About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lost in translation

Janet Clarey had an interesting post about translating educational material. It actually reminded me of when I working on a project in Hungary in 1990-92. Our project came in just as Hungary was transitioning from a communist, centrally planned market to a more free market (I hesitate to say Capitalist, as it has many connotations that are not necessarily positive) economy.

As a normal course of work, we were asked by our funding agencies to conduct an evaluation at the end of our management and business training courses (workshops or one week intensive courses geared towards people that wanted to start their own business). One of the questions we asked was, "Are there any other programs you would like us to offer?" We had an outstanding translator on staff, but we also back translated the questionnaire to ensure the questions asked were what we intended. Everything looked fine, so we started using the quesionnaire.

I remember our Hungarian Director contacting us after the first set of questionnaires were used warning us that we weren't going to be happy with the results. When we started looking through the answers, we contacted our center to find out if we had the correct translations. Yep, now we understood his warning.

It seemed that Hungarians did not know how to answer our open ended question of what they wanted us to offer because they had never been asked. In a centrally planned economy, all decisions are made by authorities who analyze the environment, then make decisions based on government priorities, resources, and population needs. The answers we received on our question ranged from, "My brother in law needs $5000" to "we need to change the laws in how we do banking" to "how do I get a visa to live in the US?".

Lessons from our translation mess

We learned that we had to teach our students how to ask for what they needed. We also needed to realize that they would give us "feedback" in a different form than we were used to.

What Janet is really talking about in her post is the differences in rhetorical style, epistomologies (perception of what IS knowledge and beliefs in knowledge), and the cultural basis of learning. I tell my classes in international business/communication that you can tell what is important in terms of manners and basic knowledge by looking at what a learner in the lower primary grades learns. Think of how hard it is to unlearn "facts" you might have learned in first or second grade (when you were 7 or 8). We also learned the social conventions for schooling, what was the correct way to do a test, for example, turn taking, and how to interact with the teacher.

In a virtual classroom, students come in with these cultural assumptions (the teacher knows everything, the teacher is a guide that may not know everything, we need to do only what the teacher tells us to do, we are our own best teacher). So to update Janet's list (the university of Utah list she outlined) I would include the following questions to ask about the targetted students (this is based on research I did a few years back on replicating business programs in emerging economies)

1) what is the theoretical basis of knowledge for that educational system;
2) what is the perceived role of the teacher;
3) what are the expected responsibilities of the student in the learning process;
4) what is the perception of “business education” within the educational system;
5) what are the learning conventions used by the student;
6) what are the institutional constraints (language, student selection, business resources).


Janet Clarey said...

What great updates. Thanks for building on this. Excellent story too of your own experience.

V Yonkers said...

Thanks for your original post. You brought up many points that my colleagues often don't "get".