Figures of Interpretation

This month we published Figures of Interpretation edited by B.A.S.S. Meier-Lorente-Muth-Duchêne. In this post the editors explain how the book came about.

The idea behind this book originated from a research project the four of us conducted collectively. We worked together at the Institute of Multilingualism, University of Fribourg, on the research project “A Web of Care. Linguistic resources and the management of labor in the healthcare industry” funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. As part of this project, we collectively conducted fieldwork at a university hospital in Switzerland where we encountered many people who interpreted, ranging from medical doctors, cleaners, professional medical interpreters, technicians, secretaries, mothers, brothers, daughters and sons.

This experience was our inspiration for Figures of Interpretation. We learned how people who interpret came in many guises and were first-hand witnesses to structural oppression, exploitation and disenfranchisement, as well as resilience and hope. We realized that they were figures whose lives revealed larger historical and structural processes through the singularity of their individual trajectories. We wanted to know more about them. We felt that what we experienced was not unique to the particular site and situation we were exploring. We were convinced that such figures have existed for a long time, in various places, with diverse valuation process. We started to think of papers we had read from colleagues who – without framing their analysis in terms of figures of interpretation – provided glimpses of the trajectories of such figures. We recalled conversations with friends and scholars who could have been those figures themselves or who encountered them in their own fieldwork. We imagined situations and moments when people we knew could have met figures of interpretation without necessarily looking at them as such. Progressively, the book took shape in terms of content, and we believed that bringing those experiences together in a volume could allow us to engage in a wider debate about what interpreting does and what it means.

But we also thought a lot about how to grasp these figures, how to talk and write about their lived experiences. The issue of writing about these figures coincided with our own trajectories in academia. We were a bit fed up with the canon we were socialized into, and slightly disillusioned by the limitations we imposed on ourselves and that were imposed to us by academia. We wanted to explore something else without necessarily knowing where it would lead us, nor if this was the right way to do. But we were excited to try it out. The idea of vignettes, of written portraits emerged and we gave it a first go with a couple of figures we encountered in our fieldwork. We realized that writing these short texts was not only challenging, but also forced us to look at the trajectories and the practices of the interpreters in a different way, giving space for a certain type of narration that fully endorses the interpretative dimension of figures of interpretation. Then we envisioned what the book could become if the people we had in mind would participate in such an adventure. We were fortunate enough that most of the colleagues and friends we contacted were enthusiastic about this idea, accepting with joy, excitement, fears and doubts. Many wrote the texts outside of their paid hours, or away from what might be immediately measurable in their professional lives. Many felt happy to have fewer constraints. All were open to doing something different(ly): either by stepping out of the constraints of academic writing, or by engaging with an academic audience for the very first time.

And here we are. Neither the contents nor the format of this book corresponds to academic standards. Instead of showcasing methodological innovations or discussing theoretical paradigms, this collection of 31 portraits invites readers to be conscious of their own interpretations, aware of the editor’s decisions of order and their necessary arbitrariness and attentive to the illustrations that themselves follow their own line of interpretation. This book is also an interpellation on the fundamentally collective dimension of knowledge production. Each portrait constitutes a piece of a complex puzzle. We need Sandra, Quintus, Conrad, Bintou, Ilona, Aïcha and all the other figures to grasp what interpreting is and what it does. And we need Kathleen, Aneta, Carlos, Arnaldo, Biao, and all the other authors of this book to guide us towards a better understanding of the manifold challenges interpretation as a social practice entails. This collection welcomes the readers to participate, see differences and make their own connections.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Decolonising Multilingualism by Alison Phipps.

What Takes Place Behind the Scenes of Research?

This month we are publishing Critical Reflections on Research Methods edited by Doris S. Warriner and Martha Bigelow. In this post Doris explains how a stolen car and a shut-off notice, amongst other things, led her to reflect on her experiences as a researcher.

In 2001, a participant in my dissertation research study called. She told me that her car had been stolen. She said she had been pulled out of the car and injured before they drove away with it. I was listed as a contact person on the police report, so I was later contacted in the middle of the night to be told that the police had located the damaged car at a local truck stop. I eventually helped to retrieve the damaged car from the impound lot. That same year, another participant needed help talking to the local utility company after receiving a shut-off notice in the mail. I accompanied her to the appointment and helped everyone understand what was going on and what needed to be done in order to avoid having power disrupted.

These are just two of many situations which caused questions and doubts to swirl and bounce around in my head. I wondered whether this constituted research, how to engage, and what else might require quick unplanned responses. As I endeavoured to manage these unexpected circumstances, weigh decisions, and understand the potential consequences of my actions, I was filled with uncertainty.

Over the past 15 years, I have continued to work in research contexts with unexpected twists and turns. I have also tried to mentor graduate students through many situations, relationships, contexts, and challenges that they too could not have anticipated or prepared for. I have looked for answers to questions about ethics, relationships, trust-building and process in my experiences as a researcher, in books on qualitative research methods, and in the work of colleagues also working in complex research contexts.

However, while I found many generic discussions of research ethics (e.g., the need to obtain IRB approval and how important that is), I did not find the honest, first-hand accounts of unresolved questions, misgivings, doubt and uncertainty that seem to characterize my own experiences as a researcher. Hungry for more revealing accounts of what takes place behind the scenes of the situations and scenarios written up in peer-reviewed publications, I began to examine some of the questions, challenges and limits surrounding methods of inquiry, analysis and representation.

In 2014, I organized a session for the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association entitled Critical Reflections on Theory and Method: The Possibilities and Limits of Anthropological Work on/with/for Refugee Communities. In 2015, I organized a session for the American Association for Applied Linguistics on Producing Knowledge about/with/for Vulnerable Populations: Collaborations, Constraints, and Possibilities. Combined, the two sessions brought together junior and senior scholars who had navigated relationships, roles, reciprocity and knowledge production processes in complex multilingual contexts and who had many important insights to share about their personal experiences, questions and accomplishments.

This edited collection showcases work that delves into, explores, and examines the possibilities and limits of our methods, our relationships, our roles and our research stories. I hope it will be of interest and value to researchers working on sensitive issues or in challenging contexts. And I look forward to continued conversations with all of you about the relationship between the methods of inquiry we use, the types of knowledge we help to produce, and our lived experiences as researchers.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Educating Refugee-background Students edited by Shawna Shapiro, Raichle Farrelly and Mary Jane Curry.

Apartheid: Controversy and Ambivalence

This month we have published Language Learning, Power, Race and Identity by Liz Johanson Botha which explores the situation in South Africa where the colonial population has learned the language of the native population, isiXhosa. In this post, Liz discusses the controversies of the apartheid era and the complex language situation of the region.

Language Learning, Power, Race and IdentityApartheid was always controversial. Many were shocked that anyone could think of separating people so completely from each other by virtue of their race and skin colour, even though apartheid was a logical extension of the racial segregation which had been entrenched throughout the colonial era in South Africa and many other colonies. I remember my father looking round him at the population in Cape Town, the outcome of co-habitation over hundreds of years between colonists, the local Khoi and San people, and slaves from many different lands. ‘How they think they can unscramble this egg is beyond me,’ he said. But a kind of separation – or at least categorization – was attempted by introducing a number of different sub-divisions of ‘coloured’, or ‘mixed-race’ people, and ways of testing which group each person belonged to (e.g. If you put a pencil through this person’s hair, does the hair hold it, or does it fall through the hair?).

Although apartheid was clearly a way of entrenching white power and supremacy and keeping other races ‘in their place’ as labourers for the white state and economy, its creators controversially and persuasively claimed that it was the best and fairest way to deal with South Africa’s race problem: to compel different groups to develop separately, ‘along their own lines’. As far as language was concerned, bilingualism was defined as the ability to speak both English and Afrikaans, in spite of African language speakers being in the majority in the country, and social separation was so strictly imposed that most whites did not get a chance to acquire an African language, nor were they taught one in school.

In the long run, apartheid came to be seen as the ultimate dehumanisation of people; a crime against humanity. In the post-1994 democratic South Africa, it is difficult to find a white person who will admit to having supported it, although the Nationalist Party won a majority in the white parliament for close to 50 years. Apartheid is a subject which provokes responses of avoidance and denial among white people: there is guilt over the part they played, often blindly, in the structures of privilege created by the apartheid state; there is also indignation and a sense that blame cannot be attached to someone who was living a life which fitted into current patterns of ‘normality’, and was a good life in as far as they saw it at the time. And much of the socialization into racist attitudes has proved immutable.

Perhaps apartheid is also controversial because of the ambivalence which many feel towards ‘the other’: race theorists have noted that while we often fear and despise ‘the other’, we also feel longing and desire, a sense that ‘the other’ is part of us in a very profound way (Hall, 2000). It is this which prompted people to break through the corpus of draconian apartheid legislation to connect across the racial divides, sometimes with tragic consequences. And it is this ambivalence which becomes one of the powerful themes in my book: Language Learning, Power, Race and Identity: White Men, Black Language. I examine the life stories of four white men who grew up on farms in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, playing with young Xhosa boys, learning their language and sharing their lifestyle. The book examines the process of their language learning against the background of theories which are part of the ‘social turn’, and uses post-structuralist and post-colonial theory to look at how their language skills and early socialization affect the construction of their racial and social identities within the sharply divided apartheid society in which they live, and within the post-1994 South Africa, in some ways radically different from the past, but in other ways horrifyingly the same.

While all of the men grew upon farms, none of them works on a farm, and each has responded in a different way to the changing power dynamics within their places of life and work. The book concludes that the life story interviews show complexity and multiplicity in the men’s identities: they position themselves in white space, using discourses on race which are typical of white people (Frankenberg, 1993; Steyn, 2001). However, the facet of their identities which experienced, in childhood, what could be called ‘carnival space’, where inequalities are inverted and ‘life is one’ (Bakhtin, 1981: 209), informs their attitudes and decisions, and the directions taken by their lives.