Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Cross-cultural miscommunication in a war zone

Savage Minds blogger Kerim has an interesting take on a Guardian Films video by John D McHugh, Teresa Smith and Alex Rees.

In the short video, a local Afghan elder and a coalition military leader fail to communicate their ideas about proper responses to Taliban fighters, due in large part to poor translation by the military translator.

Kerim refers to Deborah Cameron's The Myth of Mars and Venus when he suggests that, unlike classic discussions of cross-cultural miscommunication, this failure to understand one another results from serious power differentials.
Treating the military’s lack of respect for local cultural knowledge as a cultural problem which can be solved by hiring anthropologists ignores the very real ways in which the military itself operates as a system for producing knowledge about the world, and the role of local knowledge in that system.

This is an interesting and important observation, but I would add one more.

Simply being a bilingual, in the sense of speaking two languages relatively fluently, does not qualify one as a translator. The translator in the video does not appear to make a real attempt to communicate the Pashto speaker's message. A simple direct translation would have been more effective, assuming the video's subtitles are reasonably accurate. Better yet, translators should be given a brief course in interpretation and translation, covering issues of communication and context, as well as formal linguistic issues.


Blogger Kerim Friedman said...

Thanks for the link. Your final paragraph highlights my point. While it is nice to think that experts on culture could have a role in improving the quality of translation, here even a simple direct translation would have done a world of good. One has to respect local knowledge enough to know what people are saying before one can even bother trying to talk about what constitutes a more culturally sensitive translation.

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