How important is it to you to speak another language? How is ‘being multilingual’ viewed in your country? How closely do you identify with the translation profession? These were just some of the questions asked by Floriana Badalotti, a PhD candidate from Monash University, in a session titled Considerations on the Cultural Identity of Interpreters and Translators at the 2008 AUSIT Biennial National Conference in Brisbane.
Multilingualism and cultural identity have attracted much attention in recent years, but there has been little research into how these relate to professional translators and interpreters. Translation tends to be viewed as an adhoc, routine activity carried out by a multilingual child, for example, as opposed to a professional activity.
This session really struck a cord as I’ve found myself in the process of a bit of an identity spring-clean since my move from the UK to Australia. Suffice to say, these are the kinds of questions I’ve been asking myself as I work out exactly what it means to be my particular mix of multilingual, and more significantly, multicultural, in a society where I perceive my position has shifted in relation to the norm, compared to where it was among my European friends and colleagues. Which elements of my identity am I prepared to adapt, and which are non-negotiable? How important is it to me that I fit? Do I hold these views out of habit, or because they really mean something to me? I’m starting to sound like an angsty teenager all over again, only hopefully minus the bad hair and dodgy clothes.
Badalotti’s words soothed my soul. Apparently, there is a line of study that views language as a mere aspect of social identity, in line with the psychological theory of social identity. In other words, a language is just one of the ways an individual may seek membership of a particular social group, as part of their normal everyday course of interactions. This means too that an individual’s multilingual state is dynamic and interrelated with their experiences of identity and language in general. The icing on the cake is that, according to Badalotti, professional translators and interpreters in particular are more likely to identify with a blend of cultures referred to as an “interculture”, rather than any one of the cultures associated with their languages. (Anthony Pym has an interesting paper on this and the role of allegiances to a profession here: PDF.)
I think there are many different ways of being multilingual, and certainly more than the literature currently identifies. Without a doubt, this approach more closely represents my experiences of multilingualism than anything else I’ve read to date. It certainly sounds more holistic than the widely–quoted assumption that multilingual individuals construct different identities for each of their languages, and that these multiple identities are somehow in a constant state of conflict. The interculture approach sounds more Zen-like, somehow, and definitely saner.
With any luck, Badalotti’s research will go some way towards raising the status of professional translation in the multilingual sphere from a routine by-product of a split personality to a fully-fledged professional activity, carried out by trained (and balanced) individuals. As for me, I can be relieved that my shifting allegiance to languages is a normal part of adjusting to a different set of social groups. Now that really does sound like adolescence all over again.
Edited April 2010 for sense (dates, etc.)