MET workshops

Understanding our clients: why do anthropologists write that way?

Translating or editing social science texts seems to inspire fear and loathing in many language professionals. This workshop is designed to help translators and authors' editors overcome their misgivings about social scientific writing, which is often seen as unnecessarily “complex”, excessively “academic”, or simply “bad”. These are value judgments that can get in the way of developing productive working relationships with authors.
This workshop explores a particular kind of social science writing – ethnography – not only because it is my field, but because, of all the social science genres, it is the one that contrasts most sharply with the organizational conventions of articles in the biological and experimental sciences, for which there is a very large translation and author editing market and to which many translators and editors have been (over)exposed. While contemporary ethnography contains elements of literary and even autobiographical writing, the ethnographic accounts that appear in peer-reviewed anthropology journals are not merely impressionistic or idiosyncratically “personal", nor are they works of fiction. They are empirical – but not empiricist – research articles.
While ethnographic texts may be organized in a variety of ways (none of which corresponds to the IMRAD/CARS model, which is not generalizable to all forms of knowledge), they share a literary form, that of the essay, and there is an underlying structure common to all, even the most experimental ethnographies. Learning to understand and identify this underlying structure can remove a great deal of the anxiety translators and editors experience when faced with a text whose forms of argumentation are not only unfamiliar but opaque. 

Facilitator: Susan M. DiGiacomo

Purpose: To provide translators and authors' editors who are unfamiliar with or less experienced in editing and translating ethnographic texts with a basic understanding of how the purpose of ethnographic texts – to present a “thick description” that represents other cultural experience “from the native’s point of view” in a way that makes it accessible to readers who are unfamiliar with it – is achieved textually. The language professional’s ability to translate or edit an ethnographic text successfully is improved by the ability to discern these textual characteristics.

Description/structure: After a short introduction by the facilitator, we will begin by reading, together, a text example from an essay by one of the great ethnographic writers in the English language. Participants will be asked to work in small groups to identify aspects of this text they find difficult or problematic, and share these observations with the group as a whole. The facilitator will record and address these observations, and draw the participants’ attention to the features of the text that identify it as ethnographic. After a short break, we will read, together, another text example from a published ethnographic article. Participants will again be asked to work together on this excerpt in small groups, this time identifying its underlying textual structure and proposing ways in which the text might be improved by editing.

Who should attend? Freelance translators or authors' editors who have recently started out in social science translation or who think they might like to specialize in it. In-house translators and editors who work for university language services and may from time to time be asked to work on a text written by a social scientist, or freelance translators to whom university language services outsource some of their work, including social science texts in need of translation and/or editing.

Outcomes: Participants should end the workshop feeling able to approach ethnographic texts with a greater understanding of what the ethnographic discourse community expects to read in its journals, and a clearer sense of whether they would like to pursue a specialization in this kind of work. The ability to see the underlying structure of an ethnographic text makes it much easier to convey the author’s meaning in a translation, or to develop the confidence necessary to subject a text written in English by a non-native speaker to a critical reading and, when in doubt, ask the author productive questions to clarify meaning.

About the facilitator: Susan M. DiGiacomo is professor of anthropology at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Catalonia, and adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA. In addition to several years working as a biomedical translator, she has more than 25 years' experience as a translator and authors' editor of anthropology from Catalan and Spanish to English and English to Catalan, and offers a departmental publication support service for her colleagues at URV that includes critical review of manuscripts, editorial assistance and translation.