Making culture, making translations

It’s like someone put our culture in a centrifuge.  Things now move away from one another at speed.  The Vegas "player," the Meth crisis task force administrator, the person in LA who casts actors for films and television, the Atlanta housewife equestrian, the museum administrator in the Miami Latin community, the Dallas 14 year old who spends most of her time playing Dragon Age, the electrical engineer who works for Ford, these people live a long way a way from one another, culturally speaking.  They are not just out of shouting distance. They work from different assumptions.  They inhabit different world views.

Which is not to say they do not need one another.  These days serendipity is our special friend.  Because while the problem these people face may be diverse, the solutions share certain structural properties.  And even if this is not true, the truth of one domain makes a dandy and illuminating metaphor for another.  If these parties could talk to one another, they would be immediately or indirectly valuable to one another.

But of course they don’t talk to one another.  They do not have the translation table necessary for even a simple conversation.  So even simple conversations can be too laborious to establish the momentum conversations must achieve to sustain themselves.  If we don’t get airborne in quite short order, we just stop talking.

Plus of course distance makes for its own kind of difficulty.  Some years ago I was sitting in a Kansas hotel bar chatting somewhat awkwardly with a senior African American male.  He was nursing a drink while his wife met with other women in the ballroom next door.  (They were talking about how to raise African American kids in the prosperous suburbs of the middle and upper middle class.)  It took the husband and me some time to establish a link.  It took still more time to find a topic.  It then took a while to talk about the topic. (This proved to be the why the women were meeting next door.)  There was a lot of "not saying" and "not asking" which required a lot of guessing on my part.  To be honest, I’m still not exactly sure about some of what I "learned."

What we need are mediators.  No, not that kind of mediator.  Not the kind who comes in and helps everyone "get to yes." I mean a more literal kind of mediator.  We are not talking about shared interest or conciliation.  We’re talking about shared understanding.  This is the mediator who brings the casting agent and the electrical engineer together and helps them achieve mutual comprehension.

Think of yourself as a Rosetta Stone, a translation table capable of turning one language into another.  This would make a great exercise.  Choose two people and "translate" them.  It would make a good thesis.  Specify all the things in a detailed, thoughtful way that one party needs to know about the other.  Come to that, it would make a fantastic book.  In any case, it’s a wonderful contribution to culture, to the culture of culture.  

Photo: Fernand Braudel (1902 – 1985), the French geographer, who was very good at translation.  See the Wikipedia entry here


McCracken, Grant.  2011.  Making Culture, Provoking Culture.  This Blog Sits At The Intersection of Economics and Anthropology.  January 13.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2011.  Making Culture, Categorizing Culture.  This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Economics and Anthropology.  January 10.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2011.  Making Culture, Mapping Culture.  This Blog Sits At The Intersection of Economics and Anthropology.  January 7.  here.

3 thoughts on “Making culture, making translations

  1. Jason

    Sounds like you didn’t really need a translator, just an ice breaker. People may come from different worlds but every two people no matter how culturally different they are…are like a Venn diare a Venn diagram. There’s almost always some overlap. What we need is a process to get us there quickly.

  2. Kate Hammer

    Grant, your challenge to readers is a good one.

    Mediators is one name for cross-tribal translators. In my experience, catalysts is another.

    As a catalyst, I’m spearheading a cross-tribal conversation of sorts at Today, in month 2 since a soft launch, the site crossed the 20,000 hits milestone. Allied to the site is a Twitter feed @one4ruby, a Facebook group and a flflickr page #red4ruby – giving people access to a range of modalities to speak and share.

    If you skate through the comments and contributions, you’ll find words and imagery from an array of people who might never otherwise “meet”. A 13-year old swimmer training for the Olympics sharing alongside a school mom and a Turner Prize winning artist. A teddy bear blogs. Comments are posted in Thai. What makes it possible at One4Ruby is shared curiosity and concern for a little girl who outfoxed death and is steadfastly struggling to recover. Shared purpose also builds the bridges you rightly explain are missing.

    I feel the reason the site works in a sustainable way is that it offers so many different facets of the family’s life and goals which individuals however different one to the next can connect. Just tonight I read business storyteller Kieran Levis’s account of eBay’s early days. It’s a great story of inadvertent ingenuity, not dissimilar to the inadvertent courage and determination of Ruby and her family. One4Ruby had great success using eBay so I wrote Kieran and asked if Ruby’s mom (a Buddhist scholar with a Fulbright Fellowship waiting) could interview him about eBay for the site. And Kieran Levis said yes. When that happens, the voice of the chronicler of the internet age will sound alongside the teaching assistant whose swift CPR saved Ruby’s life (the first time). And why not? And who knows what conversations that will trigger?

    From a cross-cultural perspective, I think the site may be interesting for you. I hope you’ll visit.

    I enjoyed our dinner with you and Pam in London very much. Amongst all the criss-crossings we each advocate, I hope 2011 brings another such intersection.

    The cross-cultural dialogue is at the service of a larger aim, a hope for a child’s recovery and restoration. And within that frame, a wide range

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