Thursday, March 23, 2006

Lost in Translation?

I went into this trip expecting that no one in Lui would speak English. To my pleasant surprise, that was incorrect. Many have worked very hard to learn some English. Even many of the children have learned a few phrases in English.

But for the substantive work we had to do, we had to rely on Moru translators. They did an excellent job. But we Americans need to remember a few basic rules.

Speak in short phrases, and get into a rhythm with your translator. When I saw a translator working effectively with an English-speaker, the two would get into what I termed a “call and repeat” rhythm. Speak a short phrase. Wherever you would pause for a “comma” or a breath, stop speaking and let the translator catch up with you. At its best, translation can be like breathing with another person. And there are many good translators in Lui. In fact, the good ones will even “mirror” your body language and hand gestures. When it works well, it’s like beautiful dance or really good theater.

If you speak an entire sentence at once, that’s probably too long. Think and speak in phrases. Trust your Moru translator to work alongside you. Get into that “call and repeat” rhythm with your translator.

Translators and their Moru audience don’t understand colloquialisms very well. Try to avoid these. Phrases like "That dog won't hunt!" just do not have a translation. Try to be mindful of your colloquialisms.

Repetition is good. Say the same thing a couple or three different ways. Your translator will follow you. Say it once literally, say it again metaphorically, say it again another way. Be a poet! Your translator probably is one already.

A translator who is worth his/her salt is “invisible.” When we are speaking to or listening to Moru people, we should fix our eyes on the person who is speaking or the person(s) who are our audience – not on the translator. Never look at the translator, for s/he is just a conduit for the words going between us and the people we’re talking with. You honor the speaker by looking at him or her, and not at the translator.

One more thought: not about translation per se, but about having effective dialogue with the Moru. It sometimes frustrated me a lot, but they are a very, very soft-spoken people. As Americans, we have a tendency to bellow when speaking in groups. Try to match their mode of speaking.

And a thought about body-language "translation" (though that's a poor phrase for what I want to describe). In our formal meetings we tend to stand to speak. Sometimes we might even stride into the center of the room to make our point. But the people of Lui seemed (in my experience) to be quite understated. You who travel to Lui will have many occasions where you sit with groups "in council." Pay attention to their body language and how they address the group. Sometimes they will remain seated and make their point. More often they will stand just in front of their seat and make their point, then sit down. Do the same when you speak. If the clergy and tribal chief and even the Bishop make their points quietly, standing at their seat, then it would be inappropriate for us to go striding into the center of the room to make our Grand Proclamations.

In a word (or two): Watch, listen, observe, and then do as they do. This is a much more formal and ritualistic culture than the typical American is accustomed to. To the extent we can honor -- and even mirror -- their ways, we show honor and respect to them.

"That is what I want to say."

I was going to end my post there. But I need to comment on that phrase. If you are engaged in formal meetings with the people of Lui, you will hear this phrase often. A person will be recognized, stand at his or her seat, say what s/he wants, and then end with the phrase, "That is what I want to say," and then sit down. I don't know why I so much loved this convention, but I certainly did. It puts a period (or sometimes an exclamation point) to what the person has just said.

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