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Lost in translation
François BROSSARD, Founding Partner

Apr 28, 2017 | Translation | 0 comments

We had a debate the other day within a discussion group dedicated to ‘intercultural communication’ and the myriad of issues that come with it.

The nice part about this topic is that you will hardly find a day with no event or happening, small or bigger, relating to it. For instance, we exchanged views earlier this month about the Iranian President’s official visit to Europe and whether France’s and Italy’s respective handling of the “wine-on-table issue” said something ‘interculturally’ relevant or not… As always, the media gave the whole thing an astounding echo and many delved into symbolic arguments and feuds on a traditional ‘value vs/ money’ keynote. Still not noisy enough to cover the laments of civilians crushed under the despotic and mercatile businesses at play there… but this is another debate.

So, more interestingly, somebody raised the issue of language and whether or not it can be deemed as an indispensable intercultural competence. In other words, can one efficiently deal with a foreign culture whose language remains unknown to him/herself? While everybody wisely agreed on the fact that speaking the language alone doesn’t necessarily make somebody overly competent on intercultural terms, others boasted they could really do without it (or just maybe learn a couple of words like “bonjour, comment ça va ?” to wash the initial grumpy grin off the foreign face:).

In short, positive and emphatic attitudes along with general knowledge of the other’s environment and traditions were sufficient and could earn anyone a badge of ‘intercultural expert’ in any given country. No offence at that point. If we could indeed put aside our assumptions and beliefs for a moment and just really listen with our heart to our ‘culturally-different counterpart’, it would surely be another giant stride for mankind and peace on earth. This is where I realized that the whole debate was revolving around an article published by Ian Bremmer, a US-based analyst, mentioning that Artificial Intelligence (AI) was soon to make language learning futile and redundant. There, I started raising eyebrows. The bottom-line argument was basically that learning a language just takes too much time. If a choice had to be made, such time should rather be dedicated to the exclusive study of the target culture and the developement of intercultural competence. Cross-language verbal communication in itself could be well left to Google and friends…The contributor interestingly added that if one foreign language was still to be learned nowadays, it ought to be Chinese, China being the only “disruptive force” at the outset of the new millenium. Yes China, “where the smart money is”, so the author (‘smart money’ ? Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?).
Babel Tower.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder

While the argument looks perfectly sound and logical from a pragmatic point of view, this opinion tells a lot about die-hard perceptions of language and reactivates more generally the debate on the finality of human life in our globalized world. Despite cosmetic precautionary reservations like “of course, mastery of foreign languages is always an asset”, these often remain seen – from a Western managerial perspective – as barriers, impediments and obstacles on Man’s triumphant trail on earth. In Christian culture, this view strongly echoes with the Biblical Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), where God thwarted people’s plans to erect a stairway to heaven and scattered them all over the face of the earth. The question here is: should we give another shot at Babel? The underlying argument is that humanity could achieve so much more if language barriers were lifted… Symetrically however, this episode of the Bible still plays in our minds as a warning signal toward Man’s sense of superiority and the many dangers it entails. Regarding AI language-processing, here are a few that come to my mind. If we ever manage a functional voice translation interface, would it benefit the development of intercultural competence?

This whole thing about Artificial Intelligence and language is only a fantasy for the language-lazy, first and foremost the citizens of the former and present colonial/imperial powers.

Quite naive as well when you think of it. Just ask yourself whether or not Wikipedia ever made people more knowledgeable?? People choose to invest time and money into language learning for a ‘real-life’ cultural experience. Take that possibility away, they will soon turn culture-lazy and join those who already promote a uniformized form of ‘global culture’. If we ever manage a functional voice translation interface, would it benefit intercultural communication and enhance quality of interpersonal exchange? For sure, it would increase the quantity of communication, but what about quality? My guess is that it would rather impoverish message contents. Indeed, the permanent risk of clash between the translated words and the other dimensions of communicative interaction (mostly non-verbal/body language and time/distance management) would compel the speaker to simplistic, superficial and normative messages. Nuance, idiosyncrasy and, above all, emotional emphasis would get lost in translation.

If we ever manage a functional voice translation interface, would it benefit cultural diversity? There are up to date around 140 official languages on earth (and obviously thousands of regional dialects and indigenous tongues) which yield a possibility of 19,600 language combinations. Given the predominance of US-based IT industry leaders, English would most probably become the pivotal language within such a system, thereby increasing its already undisputed dominance in world communication and stressing inequalities for non-native speakers of English, not to mention those of regional and indigenous languages (for more on biodiversity and linguistic diversity, please read this). Automatic translation definitely has a positive impact when it keeps to technical areas and factual statements. Extending its realm to encompass intercultural communication reveals a dangerous utilitarian and techno-centered approach which brings us back, as always, to a fundamental question: does goal matters more than the way to get there? And as the saying goes, ‘everything in France closes on a song’ :


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