Lost in Translation

Humiliating the ant.  I used the metaphor of an ant colony to explain highly centralized networks. The bulbous queen ant, representing the network’s headquarters, had the worker ants — the local affiliates — do her bidding.  A noticeably agitated man leapt to his feet and, according to my interpreter, demanded to know why I was humiliating the ant.  Turns out he was an ant enthusiast (they exist) and he balked at my simplistic characterization of worker ants as mindless drones. Worse, apparently I called local organizations “stupid slaves”. I spent an inordinate amount of time stammering out apologies to the gentleman, to local organizations, and to ants.

Kernels of confusion. I talked about financial sustainability and fundraising.  There was no local word for fundraising. They just said fundraising in English, pronounced foon-da-rising. But my interpreter did not know this, and translated it as “growing resources,” which the audience understood as raising crops. In a subsequent small group activity, there was lots of talk about growing corn as a sustainability strategy.

The Pony Express.  OK, I researched this one in advance, to reduce the risk of cultural confusion. Turns out that the Pony Express — the first U.S. postal system, in which dauntless horseman galloped across the nation with mail satchels — was well-known in the former Soviet Union, where the American West was mythologized (with Native Americans as the good guys!).  Nevertheless, the metaphor — for ensuring information flow among network partners — didn’t quite work.  In another small group discussion, participants praised the Pony Express model because they came from a horse-based nomadic tradition.  They understood that this model literally comes with a horse.

Much of the confusion I rained down upon the Central Asian non-profiteers was avoidable. For your consideration, when working with an interpreter:

1. Make a list of specialized words that may not easily translate, and spend a bit of time with your interpreter explaining what they mean….and politely ask him/her to repeat the explanations back.

2. Find out whether your interpreter practices simultaneous or consecutive translation. If it’s the former, know that not every word will be translated, and craft your remarks to ensure that overall concepts make sense.  If it’s the latter, practice a bit with the interpreter, to come to an understanding of how many sentences you can speak before he/she needs to jump in.

3. Know your flow.  Speak consistently in medium-sized chunks.  There’s a sweet spot here: long, rambling sentences are easy prey for mistranslation, whereas short bursts result in a disjointed, herky-jerky cadence.

4. Use interpretation to your advantage.  The pauses between your statements allow you to think ahead of your next remark and to read the audience’s nonverbals.

5. Avoid culturally specific references, unless you’re prepared to explain their meaning and context.  (I struggle with this one, since my work is infused with pop culture detritus.)

6. Take a break and caucus with your interpreter if you’re seeing lots of furrowed brows, or if the length of the translation doesn’t match the length of your statements.

(Postscript: I later re-tooled the ill-fated Uzbek workshop and have since delivered it somewhat less embarrassingly, and will post on models of network building at some point.)


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