Digital utopias: cosmopolitan vs ethnocentric vs glocal vs global…

There has been a lot of discussion about the “dream” (the modern word for what once was called utopia? ) of multiculturalism in several venues, on and offline, and the recent billet by Martin Grandjean rekindle it recently. This is indeed a thorny issues and, unfortunately, not something that you can simply solve addressing practical issues (although in the end those are the ones that count).

The first thing that I want to say is that there are different kinds of multilingualism. We are in a place (Lausanne) where multilingualism comes out from a peaceful (more or less) contact between different languages that went on for many centuries, slowly affecting the very essence of European languages in many ways (not to speak about common latin roots, of course). Multilingualism in a colonial and postcolonial context obviously was far less peaceful and much more abrupt form of cultural and linguistical contact. This is just to say that perhaps when people use the word multiculturalism is not necessarily talking about the same thing, depending on the place and the context he comes from.

Having said that, the most troubling thing about what Grandjean says, especially considering that there has been a multilingualism and multiculturalism committee in place since 2006 , is that

malgré le grand succès de cet appel qui a reçu un nombre record de propositions (589), non seulement la communauté scientifique non-anglophone a très peu utilisé la possibilité qui lui était offerte de soumettre des communications dans une autre langue que l’anglais, mais les articles, posters et tables-rondes proposés en français, allemand, espagnol et italien ont été très souvent recalés par le comité de sélection (voir ci-dessous).

It is not simply a language issue, and that is probably why the solution proposed by the committee (as far as the annual reports say) kind of failed. The final question of Grandjean makes this point quite clearly:

si l’objectif d’un tel congrès international est bien de faire se rencontrer 600 chercheurs du monde entier, ne faudrait-il donc pas se rabattre sur une langue unique (anglais ou pas), accessible à tous, plutôt que de faire miroiter à chacun la possibilité de communiquer confortablement dans sa langue ?

The problem, then, is not using different languages, since the meaning of the conference is reaching a global audience (I should emphasise here that this is also a utopian effort, as much as the dream of multiculturalism) and to do that you clearly need a common language of communication. Which is precisely the way in which English should be seen and used, not as the language of scientific/academic discourse (there are valuable scientific/academic discourse in many languages, no doubt about that). The problem then is the way in which English is used, and I see two ways to address this that could be helpful.

One comes from a translation studies scholar, Lawrence Venuti, who distinguishes two competing strategies in translation, domestication and foreignization, attempting to address “‘the question of how much a translation assimilates a foreign text to the translating language and culture, and how much it rather signals the differences of that text”.

Venuti sees translation as an arena of conflict between ethnocentric, domesticating forces, and foreignizing forces, and in my view one should be aware of these tensions and try to move as much as possible towards foreignization, if the aim is to receive communications from other culture. The balance between these two is not designed entirely during the act of translation, but is the result of systemic structural forces, that are not laws (in the sense rejected by Latour yesterday), but rather social (and political) norms inscribed in the system that surrounds it.

Coming back to DH2014, I think that the role of English as simply a language of communication and not THE language of academic and scientific discourse, should be emphasised more from the very beginning. For instance, I don’t see why the original of a call for papers has to be in English if the language of the country that is hosting and organising the conference is not. If English is simply the language of communication the original could be written first in the language of the host nation, and afterword translated into other languages, including English. In this way the local culture, and not the language of communication, is the one that become predominant. Imagine a situation in which you read a call for paper first in Polish, with the possibility to read it in several other languages (including English, of course). In this way, if you are French or Italian you could read the call for paper without any trace of English, giving from the very beginning a sense of a multilingual community.

As for the paper themselves, the problem is to what extent the English used is foreignized and to what extent it’s domesticated. I believe that if this issue is not addressed, the fact of having the call for papers translated in many different languages will not be effective. This sort of bring me to my second point, that is to say the question of audience, already discussed by Elika Ortega in one or two occasions (and recently in a post inspired by Grandjean).

This is a more general issue regarding DH, and I will probably have to write more about it in the future. What I consider problematic is the absence, in DH projects, of an attention to the question of the different cultural relationship with technology and, more specifically, a discussion/attention of the question of technological determinism.
The way in which the question of the audience is usually addressed is a very good point. There is a lot of talk about the fact that digital technology allows you to record audience reactions in ways that were unthinkable before, and many DH project aims at doing that, being it a pedagogical tool to understand student minds or a museum tool to understand how people use art collections. But technology is not neutral in this regard, it affects the way in which an audiences are put together. Therefore it should be considered problematic the adoption of a technology invented and shaped in a specific culture to address audience from another culture. A lot has been said about it in the past, and a lot of attempts have been made to contrast the technological bias (the names of Bourdieu and De Certeau, even before the digital hype, come immediately in my mind). I think that a discussion, or at least an awareness of how technology creates an audience on different cultures should be part of the  DH curriculum. But, as I said, this might be the subject of another billet.
NB: I am not an English native speaker or writer, so please if you find something wrong with my grammar or spelling or whatever, pleas consider this “foreignizing” signal before labelling them as errors. Afterwords, come back to your senses, and send me a message highlighting the foreignizing signal so I will became aware of it myself. Thanks.

One thought on “Digital utopias: cosmopolitan vs ethnocentric vs glocal vs global…”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *