What’s my contribution to the GDP?

Monday and Tuesday I participated in the compulsory Theory of Science course. All PhD students at my university have to take the course and produce a paper on a topic related to Theory of Science and their own topic. I like the course and I like Theory of Science. We were discussing the book the “The New Production of Knowledge” by Helga Nowotny, Camille Limoges, Simon Schwartzman, Martin Trow and Peter Scott. The authors claim that there are two modes of acquiring knowledge, the first one is the one going on in the traditional institutions among academics not interdisciplinary and only achievable for a few. The second mode is the one that has moved out of universities with research teams that are interdisciplinary and that also consists of people both with and without academic background. These teams are loosely set together to answer specific questions under a limited period of time.
Personally, I did not like the division into two modes (first of all because the authors made it sound as the OLD used-out mode and the NEW fresh appropriate mode), I would prefer to see it as a continuum, there are research going on at the university, and that research can be both within a single discipline and interdisciplinary, it can have a time limit or it can be very long term. And then there is research going on outside the university in different constellations.
But the most problematic issue for me here is what this tells us about funding. A lot of the important basic research goes on at universities, and most of that research may not be so very “salable” when it comes to getting funding. It’s more attractive to fund a a mode 2 team where you can commission the team to research a particular issue you are interested in (which may be a highly important issue of course such as climate change nowadays) for a set period of time.
I once interpreted Linda Buck (Nobel prize laureate for medicine in 2004), it was a public lecture so I’m not breaking any secrecy here. Her work on the olfactory system was very much unsexy basic research that was hard to get funding for and that didn’t interest many people. She spent many years looking into mouse brains to see how the odors are detected in the nose and interpreted in the brain. She did not say it, but I guess she more than once got the question: “And what’s the good use of that?”. And then something happened and her research has allowed for the DNA-mapping of the olfactory system and she has discovered how the odor travels into the brain and apparently this can open all sorts of doors for the medicine industry. But what if she had been in a mode 2 team? And after four years of studying mouse brain nothing interesting had come up, no answers ready. Of course I do believe that we need both mode 1 and mode 2 research, my problem is that I do not want research to be done only in mode 2.
I mean honestly, what’s my contribution to the GDP? I do not find cures to diseases, I do not stop the climate change, I do not invent new renewable energy sources, I do not even come up with new economic models to make more money. So where is my right to existence in a research world dominated by market economy? I’m not alone in this dilemma, many researchers within Humanities struggle with the same questions. But nevertheless our science is important science too. We all contribute to a better understanding of the world around us, an understanding of those who came before us and documentation to those who will follow. Our community needs us, so we need to be part of the funding too, even if we are not producing immediate results in short term projects. Rome was not built in a day.

Update Jan 21st: I just noticed that the Overworked Translator had a blog post touching this topic, I like to believe that I’m more of a winner than a whiner, although I admit that this post touches upon whining.


The interpreter’s role in the participation framework

Erving Goffman was an anthropologist and sociologist who studied social interaction. Among other things, he proposed a model to analyse the distribution of responsibility between interlocutors. Cecilia Wadensjö (1998) uses this model to analyse the role of the interpreter in an interpreter mediated event. An interlocutor has a given role in a communicative context. The roles can be symmetric or assymmetric depending on the situation. Participants can either be assigned different roles depending on the context or they can take up different roles. The participation framework (Goffman, 1981) gives different participants different status. Anyone who hears an utterance can take on a participant status, but depending on the situation you can have different production formats. The formats can be those of the animator (the person who conveys either his or her own words or of somebody else’s) or the author (somebody who compiles fact or information and makes an utterance but without necessarily being the one who guarantees the correctness of the information in that utterance) and finally the principal (the actor who is fully responsible for an utterance [the fact, the information behind and so forth], you can be the principal both of an utterance regarding your own feelings or something very formal such as the application of a particular law). In order to fully understand the interpreter’s role in the communication Wadensjö adds three reception formats: the reporter (who just reports verbatim what has been said), the recapitulator (who recapitulates what has been said but in an active listening and understanding act, not just verbatim repeating) and the respondent (who listens in order to respond, to take the communication further). The interpreter’s role in the communicative context vary, but has to be seen in the light of the reception formats. The interpreter is an animator and sometimes a principal, but the interpreter is first and foremost a recapitulator (hopefully, since we all agree by know that a word-for-word translation is rarely successful) who sometimes step into the role of responder. The interpreter responds and becomes the principal in utterances such as ”Could you please repeat that” or ”The interpreter would like to ask a question”, i.e. situations when the interpreter goes out of his/her role of conveying somebody else’s message and goes into the role of transmitting a message of his or her own.

Language and thought, Sapir-Whorf and Everett (again)

There an interesting article in New York Times right know. It asks the question if language affects the way you think. The author, Guy Deuthscher, takes his starting point in theSapir Whorf hypothesis (or rather the Whorf, since this is one of the early articles by Whorf he’s referring to). Deutscher claims that time and common sense has proved the concept wrong. He quotes Roman Jakobson who pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages. Jakobson claimed that:

Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.

And on this quote Deutscher reflects further on whether you languages shapes you brain or not. And to me he seems convinced that this is not the case. You CAN describe anything in another language, even if the other language lacks that terminology, Deutscher says. And in most cases this is true of course.

But I’m curious that he not once, discusses the findings of Dan Everett, the linguist who mapped Pirahã, a language in the Amazonian jungle. Everett says that since he got to know Pirahã he has started to doubt that languages do not shape the way you think. Since the Pirahã language is so fundamentally different from other languages and certain concepts are very difficult to explain to a Pirahã. One feature is that Pirahã do not tag past as other languages do and things in the past is therefore very hard to grasp. If you don’t know for instance a historical person or know somebody who knows that person, then there is no proof that that person actually existed for a Pirahã and therefore no reason to believe such a person ever existed.
So maybe Sapir and Whorf weren’t entirely wrong after all, or…

Halliday, Systemic Functional Grammar and Descriptive Translation Studies

The total opposite of structural language theories (such as Saussure) are functional language theories. Here represented first and foremost by Michael Halliday. Halliday is the father of SFL, systemic functional linguistics, from which genre pedagogy (see for instance Pauline Gibbons) seeks its roots. SFL seeks to analyze language from both structure and words in order to establish three meta-functions namely ideational, interpersonal and the textual. I haven’t seen any interpreting research using SFL (absolutely not a guarantee that there isn’t any), but guts feeling says it should fit well. There are some translation research done with SFL as one analysis model though. Apparently the problem with SFL as tool (only as hearsay as I haven’t tested it) is that it is descriptive, but does not really lead you any further. A bit like DTS, Descriptive Translation Studies. DTS was founded by Gideon Toury and became a revolutionary change in direction in translation studies, which up until then was almost solely prescriptive.


I teach from a book by Jan Svennevig Språklig Samhandling and the post is only my interpretation of his book in particular and of systemic functional linguistics in general.

Tips for speakers

One of my research colleagues Anna-Riita Vuorikoski says that the responsibility for understanding a message does not only lie with the interpreter. It is a mutual responsibility between the speaker and the interpreter. Hence we need to educate our speakers as well. The blog Translating and Interpreting has a very good post on Tips for working with interpreters. I cannot say it better myself.

Transcribing anyone?

Almost anything you would like to study about interpreting needs to be transcribed. Your are studying the spoken word and if you would like to classify, analyze, maybe do some statistical calculations you need a written copy. Not much difference if you study the interpreting, a retrospection or make interviews. But transcription takes time, 1 minute of interpreting takes at least 10 minutes to transcribe and the more detailed you want to be the longer it takes. Now, I know interpreting researchers are not the only one’s here, we share this problem with speech and interaction researchers for example. But still!!! I am dreaming of money to hire somebody to transcribe and of corpora of interpreted texts being put in great databases, accessible through internet. Maybe I should start with written surveys instead, much easier to sort and no transcribing involved, doesn’t feel as exciting though. I guess I’ll just continue. I bless my typing teacher in high school, my fate would have been even worse had I not been a fairly fast touch typist (I didn’t get 97 % from the Botswana secretarial college though :))