Word for Word: Wrap-up


Robert Lane Greene

Journalist, author of You Are What You Speak


N. Katherine Hayles

Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Literature, Duke University

Anthony Pym

Director of Postgraduate Programs in Translation, Universitat Rovira i Virgili; Researcher, Monterey Institute of International Studies

Biljana Scott

Senior Lecturer in Political Language and Public Diplomacy, DiploFoundation



Robert Lane Greene

Well, we didn’t figure out translation in all its particulars. Thank God—if we had, we would have shown that we were wrong all along. Over and over, our panelists have pointed out ways in which the dilemmas of translation can simply never be escaped. For all the reasoned technophilia—that computers are getting suddenly better at translation, in particular—we are no further along in the optimism that perfect translation will ever be possible.

Many of the most interesting stories and insights in our week of conversation came from outside the strict subject of language-to-language translation. From Katherine’s discussion of the relationship between book and e-book, to Anthony’s dilemma about whether to correct a bread-and-oil-soaking ritual in a book he was working on, to Biljana’s point that we translate our thoughts into words every time we open our mouths, we realize that “translation” is a much bigger word than usual use allows. That is well and good, because this discussion among a linguist, translator, English professor, and language-loving journalist accompanies an art exhibition that uses translation as a theme both literally and in more metaphoric ways. In our online chat, I wrote that I have to “translate” my reporting into writing, which means editorial decisions of what to include and what to leave out, what to stress and what to mention by the by. Anthony pointed out that real-time interpretation of speech involves many such spontaneous decisions as well, much as we wish to think of interpretation as strictly technical. So we should have no problem extending the notion of translation just as translators extend their imaginations to do their jobs.

I’d like to thank all the panelists for their participation and everyone who’s read and commented on the Forum as well. I’ve enjoyed this discussion even as I’ve come away with more questions than I went in with. I know it will give me some restless nights—what if we can never really understand each other? But that little edge of fear drives us on to make ourselves better understood.