Translation as Technology: From Linguistic “Deficit” to Rhetorical Strength


For decades, scholars in rhetoric and composition and technical communication have been acknowledging the increasing movement between people, places, technologies, and networks embodied in contemporary classrooms and workplaces. This constant flux of people and information has prompted researchers to further consider the linguistic diversity enacted in the everyday communicative practices of students and professionals. The idea that our classrooms and workplaces are monolingual or dominated by “standard” English communication has been consistently countered by scholars working across a broad range of disciplines, including African American rhetorics, composition studies, technical communication, English education, and related fields of practice (Alvarez; Matsuda; Pennycook; Sun; Young). Stemming from the early work of our leaders in language and education (Smitherman), we have been advocating for the diverse communicative practices of “students [and professionals] from the margins,” or the ability of individuals who work across language and difference to communicate with various audiences using a wide range of tools.

More recently, scholars working in digital rhetorics have broadened our conceptions of writing and communication beyond a single form, modality, or language (Arola, Ball, and Sheppard, Canagarajah, Fraigberg, Gonzales, Selfe and Horner; Wysocki). The focus of this scholarship on media or multimodality has been on emphasizing how writing can encompass tools and semiotic resources expanding beyond alphabetic, monolingual words. Policies such as the Statement on 21st Century Literacies issued by the National Council of Teachers of English and the report “Diversity in Technical and Professional Communication Programs” (Jones, Savage, and Yu), suggest that the fields of rhetoric and composition and technical communication are now encouraging students, professionals, and teachers to value and blend languages, cultures, and technologies to leverage the broadest “bandwidth of semiotic resources for communication in order to make available all available means of persuasion” (Selfe, n. pag). As Angela Haas explains, bridging conversations on race, rhetoric, and technology in and across our disciplines allows us to “consider more deeply how race affects the ways in which technologies and documents are designed and used, how national and political values can inspire users to transform the work of technologies beyond their designed intent, and how non-Western cultures use and produce with Western and non-Western technologies differently than Westerners do” ( “Race, Rhetoric” 281). In this way, conversations connecting language, culture, and technology can help us recognize the diverse realities of our communicative spaces.

In this chapter, I’d like to contribute to the efforts of this collection by illustrating the ways in which linguistic diversity functions as a powerful technology enacted by multilingual communicators. Drawing on a case study conducted with multilingual technical communicators working in a non-profit organization located in Western Michigan, I aim to show how multilingual communicators develop, maintain, and practice multilingualism as a rhetorical strategy that allows them to bridge communicative discrepancies across cultures. Paying attention to the communicative practices of multilingual communicators, I argue, can help us continue moving beyond Western notions of rhetoric and technology, hence allowing us to understand difference as an asset rather than a deficit in our classrooms and workplaces. The purpose of this chapter is not simply to state that multilingual communicators use diverse communicative strategies, but also to illustrate what these strategies entail and how these strategies can contribute to the aims and goals of teaching and research in both composition and technical communication.

Theories of Translation

Stemming from the understanding that linguistic homogeneity is a myth (Matsuda) and drawing on the understanding that languages are always in translation (Pennycook), researchers have theorized the various strategies through which individuals blend languages and tools to communicate across contexts. For example, the “translingual turn” in composition recently emerged to help us understand the movement and blending of languages within classrooms and programs. As described by Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur, translingualism illustrates “how language norms are actually heterogeneous, fluid, and negotiable,” thus “directly counter[ing] demands that writers must conform to fixed, uniform standards” (305). Proponents of translingualism push researchers and teachers to value “how writers deploy [and combine] diction, syntax, and style, as well as form, register, and media” (Horner, Lu, Royster 304). Hence, translingualism encourages the crossing and blending of semiotic resources to communicate in classroom spaces, breaking away from what Selfe and Horner describe as the “single language/single modality” approach to writing and writing pedagogy.

In addition to translingualism, earlier frameworks and theories of language illustrate the processes through which individuals “mix,” “mesh,” or “mash” languages and communicate (Young; Fraiberg). Scholars like Vershawn Ashanti Young and Alistar Pennycook proposed the “code meshing” model to theorize linguistic diversity. Code-meshing encourages individuals to combine languages to use the “full quiver” (Selfe) of their semiotic resources to communicate rather than having to conform to linguistic standards in any specific context. Like translingualism, code-meshing models point to the ways individuals draw on a variety of other semiotic resources like images and media (Canagarajah; Pennycook). Meshing or “mashing” communicative codes including languages and modalities allows us to better understand how linguistic and cultural “flows or scopes are co-constituted in everyday reading, writing, speaking, and design practices” (Fraiberg 104). In this way, code-meshing encourages teachers and students to blend languages, modalities, and other resources to convey their ideas.

Concepts like “code-meshing” and “transligualism” help us describe the linguistic practices of individuals who blend languages and other semiotic resources to communicate, leading to the development of curricular models for writing pedagogies that extend beyond the limitations of Standard Written English (SWE). Yet, as some scholars have argued, while our fields have established helpful frameworks for theorizing linguistic difference, we still need more examples to illustrate how this diversity is enacted in practice (Guerra; Milson-Whyte). As Milson-Whyte explains, linguistic moves “are sometimes motivated by social dictates, by ignorance, by desires to make one language contest or complement another, or to achieve other specific purposes, or for no apparent reason” (116). In turn, understanding the motivation and strategies for moving between languages can help us continue to develop rigorous and ethical frameworks for teaching and research.

In this chapter, I’d like to highlight the rhetorical work in which multilingual communicators engage as they deploy diverse linguistic and technical resources to transform information across languages. Rather than meshing or mixing languages, multilingual communicators often aim to adapt information from one language to another. In this way, multilingual communicators translate information to provide access to people with different linguistic and technical strengths. This process of translation requires that individuals use a wide range of semiotic resources (including languages and media) to make information accessible to various audiences.

To highlight the rhetorical work that goes into translation, I focus this chapter on my analysis of what I have come to call “translation moments”— instances when an individual aims to transform and adapt information from one language to another (Gonzales and Zantjer). Translation moments are not the entire process of translating a document or word. Instead, translation moments are those instances in which individuals have to pause and think about how a particular word or phrase needs to be contextualized for a specific audience in a specific setting or moment. While the translation moments I illustrate in this chapter happen when individuals are translating words from English to Spanish and vice versa, translation moments can be part of any communicative task, even within a single language. For instance, translation moments can take place when we have to pause and think about how to describe a disciplinary-specific word or concept to someone unfamiliar with our field of study. However, as I illustrate in this chapter, paying attention to how multilingual communicators navigate translation moments as they move across languages can help all communicators understand how to adapt and re-situate language for various audiences.

During “translation moments,” our linguistic histories and the limitations and affordances of these histories create a communicative tension as we negotiate our ideas with our linguistic abilities. Hence, analyzing “translation moments” allows us to examine the resources and strategies individuals draw on to communicate while simultaneously teaching us more about the sociocultural contexts in which we learn and work. In the following sections, I’ll introduce the location where I studied “translation moments.” I will then further illustrate how translation moments can help rhetoric and composition and technical communication scholars understand translation as a rhetorical and technological activity that can affect how we theorize and teach language and writing.

Analyzing Translation Moments: The Hispanic Center of Western Michigan

In order to study translation moments in practice, I partnered with the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, a non-profit organization in Grand Rapids, MI.1 According to the organization’s website, the primary goal of the Hispanic Center is to “provide unmet social services to the Hispanic Community in Greater West Michigan.”

Screenshot of the Hispanic Center website’s landing page
Figure 1: Screenshot of the Hispanic Center website’s landing page

Because the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan aims to provide its community members with opportunities to gain employment, residency, and social assistance in the United States, translation is a critical component of many interactions between the Hispanic Center’s staff and its community members. For example, to apply for residency, community members visit the Hispanic Center to translate their birth certificates and other documentation from Spanish to English. In addition, community members who don’t speak English frequently come into the center for assistance with translation as they fill out school enrollment forms or job applications for themselves or their children. In turn, as the center’s website makes clear, employees of the organization are “bilingual and multicultural,” a necessary component of facilitating communication between community members and their desired resources.

Screenshot of the Language Services Department website
Figure 2: Screenshot of the Language Services Department website

In the summer of 2015, I spent 20 hours per week researching translation at the Hispanic Center. As part of a reciprocal research relationship, I researched translation while also helping to coordinate translation jobs in the Hispanic Center’s Language Services Department. As one of three branches of the center, the Language Services Department has on its staff more than 20 translators and interpreters, whose job it is to provide language accessibility to the community by translating or interpreting interactions between Spanish-speaking community members and English-dominant organizations in the area.

During my time working in the Language Services Department at the Hispanic Center, I recorded (through video, audio, and field notes) over three thousand translation moments, focusing specifically on instances in which participants made decisions about how to translate a word, phrase, or idea from Spanish to English or vice versa. As I worked alongside translators in the office, I made note of translation moments emerging throughout the workday, using a field notebook to write down specific time periods that I would then go back and analyze (in collaboration with other participants) in the video recordings. In this way, I was immersed in the process of translation along with my coworkers, experiencing the tensions and rhetorical decisions encompassed in my data.

For example, as one of the translators was translating a neighborhood guide for the city of Grand Rapids from English to Spanish, she hesitated in an attempt to translate the word “waste” in the phrase, “hazardous waste disposal in City refuse carts” (see Figure 3).

Screenshot of text about hazardous waste disposal
Figure 3: Translator pauses to translate the word “waste”

In the translation moment illustrated in Figure 3, the translator was not sure whether the word “waste” in this context should translate to desechos or residuos in Spanish. To make an accurate decision during this translation moment, the translator used digital tools (e.g., the Linguee dictionary and Google Translate) as well as physical resources (e.g., a conversation with the other translator in the room) to make a translation decision. Through her conversation with the second translator, the decision was made to use the word residuos because the translators believed this word to be “more proper” for a formal publication to be sent out to all residents in Grand Rapids (see Figure 4). In deciding on a “proper” translation, the two translators recalled their previous experiences with the words desechos and residuos, sifting through their indexed cultural knowledge drew on various technologies—physical, social, and embodied—to make an accurate decision that would make the required information accessible to their audience. I argue that closely analyzing these translation moments and the tools and strategies used by translators in these instances can help us understand the rhetorical, technological work of multilingual communicators at a level of practice.

Screenshot of Spanish language text about hazardous waste disposal
Figure 4: Version with “waste” translated into “residuos

In the following section, I will illustrate three other translation moments that took place during my time in the Language Services Department at the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan. Through these three situated examples, I argue that multilingualism, and in particular the processes through which multilnguals transform information across languages, is a powerful technology and a rhetorical practice that should receive more specific attention in our classrooms and professional spaces.

Translation Moment 1: Translation as Cultural Localization

While all employees at the Hispanic Center are bilingual (speaking both Spanish and English in various capacities), analysis of translation moments within this organization revealed that these employees were incredibly aware of their need to culturally localize information. Recent conversations about translation in technical communication have taught us that the mere replacement of one word in one language with a word in another language does not account for the work that goes into making appropriate linguistic and cultural transformations (Agboka; Batova and Clark; Sun; Walton, Zraly, & Mugengana). That is, replacing one word with another does not necessarily translate the ideas, interfaces, and usability of a design. Hence, although employees at the Hispanic Center speak both English and Spanish, they also have extensive experience localizing information to specific Latin@ cultures.

For example, the video in Figure 5 illustrates how Sandra, a promotora (or promoter) for one of the Center’s healthy-eating initiatives, begins her presentation by assuring her audience that although they all come from different places, she will do her best to make sure they can understand one another (“yo creo que nos vamos a entender, aunque somos de differentes paises”). Sandra tells a story about how in a previous presentation, she used the word mazorca to describe corn on the cob. An audience member from Mexico at that presentation thought Sandra was suggesting she serve dry corn to her family (which did not seem right to her). Hence, in the translation moment I recorded, Sandra uses another translation moment to let her audience know that she understands the need to localize information. She then proceeds to pause at several points to ask her audience how they define specific words (e.g., “How do you say ‘beans’ to your kids?”; “How does your family describe grocery shopping?”), negotiating languages as she presents information to a multicultural audience that is familiar with Spanish and English to various degrees. She situates the information she is presenting within the context of that specific audience during that specific presentation.

A woman in a classroom
Figure 5: Sandra localizes Mazorca

While this is a brief and limited example, Sandra’s (and her audience’s) language localization echoes some of the arguments recent scholars in technical communication have made to highlight the importance of “user localization.” As Sun illustrates, analyzing the localization practices of everyday users can help technical communicators better understand how to develop culturally sensitive, global-ready content (Gonzales and Zantjer). Translation moments at the Hispanic Center, such as Sandra’s language localization practices, illustrate the extensive localization experience multilingual communicators gain through their lived experiences. In turn, further studying how and why multilingual communicators translate and localize information can help us understand the rhetorical dexterity needed to communicate across languages and cultures. Multilingual communicators’ localization practices can help technical communicators better understand how to adapt and develop technologies across cultural, linguistic, and physical boundaries.

Translation Moment 2: Translation as Rhetorical Strategy

While translation moments often occur when multilnguals attempt to describe a concept or idea they have in mind to a specific audience, they can also reflect instances of struggle, confusion, and negotiation, in which answers or descriptions are not readily accessible. Multilingual communicators employ several strategies to negotiate such communicative discrepancies.

For example, as she was translating a marriage certificate for a community client, Carolina, a trained translator at the Hispanic Center, stumbled when translating the word “notarize.” At first, Carolina used Linguee, an open-access digital translator to look up Spanish translations for the word “notarize” As evidenced in Figure 6, Linguee provided three possible translations for the word including notariado, notariados and escriturados. While these translations are useful, all three words are present-tense adjectives, and Carolina was looking for a past-tense description. Catalina’s experience with digital translation software reflects many of the limitations exhibited through algorithmically developed translations (Chen and Bao). Thus, during this translation moment Carolina was left to improvise a translation. At first she asked out to others in the translations department office, “Como dirian &lsqu;notarized’?” (“How would you all say ‘notarized’?”). Another translator, Sara, said “‘Notarizado’?” Carolina replied, “Yeah, I think so, pero what about ‘notariado’?” Carolina and Sara then said both words aloud: “Notariado, notarizado, notariado, notarizado… which sounds better?” They then googled both words to find examples of each used in articles written in Spanish. At this point, Sara explained, “I think notariado is the correct translation grammatically speaking, but notarizado is used most commonly in practice.” Based on this conversation and on their collaborative research, Carolina used notarizado in her translation.

Screenshot of the Linguee interface
Figure 6: Carolina uses Linguee to Llook up “notarized”

This translation moment represents one isolated instance of an activity in which translators and multilingual communicators engage on a daily basis. While all communicators have to situate their language rhetorically, the practice of consistently contextualizing language across English and Spanish allows translators like Carolina and Sara to understand how to respond appropriately to communicative discrepancies in specific rhetorical situations. While there is no evidence for their rhetorical dexterity in contexts outside of this translation moment for the example provided, looking at the flexibility and ease with which Sara and Carolina negotiated language using digital, physical, and cultural resources may help us understand how multilingual communicators are constantly practicing finding the most appropriate discursive resources for communication. This practice can perhaps, if given adequate value and attention, be leveraged in other academic and professional contexts in which we encourage individuals to develop rhetorical flexibility.

Translation Moment 3: Translation as Design

While much of the translation work at the Hispanic Center is verbal and/or alphabetic, translation moments also involve the use of other semiotic resources. In addition to having a Language Services Department that translates information for the office and for community partners, the center employs Amy, a technical communicator in charge of designing promotional materials, maintaining the website, and writing grants for the Hispanic Center. While Amy is proficient in both Spanish and English, she frequently relies on the trained translators in the Language Services Department to translate formal language for the website. As illustrated in Figure 7, the Hispanic Center’s website has both an English version and a Spanish version, which means that content frequently needs to be updated in both languages in order to be accessible to both Spanish- and English-proficient readers.

Spanish and English language versions of
          the Hispanic Centern of Western Michigan website
Figure 7: Spanish and English versions of the Hispanic Center website

During one translation moment, Amy worked to adapt information translated by the Language Services Department to the organization’s website. She was attempting to update the “Current Volunteer Opportunities” portion of the website. She sent the Language Services translators a written list of the opportunities in English, and they returned the translations depicted in Figure 8. Amy transported the translated information into the Spanish portion of the site; however, she was left with a task that required more than cuting and pasting.

Image of a word processing program
Figure 8: Amy adapts translations from Language Services Department

As Amy explained during this translation moment, adapting content from the English version to the Spanish version of the Hispanic Center’s WordPress site is not always easy. When she receives translations from the Language Services Department, she frequently has to adjust them to fit the space constraints of the website’s template. “Spanish is often longer than English,” Amy explains, which means “what fits on the English side of the site doesn’t always fit in the Spanish side.” During this specific translation moment, Amy had to readjust the Spanish sentences, requiring that she use her knowledge of Spanish and her understanding of design to decide how to best adapt the information. In addition, Amy explains that the WordPress site itself “is clunkier on the Spanish side,” since plug-ins and updates don’t always work at the same pace and in the same way in both versions. Through her job at the center, Amy has to constantly toggle between Spanish and English and between the corresponding parts of the WordPress site. She not only has to employ successful visual design practices (Arola; Fleckenstein; Wysocki), but also has to understand how her designs may affect multilingual audiences across the various parts of the website. While Amy receives translation help from the Language Services Department with the written/alphabetic translations, translators in the Language Services Department are not familiar with Web content management and design. Often Amy has to adapt the translations given to her by the translators, put these adaptations on the site, take screenshots of the content, print these screenshots, and physically bring them to the Language Services Department for further proofreading. Thus navigating “intercultural visual design” (Brumberger) requires Amy to pair her technological and linguistic skills with the linguistic and cultural skills of the translators in the Language Services Department. In Figure 9, Amy and the Language Services Director, Sara, are shown discussing how Amy’s adaptation may be perceived by Spanish-speaking users of the organization’s site.

Two women discuss a paper
Figure 9: Amy and Sara discuss translations on the website

As evidenced in this translation moment, translation is more than just the transformation of words. Effective translations, particularly when developed in professional settings, require the navigation of images, Web platforms, and other media. Hence, while technical communicators would gain experience with these rhetorical adaptations in many professional settings, technical communicators like Amy who adapt content across languages have an additional layer of work to accomplish in order to advocate for their organizations and communities.

Conclusion: Translation as Technology

Analysis of translation moments as enacted by multilingual writers and translators at the Hispanic Center illustrates some of the creative, rhetorical, purposeful work of translation. The rhetorical negotiations that take place as multilingual communicators shape information in and between English and Spanish requires audience awareness, rhetorical dexterity, and an understanding of writing beyond the alphabet. Given this, I’d like to end by arguing for a closer examination and greater valuing of translation as a technology.

In “Wampum as Hypertext,” Angela Haas asks our fields to reconsider the notion of “discovery” as it applies to how we historicize and conceptualize digital tools and technologies. Through her illustration of wampum belts as tools preceding Western conceptions of hypertext, Haas “call[s on us to] resist the dominant notions of what it means to be technologically ‘literate’ or ‘advanced’ and… critically reflect on struggles for and engage with discussions about digital and visual rhetorical sovereignty” (95). In the same vein, Haas reminds us that the word “digital” precedes our field’s understanding of digitized tools and technologies, saying “’[D]igital’ refers to our fingers, our digits, one of the primary ways (along with our ears and eyes) through which we make sense of the world and with which we write into the world” (84).

Following Haas’s call for the reconsideration of how we theorize digital and visual rhetorics, I suggest that we continue analyzing the work of translation as a technology employed by multilingual communicators to accomplish rhetorical work. If we are to think of the word “technology” as a derivative of the Greek word “techne,” we might link back to the “craftsmanship” or “creativity” employed by Greek orators as they spoke in trials and lectures. This etymology suggests that the word “technology” relates to creative practices employed for specific rhetorical purposes. Translation, on the other hand, as illustrated here through employees at the Hispanic Center, requires a similar sense of creativity and rhetorical awareness. As evidenced by the three brief translation moments I discuss, multilingual communicators who move between languages employ a variety of technical resources to accomplish their work. These resources include not only digital, internet-based technologies (e.g., Linguee digital translator, WordPress platforms), but also include cultural knowledge (e.g., an understanding of how foods are named differently by various Latin@ communities) and collaborative community practices (e.g., conversations about translating “notarized”). Hence, technical communicators, and more broadly communicators who navigate linguistic boundaries to accomplish work, must employ various iterations of the word “technology.”

As we consider the connections between race, technology, social media, and multimodality in this collection, it’s important that we emphasize the importance of the theories, terminologies, and various histories through which we describe our work. While positioning multilingualism as a technology may be a small move that requires much more extensive empirical study, thinking about the ways in which we name the practices of multilingual communicators can help us continue flipping the deficit model often used to represent people of color in professional and academic spaces.

Often multilingualism is positioned as an “issue” or communicative “problem” to be overcome in our classrooms and workplaces, particularly with reference to individuals whose primary language is not English. While many researchers are working to flip this discourse through various methods, my focus on the rhetorical work enacted by multilingual communicators through translation moments can help us understand the specific, situated assets and strategies linguistic diversity brings to classrooms and workplaces. These assets not only are relevant and useful to multilingual communicators, but also can be applied to our broader objectives as rhetoricians. That is, cultural localization, rhetorical dexterity, and design skills are at the core of many organizational missions and academic programs. Drawing on this research, writing and rhetoric instructors can present translation as a framework to help students understand how language can be adapted for different audiences even when all communicators are working in English. For instance, teachers can ask students to interpret or translate discipline-specific terms like “audience” and “analysis” using various semiotic resources, in this way encouraging a multiplicity of meanings to be practiced through students’ work. With a focus on translation, difference can be positioned at the center of our pedagogy, allowing students to understand their role as communicators rhetorically adapting language to meet the needs of various audiences and contexts.

In the same way, repositioning linguistic diversity as an asset in professional settings can help us further value the translation work of multilingual technical communicators, those individuals whose cultural histories and lived experiences can help us continue designing and disseminating ethical and effective global content. By positioning translation as a technology that can be learned and practiced, we can both continue to value the communicative practices of multilingual communicators and directly incorporate these practices into the core of our training and pedagogical models. In turn, valuing translation as technology can help us center the experiences and skills of multilingual communicators as relevant and critical to the broader aims of our classrooms and organizations.

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Author Bio

Laura Gonzales is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her work is focused on the intersections of translation, technical communication, and community engagement. Laura also works as a translator for the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan in Grand Rapids, and she is a member of the 2016–2018 cohort for NCTE’s Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color (CNV) program.