Three levels of translation

Getting Ready 29

Dean Hoa responded to Joe’s request to explain how he would use labor to flesh out his class in community mobilization, which we are translating to mean internal organizing. He sent an example of how he would apply one of the theories of social influence and persuasion.

Dean Hoa taught this class last year, possibly from the same textbook, although maybe not.

His response made me ask, how many translations are actually going on here? There are at least three.

First there is the translation from language to language, which is hard enough. We are asking Dean Hoa to write about this in English.

Then there is the translation from a labor advocacy orientation in a socialist culture to a labor advocacy orientation in a capitalist culture. Actually, it is not just culture, it’s history. History is the big ox in this drama. In this instant moment, history has dragged these two cultures into confrontation with each other. Culture is the surface, history is the beast.

This is probably why sociocultural historical psychology has historical in it.

Then in the middle, between the other translations, stands this thing the textbook, which is not a labor advocacy/labor studies textbook at all, but a business marketing textbook that comes out of a business school class. In activity theory we would call this a tool, in the sense of a thing or resource that people use in order to accomplish something.

I’m calling the textbook a “tool” but I could use Vygotskian terminology, which is really what’s appropriate here, and call it a “mediating artifact.” It’s the thing that holds steady while you use it for different purposes. You use it, but you don’t use it up or turn it into something else – it’s still there when you’re done. I could also call it a “boundary object,” meaning something that marks the limit of one thing and the beginning of another thing, something that looks one way from one side and a different way from the other side.

In order to use this book to teach internal organizing or labor leadership, we have to translate it in the sense of turning it inside out.

That’s three kinds translation: language to language, socialist culture to capitalist culture, and business marketing purpose to workplace organizing purpose. Each one is substantial and dense. This is the first time I have really understood what we are going to have to do. And having penetrated all three levels of translation, figure out how to teach across them.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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