Macro/Micro: Postmoderism and translation

The only time I’ve ever been accused of being “postmodern,” I was in my last semester at Centre College. David Albright, my senior seminar partner, had given me his comments on my thesis and right there in the margins, he’d written “too postmodern.” I say accused because in my social circle at the time, being called “postmodern” was akin to being called “passive-aggressive” now — it was the gravest of insults.

To us, “postmodern” meant wishy-washy, unable to admit the truth, unable to acknowledge resolutes. To my friend David, it simply meant the next age after the modern one, an age where everything is relative. In our classes, we learned our generation was the first to innately reflect tendencies of postmodernism, that right there in the spring of 1999, the theses and ideas we presented to the world were proof that the modern age was dead and that the postmodern one was fully taking over. Academically, this was neither a good or a bad thing; it simply was. A new literary movement was starting with us, a new line of thinking had begun.

In reality, postmodernism began in the late 1960s, so our professors were only sort of right. I and my classmates were born in the 1970s, so by the time we entered college, the world was a good thirty years in. Originally labeled “post-structuralism,” postmodernism itself is what academics and artists call everything that came after sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Basically, the 1960s opened up a whole new line of thinking — not just in the United States but all around the world. In the morning, our French professors would teach us how to pronounce mai 68 (referring to the May 1968 protests at the Sorbonne), and in the afternoon our philosophy professors would teach us how mai 68 had changed the world. The 1960s student and political unrest permanently created an accepted rejection of authority. If everyone’s ideas were valid, then no one person knew better than anyone else. And as no one knew better than anyone else, all truth became relative.

This is the gist of postmodernism at its core — that everything is personal and subjective — but you could say the same thing about translation quality. There is no black and white, there is no right or wrong when any two words may be equal. Now that we find ourselves more fully fledged into a postmodern world with multiple generations — not just mine — born and come to age under its reign, the ways in which this postmodern thought affects our industry are myriad. Since the day I started writing “Macro/Micro,” knowing this may be the largest macroforce of all, I have wondered how to grapple with a concept so huge in two or so pages. As I just mentioned, it obviously affects quality and review. In a world where synonyms abound and all truths are relative, how do we find the single translated truth that resonates with our client? And in a world where all opinions are valid, how do we decide which translator or reviewer’s opinion is the correct one? Another big effect of postmodernism is human resources. Knowing their opinions are just as valid as their superiors’ is a defining character trait of Millennials — the group of people in their mid to upper twenties formerly known as Generation Y. In the Psychology Today article “Millennials Poised to Take Over the Workplace,” Ray B. Williams wrote, “[O]lder Baby Boom managers are frustrated with Gen Y, feeling they demand that everyone change to accommodate them.” As a result, it’s not unheard of for Millennials to engage in entitlement behaviors that readily would have gotten my parents’ generation fired, or that’s the claim against them, at least. This change, like quality, profoundly plagues our industry as we look to hire Millennials and is also a whole other article in and of itself.

Postmodernism is engulfing. It is the river that flows under everything we currently think as a society. It is to the early 2000s what Romanticism was to the early 1800s. Honing down how it affects us into two pages is the hardest writing I’ve ever done. But today I saw a Facebook conversation between GALA’s Hans Fenstermacher and Rick Woyde from Language Arts & Science LLC that helped me finally realize how postmodernism is going to affect our industry the most.

“[W]ith the removal of barriers,” Woyde wrote, “and the growth of multi-nationals combined with the fact that translation quality is so subjective and, I would add, personal, almost all translations are first drafts anyway. We’ve been thru [sic] the first major phase of disruption with the advent of multinational translation companies . . . but the real disruption is just around the corner and will challenge industry players like never before.” It was Fenstermacher’s response that got me thinking of my college conversation with my friend: “You may be on to something there. It’s really an increasing blend (convergence?) of authoring and translation into a kind of multilingual content creation process. Where does ‘authoring’ end and ‘translation’ begin? Lines are blurring.”

In a world where there are no truths — one where all truth is relative and equal — black and white goes away. The key to postmodernism as an artistic movement and philosophic phenomenon is that no one is right and no one is wrong. We all are right. We all are wrong. My college friends may have thought postmodernism was horse manure — let’s face it, some things simply are true (my name is Terena), some things simply are false (my name is not Terena), but like it or not, as Fenstermacher said, “Lines are blurring.” Postmodernism is about the wishy-wash, it’s about the hippie-dippy, it’s about the transcendental overflow in every man. In that two-comment conversation, Fenstermacher and Woyde made me realize that one day translation as we know it will not exist.

Woyde was right. Even the best of translations these days is generally a first draft. After the translator finishes — using a translation memory created, most likely, by someone else at least in part — the project manager gets a hold of it, followed by sales if the project’s for a new client. Then comes in-country review and/or end user review panels. Then there’s the layout person or the web designer and sometimes even the company secretary who only took two years of high school Spanish but still wants to chime in on the “truth.” St. Jerome himself could float down with a translation straight from heaven and somebody, somewhere would still suggest changes. It never ends.

But that’s if we look at the process as a linear supply chain. If we look at it in a collaborative circle, there will be no individual authoring, for all will be authoring. We must push further away from a linear model of author-translate-edit-proof-review in order to make the whole process look far more like a rugby team, where only by staying tightly in formation and by taking turns at the lead can they together get the ball down the field to score. One day there will be no translated content, only content, regardless of source language, with multilingual players moving and shaping it as one. One day, we will be more than translators, we will all be transcreators.

It’s even a little too hippie-dippy for me. I’m very black and white by nature. Remember, I was in the social circle that considered being called postmodern an insult. But like it or not, it’s the way the winds of our industry are blowing. Living in a world where the only truth is that there is no truth, and where all contributors are equally valuable, this shift will be as natural to future generations as breathing. So even if I have to say it like a mantra, I will position my company for the changes that are coming: There is no translation process, only content creation. There are no translators or project managers, only creators. This is where our industry is taking us. Even if it is, in the words of my friend David, “too postmodern.”