Tripped up by false fluency

January 7, 2000

Culturally specific terms in education can be minefields for even skilled translators, says Pieta Monks.

Pity the Soviet translator of a booklet about a collective farm designed to show western readers the charm of country life in the USSR. Under the photograph of a local rural dance, he wrote this caption: "Young men's balls in full swing".

This booklet was printed before the young translator was made aware of the different kind of image that could be conjured up by these words. Shortly afterwards he suffered a career change and became a street cleaner.

Nowadays there is much more two-way traffic between the West and the former Soviet Union. And East-West educational partnerships are mushrooming. But there is still a lot of difficulty with translating and interpreting culturally specific terms, where there is non-equivalence: words that designate objects, phenomena or abstract concepts that exist and have specific meaning for the speakers of one language but have quite a different meaning, do not exist at all or have a different significance in the other language. The important process of validating courses as part of the partnership is made infinitely more complex by skilled but culturally unaware interpreters mistranslating so fluently into and out of their native language that neither the eastern nor western side realises that vital elements are being fudged, left out or simply wrongly translated.

Circular, never-ending discussions can ensue. How do you discuss a course on public administration and management in Russian when one word, upravleniye, is used for both administration and management? How do you check methods of assessment when methods of assessment and examination are so totally different that there are no equivalent words for them? How do you distinguish between policy and politics when the Russian word politika is used for both? And, finally, how do you get anywhere near solving any of these linguistic/

cultural difficulties when you do not even realise there is a problem until you receive the documentation from the foreign institution and it does not seem to tally

with what was discussed, through an interpreter, at countless meetings.

"But we told them that over and over again," you might mutter. But you did not. You told the interpreter, who understood it in her cultural context and translated it into something that made sense to her and sounded fluent to her compatriots.

Education is one of the most culturally specific of all areas of translation. The system of education evolves in a particular culture that moulds and develops it further. Education can present some of the most difficult problems for translators/interpreteors - but they and we involved in the partnership are often unaware of this.

The Soviet and British systems of education have had decades of separate development. In Britain, lecturers in higher education have had to retrain ourselves, to teach in a more communicative, transparent, student-centred way. We write lesson plans with aims and objectives on them. We write course outlines where we specify learning outcomes and link them clearly to assessment. We give these course outlines to the students and ask for feedback at the end of the course.

Things in general are not like this in the former USSR. There, the educational system is more stable, albeit bankrupt, and, with some exceptions, continues to be teacher-centred. The ex-Soviet university remains in its structure and its teaching methodologies very much an extension of the ex-Soviet school. There the teacher or lecturer is respected as an expert in the field, and the students are there to listen and take notes. Students are also expected to turn up on time for lectures five and half days a week, for seven hours a day and then go home and do their homework. The method of assessment is normally entirely up to the individual lecturer, who has a bewildering array of various assessment mechanisms at his or her disposal, except for the state exams at the end, which can be taken three times and which are oral (hence in Russian the student gives an exam, he or she does not take it).

These differences between East and West have affected the language used to describe the educational process. Equivalence is made especially difficult when discussing a course in a subject that is specific to western culture - such as urban management and public administration and management.

The effective interpreter/translator must know which educational terms are specific only to the British educational system, which terms are general but have different connotations in the two languages, and which terms are specific to the foreign country. They should be aware of the different educational cultures as well as being linguistically fluent in both the original and target language and we should ensure that this is so, either by bringing our own trained interpreters with us who also have cultural fluency in both languages or by making sure the interpreters of the other side are fully briefed in both educational cultures.

If only that hapless translator had displayed a better grasp of linguistic niceties, he might well now be in full swing himself - developing his career alongside burgeoning East-West educational partnerships. Working, perhaps, to smooth the fraught path of innovation and cooperation with real understanding - to the mutual enrichment of both our education systems.

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