Translating "America," Translating the "Other"

Cross-cultural (mis)communications in an age of globalization

Karen Stolley

Professor of Spanish

Donald Tuten

Associate Professor of Spanish and Linguistics

During the past decade—after 9/11 and in the context of a continuing global financial crisis and multiple instances of global conflict—many in the United States have sought to understand its position in the world alternately through reaffirmations of American exceptionalism or through a discourse of decline, articulating a global narrative with the U.S. at its center. 

In effect, these pursuits are ways of answering the question, How do Americans imagine the U.S. and themselves? But rarely are other questions posed, such as: How do others in the world understand the U.S.? How do Americans imagine “Others” in the world, and how do those “Others” imagine the U.S. in turn? These questions then lead to another, broader one having to do with how societies imagine and represent themselves vis-á-vis other societies in a process that might be described as inverse complementarity (“we are what they are not”). 

In order to appreciate this process and begin to answer these questions, we take translingual and transcultural competency as a point of departure. What do we mean by this? Our fields have seen a great deal of discussion recently of the problems implicit in what have been called “monolingual internationals,” that is, those who aspire to engage a global world with a limited degree of cultural or linguistic competence. As our Emory colleague Hazel Gold has noted in a forthcoming piece in the bulletin of the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages, the “monolingual international” is still common, even on “campuses paying lip service in their mission statements to the increasing demands placed on an educated citizenry by globalization.” Indeed, the “monolingual international” has been celebrated more publicly by Larry Summers in a notorious 2012 New York Times editorial titled “What You (Really) Need to Know.” In a section in which he emphasizes the need for students to have more international experiences in order to “breed cosmopolitanism,” Summers calls into question the value of language study and predicts that it will become “less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East,” given the predominance of English as a global language. 

Even at Emory, as at other Research I universities, despite a commitment to promoting study abroad and sponsoring increasing numbers of international students, the study of languages and cultures is often viewed in a narrow, instrumentalist fashion (as reflected in Summers’ comments) as something leading to multilingual, and perhaps multicultural, competence. Multilingual and multicultural competence, however, assumes that one is “merely” replicating the competence of an educated native speaker (even if one were to accept that as an achievable goal). 

In contrast, translingual and transcultural competence assumes the ability to operate between languages and cultures. People with this kind of competence are able “to reflect on the world and themselves through the lens of another language and culture. They learn to comprehend speakers of the target language [the language being learned] as members of foreign societies and to grasp themselves . . . as members of a society that is foreign to others,” as described in a 2007 report from the Modern Language Association on “Foreign Languages and Higher Education.” They also understand that perfect translation from one language to another is never possible. Consider, for instance, the positive connotations of English individualism and the traditionally negative connotations of Spanish individualismo, which are listed as exact equivalents in any bilingual dictionary or Google Translate. 

How does one acquire this sort of competence? Immersive experience in other languages and cultures forms a foundation. It is not enough, however. Critical reflection on such immersive experiences is equally important. It is the union of action and reflection that is the hallmark of translingual and transcultural competence.

Meetings last year of the chairs of language and culture departments in Emory College of Arts and Sciences (Classics, French and Italian, German Studies, Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies, Russian and East Asian Languages and Culture, Spanish and Portuguese), convened by Hiram Maxim, Director of the Emory College Language Center, led to a proposal for a spring 2014 University Course that would engage faculty and students from across the university in a critical reflection upon these issues through an interdisciplinary and—to the degree possible—translingual/transcultural exploration. 

We will begin the course by reading selected chapters of Ron and Suzanne Wong Scollon’s Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach. These readings provide concrete examples of cross-cultural communication in conversation and writing in order to explore the difficulty of trying to understand and communicate with “others”—in both directions. This will serve to establish a foundational critical reflection on how cultural norms are read and misread, respected, and challenged across cultural and linguistic boundaries. For example, what are the cultural assumptions and communicative consequences of addressing someone by a first name rather than by last name and title? What are the cultural assumptions and communicative consequences of “getting right to the point” (deductive rhetorical organization) versus working one’s way indirectly towards an argument or request (inductive rhetorical organization)? Given such considerations, how can we ever know if we are understanding each other?

Further discussions and readings will be organized around the following cartographies: the Islamic world, Latin America, and Europe (with particular emphasis on Germany). Of course there are other countries and regions—most notably, China, India, Brazil, the African nations—that could be included in the seminar and which will certainly come up in our discussions. In addition to the three regional foci, we have chosen three topical concentrations: empire and power; gender and sexuality; and consumer culture and the global economy. These three “umbrella” questions will enable us to consider and compare specific instances to which our guest presenters—from Oxford College, Goizueta School of Business, the Rollins School of Public Health, the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, Candler School of Theology, Emory Law School, the Laney Graduate School, and Emory College of Arts and Sciences—will speak. 

With the help of these guest lecturers, we will read and discuss a wide range of texts—literary, linguistic, anthropological, cinematographic, political, economic, marketing, and media—as evidence of communicative border crossing, analyzing discourse (ways of thinking and talking/writing) in a way that subsumes methods of literary, cultural, and linguistic analysis and is widely applicable to diverse kinds of cultural evidence. Course participants, each with a particular set of cultural assumptions and experiences, will be asked to respond to these texts and analyze their responses, as well as those of others, in order to approximate the action and reflection that make up translingual and transcultural competence. 

We are also planning to organize a co-curricular film festival related to the topic that will expand the conversation to include a broader audience. We will select films in various languages that deal with issues of cross-cultural communication and miscommunication, understanding and misunderstanding (including views of the U.S. as “Other”), such as the very obvious choice Lost in Translation or others such as Paris, Texas, and Y también la lluvia. Campus screenings will be followed by discussions led by participants in the University Course who will themselves reflect various sorts of translingual and transcultural experience. Even though much of the work of the course will necessarily take place in English, these discussions will open up a space for the practice of and critical reflection on the nature of translingual and transcultural competence.

As Emory becomes more international, and as its faculty and students commit to “doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East,” among many other worthwhile initiatives, that commitment must reflect an understanding that a U.S.-centric and English-only approach will not, in the end, serve these goals.

Further Reading

Gold, Hazel. MLA 2013 Roundtable “The monolingual international”; forthcoming in ADFL Bulletin.

“Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World.” Report of the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages, 2007.

Summers, Lawrence H. “What You (Really) Need to Know.” New York Times, January 20, 2012.

Ron Scollon, Suzanne Wong Scollon, and Rodney H. Jones. Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach. 3d edition. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.