(b) Focusing sessions on trying to reach a “right” definition of 'US culture'
I strongly believe that contributions to translation should start by defining the concepts they use. The word culture in itself is one of the little family secrets in the field of Translation & Interpreting studies: we all use it, we overuse it, and yet no one seems to know quite exactly what it means. We are often referred to definitions by the founding fathers of American anthropology such as Tylor (1871) and Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952), to name but a few – a strategy that guarantees loads of philosophical nightmares because of their intricate analyses.
So, how could we define 'US culture'? This tiny noun, with no clarifying adjective, is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language. This may be due to its historical development through different world regions, but perhaps mainly because it is normally used in several different disciplines and in several distinct systems of thought. For instance, definitions used in cultural anthropology do not necessarily matcht the views held and/or needed in cognitive translatology.
So, in order to get things right in our teaching methods, let's consider that culture is asemiotic concept (Geertz 1973:27). According to this Geertz, culture should be understood as interacting systems with interpretable signs (symbols). They are not tangible, indivisible entities to which social events, conduct patterns, institutions or social processes can be attributed. They are much more than that: they are contextswhere all these phenomena may be described in an intelligible way.
This should have been good enough to plan my lessons – I could have started with something such as 'Folks, 'US culture' in itself does not exist any longer. It is not about talking about stereotypes, foreign policies or different ways of conceiving reality. Of course, it has something to do with all these topics, but it is just a label for the context where that people live, act, and assume (or not) the consequences of their actions'.That might have been a beautiful philosophical starter, of course. But still I didn't find it good enough.
The idea of culture as a frame may not be useful when trying to make operationalize it for our research purposes in cognitive translatology. The reason is that we are still considering it as something that is "out there". The container metaphor survives, although it is now more flexible and open. For this reason, I'd rather try to depart from the notion of scaffolding (Martín 2005:147) as an alternative. Cultural scaffoldings are not containers of people and/or their cognitive capacities, but models established socially to support action and cooperation. Culture is thus envisioned as an inner process, a mental activity aimed at creating meanings and make their interaction possible for all people involved in the communicative process.
Consequently, there are no cultural frontiers or cultural barriers. Social groups are not closed entities and culture is no longer a Pandora's box where everything can be dropped. Cultural models are built thanks to traces and signs that are constantly re-elaborated while we live and interact with each other. This active role in the creation of meaning changes and gets corrected nearly on its own, thanks to our experience.
Some readers might feel that I am walking around the bush, that I'm doing exactly what I was not supposed to do. So, let's go to the main point: How can we reach to a "right" definition of 'US culture'? I am afraid that this question has no answer. As I wrote above, “US culture” does not exist as an entity, in the same way than there is not a 'Spanish culture' or a 'Polish culture'. A culture is not a state with neat borders – rather, it has to do with individuals and the way they construct meanings.
When planning “culture” lessons, we may implicitly mean cultural literacy, that is, a complete set of encyclopedic knowledge that is considered a property of a certain country. Any manual included in the reference section of any course syllabus on similar subjects may be taken as an evidence of this claim. In fact, one of the most successful bestsellers of last century in US is Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know (Hirsch JR. 1988). This book includes some 5,000 "essential" names, phrases, dates, and concepts from 'American diversity' to 'Romanticism'. Both are used to teachculture – but ironically enough, culture is nothing that can be learnt in a formal educative context. Paraphrasing to Lakoff & Johnson (1980): culture is what we live by.
So... what did I do at the end? And what is my proposal about?
After thoroughly considering both options, I chose an eclectic approach. Students did not expect brow raising dissertations about the concept of culture in Translation & Interpreting Studies and their interests were far removed from this option. Basically, everybody expected the traditional teacher-centred methodology, i.e., I was expected to sit down in front of the class and start reading my notes about George Washington, Lincoln, etc.
But the two options helped me a lot at designing a sketch of a successful methodology that I hope to improve in the near future.
Option (a) was problematic because of a single reason: Who decides what is culturaland what is not? The teacher may select some traditional stereotypes (for example, 'Americans are very practical' or 'Americans believe that effort can make your dreams come true') but conclusions might be a bit risky. We all have a picture of the US, and making over-generalizations is as easy as it is dangerous. We are paddling through the troubled waters of very relative terms, and that may sink our boat in the lake of Manichaeism. Realities cannot be compared, only our impressions can be contrasted in a discussion. I believe this kind of activities can be carried out successfully when teaching foreign languages, where the main purpose is to practice oral skills in an active discussion. But that is another story discussed here.
Option (b) is obviously "optimal". Leading the students by the hand into different discussions about the concept of culture to show them that there is not a single 'US culture' seems the perfect option to me. But the contents of the subject are different and I had to summarize this as much as possible to make just this point: talking about a specific culture is useless, for there are as many cultures as individuals. And that was my point of departure.
In my view, teaching culture to would-be translators and interpreters needs to adapt to professional demands. By the end of their programmes, graduates are expected to know how to make business with their customers. So, perhaps a brief approach to the status of money and work in the US should be part of the syllabus. For example, I enjoyed an excellent session about attitudes towards work. For Americans, work is said to be a social concept –it is mainly what you are, the basis of your identity. For Spaniards, though, work is important but it is counter-balanced with other aspects that have the same or even higher relevance. From this "cultural difference" (option a), we can teach students how finances are being handled in the US (encyclopedic knowledge) and, most importantly, we can present them with relevant communication strategies for dealing with US customers. This would also lead us to the study of translation and revision markets there and to the possibility of getting a job there, as translator or interpreter of Spanish/English.
Other circumstances that are not worth mentioning here just led me to work with (b) first as an introductory session and with option (a) later, with some professional-orientation. But, at least, I was happy to see that most students seemed to think it made sense.
I know, rather than providing answers, my arguments in these couple of posts raise more questions. I am pretty sure that there are much more intelligent and pedagogic options out there. I reckon that mine was a partial success ant that the course on 'US culture' could have been far better. At the end of the day, everything seems to depend precisely on the arbitrary choices of the teacher.
But, if we are training future professionals... why don't we just professionalize our teaching programmes?
Agar, M. 1994. The intercultural frame @ International Journal of Intercultural Relations 18, 2: 221- 237.
Geertz, Clifford. 1973. La interpretación de las culturas. Barcelona: Gedisa Editorial.
Hirsch, JR., E.D. 1988. Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know. New York: Vintage Books.
Martín de León, Celia. 2005. Contenedores, recorridos y metas. Metáforas en la traductología funcionalista. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.
Seelye, H. Ned. 1993. Teaching Culture. Strategies for Intercultural Communication. Lincolnwood: National Textbook Company Publishing book.
by J.J. Amigo