looking at culture and economy, and may even lead to entirely wrong conclusions. If culture is understood more broadly in what used to be anthropological terms (before ‘culture’ was ousted from much of anthropology in favour of ‘society’), then the utilisation of culture as a resource for development – which had been the topic of my keynote – can be realised as bringing significant benefits to society. However, many of these are not easily captured in monetary terms. There are examples where investment in cultural activities leads to a step change in local culture, understood more broadly, that raises the quality of life for all concerned.

Take Derry-Londonderry’s experience as UK City of Culture 2013, for example. It is early days yet, but all indications are that, whatever the immediate financial outcome, the city is a better place as a result of the year’s activities. Riga and Latvia, with their own ethnic tensions, take more than a passing interest in such conjunctions of culture and economy.

What’s in a name?

Click here to see British Sign Language version of this post

You may have seen earlier blog posts from me where I discuss the research that I am currently leading on language brokering experiences in the Deaf community. In that research I am replicating the work that has been done on child language brokering with spoken language brokering to explore how, when, where and why it happens in the Deaf community, and the experiences language brokers in mediating information for their family members.

The term brokering “focuses attention on the whole cultural meaning of such an event, in which any interpretation is simply a part” (Hall, 2004, p.285), and language brokering is typically conducted by children and young people that are more adept at a particular language than their parents, for example in migrant families where children may learn to speak the language of their new country more quickly than their parents. Child language brokering literature has identified that the typical age for children to begin brokering is 7 or 8 years old, once they have sufficiently acquired proficiency in the new language to mediate for their parents; and that children broker in a range of contexts, including medical, educational, retail and legal situations (Tse, 1996; Wiesskirch & Alva, 2002).

In the Deaf community, brokering is performed by children with deaf parents. As they are exposed to both spoken and signed languages from birth, however, it seems that these children begin to broker as early as age 4 or 5 (Napier, in press).

Children who are hearing that have deaf parents are typically referred to as Codas (Children of Deaf Adults), and there are organisations to support these people as kids and as adults to share their experiences (e.g., CODA UK &Ireland, CODA Australia, CODA International). Research has been conducted with Codas to explore their identity and describe their struggles with how they felt being ‘hearing in a deaf world’ (Preston, 1994; Adams, 2008).

But it’s not a struggle for everybody. I am a ‘Coda’, but I have never felt comfortable with the term, as I have written elsewhere (Napier, 2008). Firstly, I am not a child, and my parents are not just ‘adults’, they are my parents. I don’t mind being identified as someone who grew up in the Deaf community, in fact I am proud of my language and cultural heritage, but the term ‘Coda’ conjures up too many pejorative connotations about kids taking on responsibilities to ‘take care’ of their parents from a young age through brokering. I also resist labelling of this kind as I believe that we all have multiple identities. Not only am I a daughter, but I am also a wife, a mother, an interpreter, a researcher, a teacher. My ‘Coda’ inheritance is only one part of my identity.

Another reason that I am not comfortable with the ‘Coda’ label is the assumption that it is only hearing people that grow up with deaf parents that take on a brokering role. My research has shown that deaf people with deaf parents also broker – often because their language skills are better, or they can speak better than their parents, or are just more confident (Napier, in press, 2014).

There is a term to refer to these people – as ‘Dodas’ (Deaf of Deaf Adults), and there is a closed group on Facebook, but it’s not a particularly popular term. And these people are typically excluded from Coda events and organisations. But they may well have similar experiences to share.

I think it is important that both hearing and deaf people who have grown up with deaf parents should have their language and cultural heritage acknowledged, especially in relation to what they bring to the sign language interpreting profession, given that there is increasing recognition of the work of deaf interpreters (Adam, Stone, Collins & Metzger, 2014).

I believe that, to quote a participant at the recent Association of Sign Language Interpreters UK (ASLI) conference where I presented, the term ‘Coda’ is “outdated and outmoded” (Jennifer Smith, Twitter [@jennifersmithuk], 28 September 2014). We also need to think more broadly about people who have grown up with sign language – not only with parents, but also siblings and extended family.

So I suggest a new, more all encompassing, convention – to refer to “People from Deaf Families” (PDFs), which includes deaf or hearing people that have grown up using sign language regularly with one or more deaf members of their family.

This term includes both deaf and hearing people, and also does not distinguish between children or adults, and does not focus only on people that have deaf parents.

In the same way that it’s difficult to make changes to a pdf document, we can’t change who we are. Being a PDF should not be taboo. The professionalisation of sign language interpreting has meant more focus for training on recruiting L2 sign language learners in to the profession, which has been invaluable to the Deaf community. But we shouldn’t forget the deaf and hearing people that grow up in the community have a wealth of experience to bring (Williamson, 2012). Various authors (e.g., Stone, 2008) have discussed how the Deaf community are less engaged with selecting people to become interpreters, and many interpreter education programmes are trying to re-engage with the community through service learning (see Shaw, 2012). The swing to professionalism has led to a situation where it seems that PDFs are almost apologising for having sign language heritage. It could be seen that this is a form of intangible cultural heritage.

I don’t want to be divisive. We all have the same goal in mind – let’s work together to provide the highest quality interpreting and translation services for the Deaf community. So let’s embrace deaf and hearing PDFs, recognise and value their heritage; in the same way we should recognise and value the life experiences of others who have chosen to learn our language and be a part of our community – they chose us.

After holding a discussion group at the ASLI conference in September 2014 with sign language interpreters about the topic of language brokering, the majority of whom did not have sign language heritage, I first suggested this PDF term. Comments from the group were very positive and people responded well to this more all-encompassing term.

What are your thoughts…?

IRC Guest Lecture: Culture and Power among Palestinians in Tel Aviv

The IRC Guest Lecture series kicked off last week, with journalist and anthropologist Andreas Hackl’s talk on “Culture and Power among Palestinians in Tel Aviv: An Intercultural Perspective”.

With his natural flair for storytelling, Andreas took us on a journey to modern-day Israel, where the Palestinian citizens of Israel have taken part in an ongoing struggle to preserve identity, culture and a national identity while at the same time living in the midst of Israeli society.

Making up some 1.3 million or 17 percent of Israel’s population today, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are the descendants of those Palestinian Arabs who did not become refugees in 1948 – when Israel was created – but were incorporated within the boundaries of this state that continues to define itself as Jewish (and democratic). What is important is that the Palestinian or Arab citizens of Israel are not a minority that immigrated into a majority-society, but rather an indigenous former majority to which a foreign colonial project and a state had forcibly immigrated. Palestinians in Israel are then dealing with the condition of ‘exile at home’ in their everyday lives. This includes the complex and difficult balancing of power and culture by individual members of this ‘marginalized minority’.

The everyday political and cultural dilemmas are specifically severe among Palestinians in Tel Aviv, a city often imagined to be an exclusively Jewish-Israeli place. Here, Palestinians’ historic luggage and their national and cultural identities often stand in sharp contrast to the social and cultural environment in the city and Tel Aviv’s own discursive identity. The result of Palestinians’ opportunity-oriented inclusion into Tel Aviv – whether in search for work, education, or an urban lifestyle – is often the uneasy coexistence of everyday struggles with power and culture on the one hand, and the often innovative and empowering tactics of individual Palestinians on the other.

For Palestinians in the city of Tel Aviv, conflict and peace, or resistance and cooperation, coexist.

Andreas’s talk raised some serious questions on the issues of plurality but at the same time partiality of identity. The ‘exile at home’ takes the traditional anthropological view of liminality to new levels. Important questions were also raised on multilingualism in modern-day Israel. As a journalist and a researcher he relied on interviews and ethnographic engagement to capture and convey the ‘voice’ of the community he was studying. As the Palestinian citizens of Israel often switch between languages depending on context, he too had to be sensitive to the special requirements of each situation – Arabic, Hebrew and English intermixed in many ways. You could write a whole paper about the dynamics of these interviews based on the language used for communication, before you move on to the more crucial power dynamics examined in his work.

Andreas is also a member of the International Doctoral Programme Transformations in European Societies, a collaboration between the universities of Munich, Murcia, Tel Aviv, Graz, Basel, Copenhagen and Heriot-Watt and is one of the editors of the Transformations blog. He is a PhD student in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and DOC-fellow of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Interpreting Needs Troublemakers

Author: Jonathan Downie

I was in London on Saturday for a meeting and I got chatting to some fellow interpreters about the ways that research is challenging how we think about and practise interpreting. Here in LINCS, for example, Robyn Dean is arguing for us to fundamentally shift how we think about ethics, Penny Karanasiou is asking tough questions about the role(s) of interpreters in business negotiations and I am beginning to think that experienced clients might have more helpful views of our work than we do!

All this spells trouble. Doing research like this means threatening some of the most cherished ideas of our profession. Who doesn’t like to coddle the comforting thought that we know better than our clients about, well, everything? If you start talking too openly about problems with mainstream interpreting ethics, you remove one of the few firm foundations in our profession. And as for discussing whether interpreters can do more than “just interpret”, it’s probably safer to just leave that well alone!

But the thing is, all the good researchers I know are very bad are just leaving things alone. Safe is not a word we tend to like. In fact, I was accused of enjoying stirring things up on Saturday. Me? As if!

All joking aside, I do really think that challenging preconceived ideas is exactly what our profession needs. If we discover flaws in our practice or training or in the way we sell our work then of course, it must be confronted. This is where research is at its best. When researchers get their hands dirty and ask difficult questions, sparks begin to fly.

Take Robyn’s work in interpreter training. Rather than just sit back and criticise, she actively trains interpreters to apply the case conferencing techniques used by doctors. I know of many other researchers who do groundbreaking research and then take the brave step of presenting it to professionals so they can apply it.

If interpreting is to thrive in today’s high-tech, always-on world, we need to be able to adjust. This doesn’t just mean adopting some new technology or learning to be fashionable. It means asking the though questions about what we need to change in our practice to meet our clients’ real needs and growing expectations.

Is it scary? Yes! Is it necessary? You bet. But that’s why I do research: to do work that can benefit the wider world. Maybe it’s time we all did the same.