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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.

From Trieste to Luxembourg… during a pandemic

Monday, August 17th, 2020

By Jasmine Mazzarello, Blue Book trainee, former student in Specialised Translation and Conference Interpreting at the University of Trieste (Italy)

2020 is probably not the best year to graduate and start looking for a job. Back in December 2019, when I graduated from the University of Trieste, I was already worried about the scarcity of job prospects for young people, especially with a background in humanities. Although the pandemic certainly worsened the uncertainty across Europe, my experience has been a positive one so far and I hope it can be encouraging to those finishing off their studies in translation and struggling to find their way in these ever-changing circumstances.

I completed my university education in Trieste obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Interlinguistic Communication and then a Master in Specialised Translation and Conference Interpreting. In these years, I gained specific skills in translation across different sectors, alongside a strong knowledge of linguistics, focussing on Italian (my mother tongue) and my three working languages: English, German and French. The way translation classes were structured gave me the opportunity to work from the very beginning on texts resembling those encountered in a work setting. Moreover, the regular feedback and group work helped me improve at practical projects, after studying the theoretical aspects.

During my final year I had the chance to take part in the Double Degree Programme with Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. There, I was able to enhance different skillsets, in particular my ability to work in extremely multicultural settings. Melbourne’s diversity strongly contributes to shape the linguistic services available to the population and to ethnical minorities, who nowadays can benefit from translators and interpreters across almost all public services. The offer of universities cannot but reflect this reality with several courses in community interpreting (while in Trieste the focus is rather on conference interpreting) in healthcare as well as in the legal sector, with internships and job offers to match these training paths.

Although in its very own way, Trieste also is a crossroads of cultures, maybe even the most multicultural city in Italy. Melbourne and Trieste represented for me the ideal places to learn how to build bridges among people and communities, as I had the chance to compare two different systems and get the best out of each one.

After making my way back to Trieste to graduate, I aspired to keep improving my skills in translation in a European context. So, I applied for the Blue Book traineeship of the European Commission which, once selected, gave me the opportunity to work at the Luxembourg-based Italian Unit of the Directorate-General for Translation.

The Blue Book traineeship, which I completed in July, was a highly formative experience which enriched my education and allowed me to put to the test the skills I had gained in Trieste. I learnt how to approach different text types, research efficiently, and solve translation problems justifying my choices. It also reinforced my language and digital skills, necessary to be a translator in the 21st century. During the past months I have grown significantly as a professional, being given the responsibility to handle translation projects, learning constantly through the feedback of colleagues and developing a detail-oriented approach, as well as peeking behind the curtain of the Directorate-General for Translation of the European Commission. Even though it was only for 5 months, taking part in the biggest translation service on earth fuelled my desire to keep breaking down language barriers and to contribute to the European project – which, thanks to translators and language service providers, speaks all of the 24 official UE languages.

But let’s not forget the pandemic going on…

The outbreak of COVID-19 inevitably affected my traineeship at the Commission. Due to the pandemic, I could only work at the office for the first two weeks; after that, teleworking became the norm. After getting to know a few colleagues and receiving key instructions for my tasks, I worked from my rented bedroom in Luxembourg for four months and a half, in what turned to be an unprecedented, stressful, challenging but uplifting experience! Moving to a new country and working from home with a pandemic going on: certainly not how I thought my EU traineeship would unfold.

As absurd as it may seem, there was also a positive consequence to my traineeship. As a matter of fact, I had the opportunity to witness from the inside the Commission’s response and, above all, how the Directorate-General for Translation and my Unit adjusted to the crisis. The texts that were being translated gradually shifted in topic dealing more and more with the pandemic, COVID-19, the economic, social, and employment-related consequences, as well as the immediate needs for digitalization. In order to write about all this, new words were being used (for example, the name of the illness itself); the challenge was translating and using those in a consistent way in the Commission as well as in the other EU institutions. Observing this process has been extremely interesting and allowed me to better understand the workflow within the DG, also focusing on more general issues related to the UE, like the green and digital transitions.

To give any sort of professional advice is now extremely complex for obvious reasons. However, I am confident my generation will succeed in rising to the challenges of the healthcare crisis, also thanks to the EU, and do all it can to keep on obtaining quality education and new professional experience across Europe. During a global crisis like this one, it is crucial to highlight the role of the Union and of the cooperation among professionals responsible for making information available on a large scale in the respective target language. Likewise, quality education to provide language services is also crucial, just like the one offered at the prestigious University of Trieste and all EMT universities. They allow us to stay united and face even the most complex and unprecedented challenges, like the one we are living right now.