By Aileen - 10/04/2008
One of my favorite columnists, Annalee Newitz, recently wrote about how the English language is changing through the influence of international communication: "The Queen's English is Dead". As often as I have experienced monolingual English speakers happily, but erroneously thinking that everyone speaks "their" language without realizing how much other people may be struggling to understand them, I appreciate an article like this very much. However, it is only one of many, many sides to a much more complex story. As the city of Linz prepares for Linz09 – European Capital of Culture, when all the attention of Europe and some of the attention of the whole world will purportedly be focused on this city, we have to be prepared to be "international". From my perspective, it seems that "international" = English. Consequently, everything – every press release, every web site, every publication of any kind – has to be published simultaneously in German and English. That means everything – even if it is a short announcement about a small discussion that will be held in German – has to be translated from German into English. For me, as a translator based in Linz, this is rapidly turning into a problem. However, I'm not sure that this problem is simply a further consequence of Linz09. Faced with a looming deadline and too many texts not yet translated for an exhibition publication (an exhibition not in Linz), the editor and I both tried to contact other translators to find someone who could jump in and help us finish on time. But every translator that either of us contacted already has so much work that they couldn't even think about taking on any more. I have had too much work for years, every translator I know has too much work: What's wrong with this picture? Annalee Newitz talks about the use of English as a "communication tool", which is a widespread and relatively satisfactory practice. This tool enables people who have no other language in common to communicate with one another at least to some extent, as long as all the parties involved understand that there is more behind the ideas being communicated than can be expressed with this tool. The point here, however, is that communication is actually taking place, and communication presupposes people who have something to say to one another and want a response. A one-sided broadcast is not communication. Maybe I'm missing something, since this growing compulsion to be "international" seems to be so widely taken for granted, but looking at some of the things I translate, I really have no idea who is supposed to be communicating with whom. And sometimes it does get a bit frustrating to feel that I am working so hard to produce pages and pages (or screenfuls and screenfuls) of words that no one will ever bother to look at. Sometimes I have to "steal time" away from translations to turn my attention to something else – like writing blog posts, for instance, or fiddling with the Drupal web site I have been working on for Lottie Child's Street Training project. Between my lack of time and my lack of Drupal experience, I'm not getting anywhere fast, but so far I have spent most of my time fiddling with the i18n internationalization package, slowly going back and forth and back and forth to make sure that switching languages works with the two we have now and that other languages can be added later. There are very good reasons for why this needs to work. Assuming I will ever be able to get it finished, the purpose of this web site will not be simply to present Lottie's work. I think there are more efficient and effective ways of doing that. The purpose of this site is to be a kind of collection point for people in various different places, who have taken part in Street Training with Lottie and want to continue now on their own with the groups that have formed along the way. The web site is to be a "place" for these groups to collect and share and develop and reflect on their experiences. Before Lottie came to Linz to work with Kunstraum Goethestrasse in conjunction with the "City of Respect" idea, a number of the people who were invited to participate felt quite daunted by the prospect of working with an English-speaking artist and were hesitant about joining in for that reason. Working here in person, Lottie was very good at creating an atmosphere of exchange and sharing that was not hindered by language problems, so expanding that now to facilitate further exchange and reflection among different groups that speak different languages in different ways has to allow for different kinds of input that the people involved feel comfortable with. This is not just a straightforward, one-to-one translation like the kind of PR translations that are currently taking up more and more of my time. Sometimes I look at these texts and I am reminded of the way I had to say everything twice, when my sons were younger and most of their friends who came to our house were from the neighborhood primary school. The kids from the neighborhood didn't understand English, so I had to say everything in German, but my sons have always assumed that anything I say in German doesn't apply to them, so I had to say it again in English. Often the actual content of the message didn't really seem to warrant that many words ("Who wants apple slices and raisins?" or "Put your shoes on so we can go to the library."), but communicating the message to the relevant recipients did. I'm not sure who the recipients of this current obsession with "internationalization" are supposed to be. Do they even exist? Does anyone anywhere actually read press releases and announcements in any language?