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Lost and Found in Translation

Sitting in a conference on inter-cultural dialogue - in one of those strange EU set-ups where you have your back to most of the people you are speaking to - I realised how much I was relying on the fact that what I was facing the translators in their booth. Usually these disembodied voices are behind you, at the side of you or even in a different space; but rarely right in front of you. Whilst most of them remained still and seemingly neutral, I noticed that one of them, not necessarily knowing he was watched, always engaged his whole body as well as his voice. I started to follow the connection this had to the person he was translating. And then to see if I could guess something of the speaker before I turned round to look at them. Not wanting to fall into the trap of commenting on national stereotypes (God forbid at such a conference!) it soon became clear that there was a fascinating mirroring going on; his gestures and body-language often reflecting not only the physicality but the age, gender, nationality and much of the spirit of the person for whom he was translating. I realised that his physical empathy with the speaker was also engaging me on a different level with what they were saying. It made me think about the nature of live communication - supposedly 7% what we say and 93% how we say it - and wondering about how this works when we are only experiencing people's thoughts through a disembodied translation. Working with translation has often been a feature of my own work; not only in conference contexts but more frequently in arts based training workshops. And I have always noticed that I feel most comfortable with those more able to enter the spirit of the work than those who, although more accurate in their knowledge of the language, seem more concerned with the precision of their translation. I realise that I feel confident when I can see that the person I am working with is reflecting my style, even my personality in their act of translation. Not subsuming their persona to mine but finding a different way of engaging with the subject matter. In the context of looking at the role that the arts might play in encouraging or supporting inter-cultural dialogue, I then began to think about the nature of physically mirroring others. Not in the sense that it is often used in business contexts, in order to "build rapport and close the deal" but more in the sense of providing a reflective


response that could be viewed, reviewed and shared between subject and observer. In the way that psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, in his book The Analysis of the Self describes the parent reflecting back to the child; as part of a two-way exchange that nurtures a sense of self worth and mutual respect. The arts seem eminently placed to provide this mirroring process in a creative, dynamic and supportive framework. The resonance with projects involving photography, video, film or theatre is clear and immediate. But if we begin to think in a wider, more metaphorical sense of the act of mirroring, then the possibilities are boundless. Three of the students on my MA, recently ran a workshop with a group of refugee women that started by asking all participants to draw round their own hands and then to decorate these hands with images, words, colours that meant something important to them. The use of the decorated paper hands to share their experiences created a safe space that encouraged intimacy whilst distancing participants from the intrusion of enforced reality. Most importantly in this context the three facilitators took part in the activity themselves. They mirrored the women and the women were able to mirror (not copy) them. Influenced by the Johari Window model, they were able to find ways to both disclose and observe, to share and to discover - as artists and participants. The work produced by the women alluded to the journeys they had made, the things they missed from the past, the things they valued in the present, their skills, their aptitudes and, perhaps most importantly, the connections they felt with each other and with the country in which they now found themselves. Which takes me back to the translators in their booth; having to capture not only the words but also the arguments, the emotions, the driving passions of the people whose words they are translating. And wondering how much is lost when we don't see them. Language, in the sense of words alone, is eternally complex. In an inter-cultural context it is frequently a source of bafflement, often a cause of misunderstanding and a repeated reason for disengagement. Shakespeare, through Hamlet, urges his actors not to merely repeat the words of the play but to give themselves completely to the performance. To "suit the action to the word and the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure." Perhaps this is the most effective role that the arts can play in inter-cultural dialogue. To "suit the action to the word" and to hold a mirror up to Europe that will reflect its multi-cultural society in all its richness and all its complexities. Providing not the answers but a means of translating the conversation and facilitating the dialogue.

Lost and found in translation  

A response to a conference on inter-cultural dialogue.

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