Translation and ethnography

Roundabout While on the road, I got thinking about the kinds of translation and translators that work for ethnographic purposes. 

Who do we want to work with?  How do we want to work with them?

Here’s a hierarchy of possibilities.  It runs from least desirable attributes (1) to most desirable (7).

1. stupid, mean, and aggressive

2. stupid and mean (but not aggressively so)

3. stupid (but otherwise benign)

4. smart

5. smart and questing (devoted to a purpose, quickens to the pace)

6. smart, questing, and creative (grasps the the objective and is prepared to move conversational and conceptual furniture around to get at it)

7. smart, questing, creative and graceful (interested not just in the outcome but the generosity and good humor with which this objective is accomplished)

In Europe, I had several great translators: Barbara Bruer for Germany, Kathleen Flanagan, Swati Sarkar-Elbaz for France, and Peter Van den Meutter for Belgium.  (Emails available on request.) These people occupied categories 5, 6 or 7 in the hierarchy.  Indeed, they inspired the categories. 

Now, I have worked with people who belong to categories 1, 2 and 3.  They were not professional translators and this was, I expect, the source of much of the problem.  As everyone knows, translation is a formidably difficult activity.  Interpretation still worse.  [Apologies to John McCreery for my stubborn use of the lesser term.]  The translator is having to leap not just from language to language, but culture to culture, and mind set to mind set, and to do so in real time.  The exercise veers constantly towards that Lucy routine in which chocolates keep pouring down the conveyor belt.  Meanings and their indeterminacy begin to accumulate but the ethnographer and the respondent don’t care.  They just keep talking.  It’s enough to bring out the stupid, mean and aggressive in anyone. 

It’s not a bad metaphor for the contemporary marketer, especially if the Cluetrain Manifesto authors are right to insist that marketing is a conversation.  The better metaphor makes marketing a conversation in two languages with the marketer as the bridge across which meaning must pass.  Unless you are really good at both languages, you are at risk of being overwhelmed.  (And it is interesting to note that many of the new ethnographers don’t actually know anything about marketing.)

There is a further difficulty (to go back to translation as translation, not metaphor).  If the translator isn’t very bright, it’s hard to see the point of many of the questions or the value of many of the answers.  It must feel to them as if they are being asked to participate in a belaboring of the obvious.  But stupid people (as opposed to complete morons) are usually smart enough to suspect the truth of the matter, that the conversation simply escapes them.  This is when they can be relied upon to act badly.  After all, they need to repudiate what otherwise repudiates them. 

But stupid people are dangerous people for another reason.  And that’s because in these circumstances with the ethnographer empathizing like crazy (yes, that’s the technical term), he or she can’t help empathize even with the stupid person’s stupidity.  This is another way of saying that stupidity is contagious.  When we have someone disparaging our questions (and all it takes with an emphathic is a shift in tone), the question begins to die in flight.  If anyone in the room doubts its useful, I open a blotter in which I doubt its usefulness.  You know, just in case this is the right answer.  It is easy enough to say, Oh, well, just ignore them, and they will go away. At this point in the interview and the project, the ethnographer isn’t making many deliberate choices.  He or she is listening as hard as he can. 

Bad translators actually narrow the world of understanding.  In the best case, there are lots of possibilities buzzing around every remark.  In France, for instance, while talking to consumers about what they add to a product,there were lots of possibilities.  The question was, as it always is, what did they think they were doing?  And as I say, the answers were many: was this completion?, was it customizing?, was it personalizing?, was it appropriating?, was it a point of pride?, was it a fulfillment of role responsibility?, was it some kind of deliberate or unconscious cocreation?  Bad translators will actually help drive these out of the realm of discussion.  Good ones go at it with glee. 
On the happier side, categories 5, 6, and 7, this is where there is value added over and above the work of literal translation.  This is where the translator begins to see what is called for.  (And if this isn’t an intellectual double toe loop, I don’t know what is: actually reverse engineering questions even as you translate them.)  They quicken to the task at hand.  If they really get what’s, they then begin to solve problems that stand in the way of the ethnographer, and if they really have their wits about them, they manage all of this with manners that would put a Washington hostess to shame.  Good manners put the respondent at ease and they help quiet the weary ethnographer who has by this time asked one too many questions in one too many time zones.  In effect, the best translators are becoming anthropologists…and I think the good ones do this so consistently because they are anthropologists in their way. 

And this made me wonder whether the c-school and the culture college we have been discussing on this and other blogs should be recruiting class 5, 6, and 7 translators as surely as we will want to recruit account planners.  As you can see from the last post, I am on my way to Mexico and after that Poland, so lots more opportunity for additional data on the partnerships that might exist between ethnographers and translators!