Research on, for and with translators

Author: Graham H. Turner

There are many topics one may be well advised to avoid in polite company – and here we are in polite company, so don’t ask me to name them. You know.

But in this age of social media free-for-all, if people are discussing their lives in the blogosphere, is that material openly available to be treated as data by researchers?

A recent paper (http://www.vakki.net/publications/2013/VAKKI2013_Dam.pdf) by Professor Helle Vrønning Dam, from the Department of Business Communication at Aarhus University in Denmark, has stirred up a degree of controversy among professional translators.

Professor Dam’s (http://pure.au.dk/portal/en/persons/id(a0254d63-e724-4476-bd70-5b7642cf0e53).html) work (2013) describes an ongoing project analysing translators’ self-presentation in their weblogs. Some 21 freelance practitioners are said to “use their weblogs to enhance their own and their profession’s status and, ultimately, seek empowerment”.

The paper is characterised by the author as an illustration of ‘the translator approach’, “a new research perspective in translation studies that posits translators, rather than for example translations or translating, as the primary and explicit focus of research”.

I’d be the last to knock any researcher who wants to keep real human beings squarely in focus. There are more than enough analysts out there who appear content to reduce the soul to a desiccated set of metrics (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/fashion/the-united-states-of-metrics.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0).

But if this is ‘new’ to translation studies, it really shouldn’t be. And there are models available that would help enormously to overcome the disconnect between researcher and researched that seems to have caused friction (https://www.facebook.com/groups/extraordinarytranslators/) among some readers of Dam’s study.

Back in the days when I still had hair on my head (no, I did, really), one the books that made the strongest impression on me was Cameron, D., E. Frazer, P. Harvey, M.B.H. Rampton, and K. Richardson. 1992. Researching language: issues of power and method. New York: Routledge. (Astonishingly, it’s not available from the publisher, it appears, but can be bought from as little as £0.01 from certain online outlets.)

As a young academic, I was captivated by the clarity and social solidarity of the authors’ approach. Long before ‘public engagement’, ‘knowledge exchange’ and the need for ‘impact’ became familiar to most academics, Professor Deborah Cameron (http://www.english.ox.ac.uk/about-faculty/faculty-members/language-and-linguistics/cameron-professor-deborah) and colleagues set out three simple ‘programmatic precepts’:

  • “People are not objects and should not be treated as objects.
  • Subjects have their own agendas and research should try to address them.
  • If knowledge is worth having, it is worth sharing.”

Elegant and brilliant. I am convinced that, taken in a serious and considered manner, these principles really work. They have for me for over 20 years. The beauty of them in the human sciences is that, at a stroke, they enhance both aspects of the equation – our humanity and our science.

Have they been applied in our field? Well over a decade ago, I led on a paper called ‘Issues of Power and Method in Interpreting Research’ (see http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9781900650441/ for details) which wears its debt to Cameron et al quite explicitly. The work of Heriot-Watt’s Centre for Translation & Interpreting Studies in Scotland (www.ctiss.hw.ac.uk) has underscored this approach in many ways. ‘Empowering’ methods are highlighted in our Summer Schools (http://www.sml.hw.ac.uk/departments/languages-intercultural-studies/edinburgh-interpreting-research-summer-school.htm) and publications (eg https://benjamins.com/#catalog/books/btl.99.11hes/details).

So empowerment of practitioners by practitioners, as Dam discusses, is one significant step. But it is also eminently possible for researchers and practitioners to combine forces for mutual benefit. And the ultimate target is, of course, a ‘cycle of empowerment’ (as described here https://benjamins.com/#catalog/books/btl.70.21tur/details) which advances the interests of both groups, plus – most importantly of all – the service users in whose interests interpreters, translators and researchers are all ultimately operating.

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About Jemina Napier

Professor and Chair of Intercultural Communication, Department of Languages & Intercultural Studies, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. Signed language interpreter researcher, educator and practitioner.
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One Response to Research on, for and with translators

  1. Pingback: L’e-mmédiateté des blogs | La Poutre dans l'oeil

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