The Never Perfect World of Translation

 

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I’m coming towards the end of my data analysis involving Chinese/Mandarin data. It has been an exhausting process of working in two languages, whether at the technical level of translation or the analytical work of making sense of utterances in one tongue and articulating the analysis in English.

I’ve taken different approaches toward translation for two different types of data. For the data sets involving mobile phone messages, I did the translation on my own and asked my primary participants to verify my interpretation. I felt confident of undertaking the translation on my own as the data was textual and was therefore faster to process the meaning from one language into another in the same textual medium. Furthermore, I was able to dictate the style of translation, aiming for a similar informal style of exchange in English. Also, because I had continued contact with my informants who had provided the data, I was able to consult them to verify my interpretation of the text messages.

For the data set involving audio-recorded interactions, I asked a professional translator to do the transcription and translation. The reasons for not doing the translation on my own were related to my  own limitations: i) The exchange was fast-paced and it would have taken me an inordinate amount of time to undertake the translation; ii) Translation was also difficult for me as I was not familiar with the style of speech of one of the participants. I wanted a full transcription of the audio data in order to do a comprehensive analysis, and I needed to have this textual form in a matter of weeks, not months, in order for my data analysis to progress and not stall. Thus engaging a professional and experienced translator outweighed the benefit of undertaking the translation on my own.

The process of the two different approaches have been illuminating in understanding the nuances of translation from the broader perspectives of pragmatics and linguistics. I learnt a few lessons about translation. One, there may be several possible translations but one may fit the cultural context of the interactants more appropriately than others. Two, in using a Conversation Analytic approach to analysis, there is an inevitable tension between idiomatic and literal translations.

The many face of 恩 (ēn)

In both text messages and face-to-face interactions, the character 恩 or the sound represented by the character 恩 was used throughout. In English, the sound of 恩 is equivalent to ‘uhm’ or ‘um’. If you heard ‘uhm’ in an exchange, it would be transcribed as such and be understood as a continuer in most cases. However, to transcribe it literally as ‘mhm’ would be to miss the point of the 恩 utterance in Mandarin. In text messages, it is more often than not, a response to acknowledge or agree with what was said in the previous turn. In verbal speech, it can be similarly used, or it may also occur as a continuer. Even in the use of as acknowledgement or agreement, there are choices when deciding on an English equivalent: ‘Yep’, ‘yeah’, ‘yes’, ‘ok’, and the like.

When translating the text messages, I read the original exchange several times before deciding on whether 恩 was a nodding ‘yeah’ or a resounding ‘yep’ or an agreeable ‘ok’. In my participants’ review of my translation, there were times where they indicated a preference for a particular translation, e.g. ‘yeah’ instead of ‘ok’, which I incorporated into the final translation. With another similar sort of acknowledgement, 喔喔 (ō) (the character is used in duplication), my initial translation of ‘oh ok’ was replaced with my participant’s preference for ‘O I C’, a common shorthand for ‘oh I see’ in text messaging.

How much translation do you need?

Another lesson in translation came about when I dealt with the audio-recorded data that had been transcribed and translated by a professional translator. After I had received the transcription, I listened to samples of the recording to check against the transcription. My translator had done a stellar job. There were parts of the conversation that were difficult for me to ascertain such as particular words and phrases and what was said during overlaps. But the translator had meticulously captured the details and I was satisfied that it was a job that I could not have accomplished as well on my own.

When I started to read through the transcription and the translation, I then noticed that the translator had taken a particular approach. She had chosen to provide an idiomatic translation at the sentence level, rather than at a phrasal level. This only became obvious to me as I had done the translation of the text message data set on a phrasal level to preserve as much of the sequence and structure of the original text. While it was relatively easy to do a phrasal translation for text messages, doing so for the verbal interaction was not so straight forward. There were many false starts and instances of careless speech which goes mostly unnoticed during actual conversation, but stand out most clearly in transcription. I could appreciate her choice of a coherent translation that conveyed the intended meaning of the speakers, rather than a slavish translation of odd sounding phrases.

However, as I read and re-read, analysed and re-analysed my data, I found myself amending the translation to bear closer resemblance to the sequence and structure of the original language, as far as it was intelligible in English. This allowed me to note what the speaker was emphasising, as well as identity specific points where topic changes occurred.

Another issue I had to grapple with was the level of detail I wished to show in my transcription. In the Conversation Analysis (CA) literature, Hepburn and Bolden (2013) recommend a three-line transcription comprising the original orthography in the first line, a morpheme-by-morpheme translation in the second, and an idiomatic translation in the third. I hesitated to incorporate this detailed level of transcription as I felt that the bulkiness of having a three-line transcription would detract the reader from ease of reading and understanding. Although I used a CA approach in analysis, my research was not solely centred around the CA methodology but rather CA was used as tool to support my analysis. Thus for the verbal data, I decided on a two-line transcription with the Chinese characters in the first line, and the English translation in the second. For the text messages, however, I wanted to re-create the appearance of the text messages as it was on the mobile phone which meant placing the original text in text boxes. The translation of the messages were then placed below the box, rather having it after each line of text.

And the moral of the story is …

Never work alone in translating your data. Tap on your own linguistic and cultural resources but also recognise your limitations. Apart from making accurate translations, other equally important considerations are understanding context and speaker preferences, as well as the analytical goals of transcription.

 

Reference

Hepburn, A., & Bolden, G. B. (2013). The conversation analytic approach to transcription. In J. Sidnell & T. Stivers (Eds.), The handbook of conversation analysis (pp. 57–76). Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell.

The diasporic academic – a narrative in the making

This post marks the start of a new blog – The Diasporic Academic. Starting a new blog allows me to choose a more appropriate title to reflect my current state of affairs. For the past two years, I was using Teacher Sherrie, a blog I started when I embarked on my MAT in TESOL, to write about my PhD experiences and research topics. I’ve been thinking about my academic narrative recently, and I realise that the ‘teacher’ label is simply not the right ‘frame’ for my current, and potentially, future endeavours.

I first heard about the term ‘diasporic academic’ from Wendy Larner during her Keynote Presentation at the 2016 ISANA conference. The presentation was based on her 2015 paper, and according to Larner (2015), the diasporic academic is defined as one with multiple national affiliations. Examples include a researcher from one country based in another country working on a collaborative project, and a doctoral student from one country carrying out research in another country, or travelling between countries for research purposes.

Image credit: Imma Moles

Apart from identifying academics as having links in more than one country, ‘diasporic’ further points to these individuals as being intermediaries, acting as transnational knowledge brokers. They broker international relationships between countries by using “their experiential understandings, linguistic skills and ability to read cultural nuance by providing insider accounts” (Larner, 2015, p. 202).

I remember being inspired by this perspective of foreign/non-native researchers. I wrote down personal notes on what this term meant to me and I discussed this term with some fellow international doctoral students. We concluded that the concept of the diasporic academic was promising but also lamented that the current university climate viewed international doctoral students as funding and research targets more than transnational knowledge brokers. My initial enthusiasm was snuffed out quickly enough.

Recently, however, the term ‘diasporic academic’ began to resonate with me again. In the past six months, I’ve been translating my data, analysing it through translanguaging efforts (Lewis, Jones, & Baker, 2012), that is, thinking in both English and Chinese to make sense of Chinese text and presenting the argument in English. I also finished a draft article on being a bilingual researcher, and presented about conducting cross-cultural research in an English-dominant environment. And then as I sat down thinking about who I was as an academic, what kind of narrative I was trying to write, the answer presented itself: I am a diasporic academic.

I am a diasporic academic, not only as a foreigner researching about international students in New Zealand, but also as a third generation Chinese Singaporean having to differentiate myself from other Chinese, both nationals and diaspora, to those unfamiliar with the ‘Chinese diaspora‘. I have to point out that ‘diaspora’ is a highly contested territory and many may disagree with how I have used the term. Nonetheless, I believe it is a term whose meaning is evolving with changing patterns of migration, whether temporary or permanent. And so the meaning I attach to being a diasporic academic will no doubt change in the course of developing an academic identity and career in the years to come.

 

References

Larner, W. (2015). Globalising knowledge networks: Universities, diaspora strategies, and academic intermediaries. Geoforum, 59, 197–205. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2014.10.006

Lewis, G., Jones, B., & Baker, C. (2012). Translanguaging: Developing its conceptualisation and contextualisation. Educational Research and Evaluation, 18(7), 655–670. http://doi.org/10.1080/13803611.2012.718490

Surviving the PhD in an Age of Uncertainty


I’ve entered my third year of doctoral studies and looking back, I’ve learnt many lessons both pleasant and painful. In this post, I’d like to reflect on what has been important to me in ‘surviving’ but also at times ‘thriving’ in a journey beset by uncertainty.

Uncertainty lurks in all corners of doctoral study, including the research itself such as grappling with theory and data collection and analysis, as well as the supervision relationships. There’s also uncertainty in what comes after – what kind of career will my PhD lead to. There’s no way to avoid uncertainty, but there is a phrase my supervisor introduced to me at our very first supervision meeting that may help manage it – ‘ambiguity tolerance’.

When I first heard it, my first reaction was to shake my head. I didn’t give up a job and travel all the way here to deal with ambiguity. I came here to do research – unambiguous research! Looking back at my naive response,  I can now say that a good measure of ‘ambiguity tolerance’ will get you through uncertainty. If you’re willing to accept that answers don’t always come immediately and may change along the way, uncertainty doesn’t have to turn you into a train wreck.


I’ll frame my reflection about being (in)tolerant about ambiguity along three points: i) research, ii) relationships, and iii) results.

Research

Research is a long and intensive search for answers do I absolutely do not recommend flying solo. Sure, the PhD is about being independently developing new ideas and forming critical thought, but being independent doesn’t mean not using resources and resources include other humans, more specifically, mentors. These are not your supervisors but people who are able to help you make sense of your research.

Recent graduates help you see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Research groups that meet regularly help create a space for intellectual (and social) development. It think one of the most valuable mentors a PhD student can have are those whom the PhD student aspires to become – the academics or professionals in your chosen field. In my experience, they are all around you but challenging to connect with, especially when you’re a cultural/professional outsider. But they’re valuable enough for me to keep trying, even if it’s a brief coffee chat, or several failed attempts before we sit down face to face.

While establishing real life connections with mentors can be hard work without any assurance of success, connecting with virtual mentors, thankfully, is within your control and full of certainty! By virtual mentors, I’m referring to those whose work is about demystifying the PhD process. My top virtual mentors are (in no particular order) Inger Mewburn aka Thesis Whisperer who regularly blogs (and does research on) PhD issues, Pat Thomson who offers nuggets of golden advice on writing, and the ThinkWell team of Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner whose advice on achieving and maintaining high performance is spot on.

Relationships

Supervision relationships for me are really about changing identities over the course of dong the PhD. At the beginning, I believed I was an apprentice learning from the master, expect that it wasn’t clear to me how I was supposed to learn from the master. I simply felt thrown about by the waves of insecurity and feelings of being inadequate. After confirmation of the research proposal, however, I felt that I had finally earned the right to research and became a lot more confident. I was still ‘learning on the job’ and made mistakes along the way, but I saw myself at the steering wheel most of the time. Although my supervision relationships never really took on the apprenticeship model I had hoped for at the beginning, I feel that I’ve thrived in other ways. I had become more tolerant of ambiguity and allowed the ‘unknowns’ to drive me towards searching for clarity – one bit at a time.

Results

Now as I’m working on analysis and figuring out the meaning of it all, while being mindful of deadlines, I’m feeling I should be less tolerant of ambiguity. Yet, there’s still no escaping the process of discovery – one that takes time and patience. For example, the three weeks I had planned on analysing a data set eventually took double the time – and double the agony. I remember feeling that I needed to come up with an answer by the end of the day, but each end of the day seemed murkier than the previous one. But allowing the process of discovery to take its course – as well as stepping back from it to let the mind rest – was what yielded results.

Apart from the results of my research, I’m also concerned about what kind of person I’m becoming as a result of being intensively involved in research. Is life and its periods of illness and mood swings affecting my PhD, or is the PhD affecting my life? This is one thing I don’t want to be ambiguous about – I am not my PhD; it mustn’t end up controlling my emotions and self-image.

A quotation from C.S. Lewis sets me thinking about who I am beyond the PhD: “To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?” It reminds me that achieving a PhD is not the be all and end all of my life. That I – and my research – is really not the most important thing. That an all-powerful God is the one who gives me purpose and the ability to fulfill that purpose – ambiguous to me for now – but will surely be revealed in His time. I can only truly be ambiguity tolerant if I can trust in an unambiguous God.

2016 – A year of living intensively

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My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!
First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I look back at this year and I think of myself as a circus performer balancing plates on my fingertips, toes and nose. Those plates represent data collection, conference papers and presentations, thesis writing and serving the postgraduate community. At times, some plates were spinning slower than others, but none of them came crashing down. I could be extolling the virtues of productivity, but I have to concede all that scheduling and compartmentalising has awful side effects that affected not just myself, but my family as well (a Guardian article elucidates this reality).

Through this one very intensive year, I learnt lessons that no textbook can teach you about doing research – that you never only embody a single role of the PhD researcher; that you mustn’t confine yourself to just doing the PhD; but that in the end, you are ultimately human, not machine, a being with limitations and a spirit that needs to be nourished.

“I am a PhD student.”

Sure, I am a PhD student. My purpose is to conduct research and report on it. And while it is a time and life consuming endeavour, I am also many other people – a mother, a wife, a friend. However, the personal realm didn’t feature much on my very filled out Google calendar. In fact, maybe because it didn’t get penciled in, it just didn’t get done. Since the better part of the day was filled with academic, mostly mentally exhausting, activities, by the time I came home, it was pretty much leftovers for my family in terms of energy and attention. As a non-resident and non-local, building relationships with other families and peers was also important, but that simply dropped off the radar – there were no leftovers after the leftovers. And as for the fabled ‘me’ time, it was barely experienced except when I was on a plane to Wellington to attend a conference.

“Publish or perish!”

And of course, when you do research, there is a need to communicate it to a wider audience. Conferences and publications are important academic/research activities – especially when future employment opportunities are dependant on them. While the PhD research is the central focus, there is also a need to seek out appropriate conferences and publishing opportunities. I was very fortunate to have participated in the recent ISANA Conference, a conference that nurtures doctoral students by having a doctoral consortium and encouraging doctoral students to publish refereed papers. It was also at this conference that the mantra of ‘publish or perish’ was put in perspective. The life of an academic is one of writing – and very importantly – publishing. Getting your work reviewed by intellectual others who are detached from your work and yourself (i.e. not your supervisors and friends) builds the inner capacity to be critiqued and to respond as part of the scholarly conversation. So even though doing the PhD is demanding, it’s simply not enough to write a long and complex tome only a handful of people will read. And even if you were interested in non-academic jobs, prospective employers would still need to see you doing more than just being holed up in a room writing endlessly.

“Is there any wax left in the candle?”

So I’ve realised that I’m more than just a PhD student but the commitment to doing it is draining my energy away from important relationships in my life. I’m also convinced of the need to be a productive academic during my PhD candidature, and not wait till after the PhD. This seems to be leading to a conclusion where I resign myself to another busy year ahead and hope that family and friends will be understanding and forgive me for my lack of tenderness towards them.

But I reject that conclusion. It will be another busy year, without a doubt, but it will also be a more intentional year. My intentions are not grandiose plans, but about making family time a non-negotiable part of my schedule. I’m thinking short trips with the family during school holidays. Better yet if I have to pay for the trips. I know I can’t devote the same amount and kind of energy towards friends but my lunch and coffee breaks can be planned with them in mind. I think the main challenge, however, is to have ‘me’ time that sits outside academic and personal demands.

So instead of going through another intensive year with relationships dangling at the periphery, my hope for 2017 is to be intentional with my time with people who matter, and perhaps I should start with myself. It won’t be a solo trip to a mountain top, but a still morning or quiet evening in prayer.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.

Relationships in research

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I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about interviews. I’m preparing to recruit research participants and the entry point into their lives is the interview. But setting aside the interview for a moment, my biggest challenge is to even get research participants. I know who I want, but will they want me?

The process of gaining entry into people’s lives appear to be quite matter of fact in so many reports. It could be a case where the researcher has an existing relationship with participants, e.g. classroom teacher, or has approached relevant gatekeepers, or has simply cast a net out and caught some fish. Yet whether it is a case of familiarity or looking for total strangers, any research involving human beings surely deals with having some kind of relationship with them – establishing one, maintaining it, and towards the end of the research, perhaps ending it or leaving it to wear off its novelty.

Even approaching gatekeepers is a matter of managing relationships. This is the stage I’m at. I find myself consciously courteous, watching for signals of disinterest. No one owes me my research participants, I tell myself as I carefully explain what I want to do and hope that they smile, nod, and say a few words. Perhaps be interested in my research? Offer me encouragement? Give me tips on how to approach their students?

Some of these gatekeepers are warm, some cold. Some appear genuinely supportive, others are managing my presence. Again, who am I to make demands? Who am I? Someone who needs them more than they need me. And this, too, will be the case with my participants.

In the earlier stage of planning the research and submitting the ethics application, my supervisors and I agreed that the incentive for students to take part in my research was the opportunity to be able to talk to someone and reflect on their learning. And now I’m thinking about why they would want to talk to me. Who am I? A friendly face who wants to chat? Someone who shares the colour of their skin? Someone who will shower her attention on them?

I will find out in the course of the next few weeks whether any student will respond to my call for participants. Perhaps they will be curious and come and talk to me. Perhaps they will be amused but turn away. I don’t need too many, ten will be nice, but I will need to earnestly seek them out till I find them.

I can’t really predict what these research relationships will be like. I feel a great responsibility towards my participants – not wanting to exploit them but eager to dig into their experiences. Relationships, especially new ones, are really made up of the moments and encounters that take place. I hope these moments and encounters hold some value for my participants. I’m not sure what, and I’d like to find out. If they let me.