Translation issues: communication barriers and strategy in mixed language situations


I arrived in Ljubljana in March of this year as a guest of the Eclectic Tech Carnival 2012  which was held in Metelkova, Ljubljana, in the context of the annual International Feminist and Queer Festival Red Dawns.

To my great delight, the first evening I was taken to visit Ljudmila, where the Ljubljana Theremidi orchestra was practicing. For someone like me, who became interested in  in the mid-nineties, Ljudmila is legendary, seemingly almost a mythical place. When I was involved in the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria, translating texts for the Prix Ars Electronica, sometimes it actually felt quite frustrating, because it often seemed that more interesting discussions were taking place, not at the prestigious festival where I was, but in places like Ljudmila. In fact, however, Ljudmila is not mythical at all: it is a real place where real people work, and some of those real people are even younger people, who do not seem at all intimidated by Ljudmila’s luminous history. So the short week I had the pleasure of spending in Ljubljana started with wonderful conversations with fascinating people.


As conversations continued on from there throughout the week, as the city became more and more a real place to me, not just a melodious name, I also found myself feeling much more keenly aware of the work I normally do, the implications of what I do and how I do it: I work as a translator in Linz, Austria, translating texts about contemporary art and “new media” and theoretical texts at the intersections of art, philosophy and social criticism. For the most part, I translate from German into English, so the texts are written by German-speaking authors, mainly from Austria, Germany and Switzerland, but who reads my translations in English? Since the conversations I had with interesting people in Ljubljana were all in English and largely related to the kinds of texts I translate, it is likely that these people have read or will at some point read some of my translations, but hearing people all around me constantly switching languages raised questions for me about how my translations might be understood.


As controversial as the term often is, I use “International English” for my translations, because I assume that the majority of potential readers will be made up of people who do not read German. They may read any number of other languages, just not German, and especially in academic circles, English is used as the lingua franca. Since I translate mainly academic texts, of course it is easier to avoid colloquial idioms, although keeping up with important terms from specific academic disciplines is often more complicated. My authors also read texts in English, are familiar with relevant terms, and comfortable holding conversations in English, which allows for a much broader scope for discussion and revision, but they still send their texts to me to translate, because they feel they can express themselves better in German and they trust me to convey their ideas appropriately.


Hearing conversations all around me in Slovenian in Ljubljana, however, made me wonder more and more about what I might be missing, because any texts I may have read by Slovenian authors – essays, blog posts, contributions to mailing lists – I have only read in English. Reading exchanges on the mailing list Nettime, for example, in which people associated with Ljudmila or from many other different places have also participated, it is easy to take for granted that everyone can write in English. Yet how many nuances and shades of meaning do we lose through the filter of English as a tool for communication? And how many voices are not heard, because they can’t get through that filter?

Roundtable public discussion, "Towards Sustainable Educational Medialabs for Women" moderated by Aileen Derieg at Eclectic Tech Carnival 2012 @ Red Dawns Fest / Cyberpipe in Ljubljana. 10th March 2012. Photo by Dare Pejić, courtesy of ETC



When Red Dawns program manager Tea Hvala told me that she planned to hold a special discussion during the Red Dawns Festival in Slovenian, similar to the one I was invited to moderate in English, that made sense to me, even though I regretted not being able to take part. I know from discussions in Linz that when a discussion is held only in German among a local audience, where everyone can speak their own dialect, the dynamics are different from discussions with international guests. Tea managed to distill that discussion on Wednesday into invaluable contributions to the following discussion on Saturday – a different kind of translation, but a very important one, something that not everyone can do well.


These kinds of “translations” have been inherent to Eclectic Tech Carnival from the beginning, since the aim of sharing skills and knowledge necessarily involves an awareness of different ways of communicating needs and the skills and knowledge to meet those needs. In one sense, the Eclectic Tech Carnival in Ljubljana was very different from other /ETC’s, because it was not self-organized by a local group. Those who held workshops were specifically invited to do so, and there was not a mixed group on hand to spontaneously offer to share other skills. Nevertheless, the /ETC in Ljubljana seemed to be the expression of a different kind of need – a need to question spaces and how they are used and by whom. The discussion that Tea organized and the discussion that I moderated – along with all the conversations prior to those discussions – seemed to enable a sharing of experiences that may hopefully continue to grow.


Questions lead to more questions: if it is important for people to be able to have discussions locally in their own language, not only in an international context, that still excludes people who live in the local community, but may not have a thorough command of the local majority language, if their first language is a different one. As the whole of Europe is increasingly influenced by migration in all its different forms, this is not a trivial issue, as the work by important organizations like Maiz – an autonomous self-organization of and for migrant women in Upper Austria shows – and I understand it is as much an issue in Slovenia as it is in Austria and every other country in Europe.


Even if people from different regions with similar interests and backgrounds can understand one another beyond their differences in language, how well are they able to communicate with their respective relatives, neighbors, people on the street reading the respective boulevard papers? That often requires yet again a different kind of “translation”, but one that is no less important.


There is meanwhile a considerable body of research into issues of translation at many different levels in society. This is a particular focus of the work by my wonderful colleagues from eipcp – European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies with projects like “Translate”, “Europe as a Translational Space: The Politics of Heterolinguality”, and special issues of the multilingual online journal Transversal  such as “Translating Violence”. Again and again, though, it is clear that academic research needs to be based on lived experience – such as my experience in Ljubljana.


The language I heard spoken all around me in Ljubljana seemed wholly in keeping with such a beautiful city, but what I couldn’t understand has left me with so many more questions. That, of course, is how knowledge and understanding continue to grow.

Aileen Derieg

Guest writer for Aileen Derieg is a professional translator specialising in translating theoretical texts at the intersections of art, philosophy and social criticism, particularly ‘contemporary art and “new media”.  She lives and works in Linz.

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