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On (intercultural) communication as professional skill and outlook for translation trainees

Wednesday, September 30th, 2020

By Dr Ludovica Maggi, Research Associate, Academic Department Director, Intercultural Communication and Translation, ISIT, Paris

January 2014. My first contact with ISIT, Paris was a teaching assignment in technical translation, quickly followed by one in web translation, then one more in business translation.

I arrived with a composite background, which had (and has) sometimes revealed a hurdle, in a country in which consistency is a logical credo and in certain professional milieus in which experience in non-related fields tends to be perceived as a proof of decreased competence in the relevant area rather than a source of additional skills, let alone an added value. I had studied Classics, then specialized in business management and communication and worked in international marketing before going back to (modern) languages and starting a new academic, then professional adventure in translation and interpreting, with a focus on business, marketing and institutional discourse.

As of day one, it was clear that nobody at ISIT would ever blame me for exploring so many (inconsistent!) paths. Rather, I had the quite reassuring feeling of having set foot on an unusually open-minded county, a place where hybridization was thought of as the most natural key to success in education and professional placement.

Five years later, I ended up leading ISIT Master’s programme in Intercultural Communication and Translation. Which, since then, means to me: embracing and developing – through teaching, research and pedagogical engineering – a vision of translation rooted in (intercultural) communication.

On International Translation Day, this post is an essential, unpretentious manifesto on the nourishing potential of (intercultural) communication for translation training and practice, as I have learnt to prize and promote it within this Master’s programme.

Communication for translation, or translation as communication

At ISIT, the motto “translation is communication” does not hang on walls, for it is stuck in any student’s mind. It is promulgated in the Communication and Translation Theories lecture course with the following memento: general communication principles are the basis of a successful translation. Indeed, the object of translation is not a set of words, but a whole communication setting. In this framework, the linear model communicator-message-medium-receiver (in other terms: who says what in which channel to whom) is the entry point to a critical treatment of source and target texts which also takes into account desired effects, possible interference, reception and feedback and extends to pragmatics, with the fundamental categories of language act, context and performance, that is, accomplishment of a language act in context (C. Durieux course materials).  

On this basis, textualisation and discourse analysis are also brought into consideration.

Inspired by textual linguistics (notably, J.M. Adam), translational textualisation is meant to raise awareness on the key role of connectedness in written communication. Trainees are invited to structure reverbalisation (D. Seleskovic/M. Lederer) not only by generally reproducing semantic consistency and linguistic cohesion and more specifically by respecting enunciation markers, time and space organisers and logical connectors, but also by arranging source segments in a functional target network, in which formal architectural choices have an impact on meaning reception. More precisely, alongside with cutting, melting or displacing source segments, this might imply intervening in the internal order of the latter, to manage focalisation and thematic progression (known vs new) according to the expectations of target speakers and/or the canons of target genres.

Discourse analysis (D. Maingueneau, P. Chareaudeau) is introduced to deepen the insights given by pragmatics while stressing the social footing of communication. Translation trainees are invited to take its theoretical categories into account to build target texts in which general communicational functionality is enriched by the awareness of the actual extra-textual context in which discourse is produced and received. To this aim, they are notably reminded of the importance of social identity (knowledge, expertise, authority of the communication subject’s as acknowledged by the communication partners) and discourse identity (adequacy of discourse form and content with social identity, stakes of successful contact with the partners and credibility for the subject). In addition, communication contract, situation and genre are presented, respectively as 1) a reciprocal understanding about meaning construction, interaction and influence being the prior aims of communication, 2) the social place in which communication occurs, that is a specific domain of practice with specific roles, relationships, aims and themes connected to it, 3) a pool of forms and language habits shared by a specific community of practice. Objectives of communication – such as information, prescription, demonstration or instruction – and discourse attitudes – such as neutrality, engagement, seduction, polemic or dramatization – are also evoked. Moreover, attention is drawn to socio-discursive imaginaries, that is, those underlying systems of beliefs that shape discourse content and nourish intertextuality. Critical discourse analysis is also touched upon, with a focus on thematic fields related to power dynamics (T. Van Dijck).

Finally, communication is reinjected in the cycle as a global pragmatic frame, a systemic network of actors, aims, strategies and channels (politics, businesses, media, public opinion, the web…) in which individual communication acts take place and become meaningful.

Translation for communication, or the translator as communication professional

At ISIT, communication is not only a theoretical background. Conceived as a professional sphere, it is considered as the primary reception environment of translation. In this sense, translation should not only be generally communicative, but also suitable for the communication purposes of specific actors: companies, brands, national institutions and international organisations, media outlets… To meet this challenge, students are trained to develop communicational functionality in a targeted way: the prototypical “who-says-what-in-which-channel-to-whom” communication principle – augmented with discursive awareness and a clear vision of business, institutional and media communication practices – translates therefore into a concrete analysis of the communication strategies, messages, plans, targets, tone and supports of a potential client in a given context, both in connection with its activity and its external ecosystem. Trainees are notably faced with CSR reports, financial communications, e-commerce contents, advertising materials, parliamentary reports, press releases, video interviews, institutional websites, social awareness campaigns, social media accounts of foundations, NGOs, public persons, technical (internal, B2B or B2C) documents, scientific information materials for the general public, news articles…

To better understand what is concretely at stake in each source text, a thorough knowledge of communication practices is fostered through a series of “non-translation” taught and interactive courses: business management, business communication, digital communication, communication planning, marketing, web marketing, web interfaces analysis and construction, brand image, community management, international communication, crisis communication, press relations… A complementary set of hand-on writing and translation workshops (such as web translation, business communication translation, translation-communication-transcreation, writing for the web…) allows the students to practice translation for communication, with specific attention to discursive stand and textual arrangement in target writing.

Empowered by their communicational vision and skills, translation trainees are invited to perceive and position themselves on the market as communicators. Indeed, they team-play with other communication professionals, supporting them in achieving their clients’ goals. What is more, they share with communicators a series of working methods and required skills which fully justify their inscription in a common professional category. Like communicators, translators are source scouters: often confronted with subjects they are not experts in, they know how to quickly analyse source materials in order to get a full understanding of the general context, main facts, key dynamics, players and objectives at stake, as well as specialized terminology. Like communicators, translators are discourse service providers: they work for a client, they give voice to their message, they handle words, texts and genres in order to answer to specific communication briefs. Like communicators, translators are target-sensitive: they know that the client’s discourse can rarely be transferred as it has been generated within the client’s “comfort zone”, for it is informed by sectorial jargon and concepts, logical shortcuts and general mind-sets which paradoxically need to be somehow diluted in order for the source discourse to be received by the target public as efficiently as the client has wished.

Following this logical thread, one can even draw a more radical “non-translational” conclusion: once trainees have seized the sense of communication for translation, understood the mission of translation for communication and realised that they indeed are on an equal playing field with communicators, they can dare cross the line and choose to pursue their career in communication after graduating. With a substantial plus on their record: language and interlanguage skills, which are not commonplace among communications graduates and are particularly valued by organisations operating internationally. Jobs involving written (multi-lingual) communication – such as social media manager, public relations specialist, press officer, editor, copywriter, content manager, SEO specialist, localisation manager – can be targeted, along with positions not specifically focused on writing, be it specialized – like event manager or web analyst – or rather all-round – internal or external communication officer, key account manager, for instance. More strategic roles can be held after some years’ experience.

A step forward: intercultural communication

One keyword has been kept in brackets up to now: “intercultural”. The cross-fertilizing relationship between translation and communication that I have tried to sketch here cannot be fully outlined without including it in the picture.

Indeed, at ISIT communication is not just communication, be it in the sense of discursive practice or professional playing field. It is first and foremost intercultural. In other words, it is deeply intertwined with Intercultural Studies: a network of theories and approaches aimed at describing and understanding the impact of culture on a series of phenomena, including but not limited to, social behaviour, governance and management, artistic creation, human interaction, actions and communication in international politics and business. This network revolves around different poles, which I shall tentatively summarize as follows: general theories of culture (cultural approach); contrastive study of cultures on the basis of descriptive categories (cross-cultural approach); study of interaction between individuals and groups belonging to different cultures (intercultural approach); management issues applied to multicultural teams; social and governance issues related to the encounter and co-existence of different cultural groups.

One methodological caveat is to be raised: culture must not be exclusively perceived as related to national groups (provided that the existence of clearly defined geographical or ethnic clusters is epistemologically acknowledged and/or accepted) but is rather to be considered – once again, allow me here an approximate definition – as a set of knowledge, values and practices that contribute to shaping the mind-set of an individual or a group and to determining the way it understands the world and interacts with other individuals and groups. In this sense, culture can refer to age groups, professional communities, clusters of consumers, categories of target public for information and communication…

At ISIT, translation-for-communication trainees are made aware of this theoretical framework and invited to consider the impact of cultural factors on communication actions as produced by a subject and received by partners who do not share the same cultural background. This broadly applies to communication activities of the aforementioned actors (business, institutions, media…) and is of particular relevance for the management of written communication in translation. More explicitly: in communication actions, language, discourse and textuality are culturally marked. Students are invited to take account of the gap this might entail between production and reception and be able to critically handle target communication texts in order to restore communicational efficiency. To this aim, they are trained to acknowledge and develop intercultural agency, that is to be aware of the possible cultural divide between communication subjects and their partners; analyse the reciprocal perceptions of these actors and the possible impacts of such perceptions on produced discourse and reception patterns; recognise their own cultural bias; gain confidence in their own communicational action as translators-for-communication.

In this sense, intercultural and communicational awareness (should I dare speak of competences?) can turn translators into actors, make them conscious of their distinctive value and help them thrive on whichever market they might like to establish themselves in. After all, if “translation is communication” one might think of a large shared professional space where hybridization is, indeed, the key to success.