The Necessity of Translation

I recently re-read this satirical essay from the 90s called “How to speak postmodern.” Here are some excerpts:

For example, let’s imagine you want to say something like, “We should listen to the views of people outside of Western society in order to learn about the cultural biases that affect us.” This is honest but dull. Take the word “views.” Postmodernspeak would change that to “voices”, or better “vocalities,” or even better, “multivocalities.” Add an adjective like “intertextual,” and you’re covered. “People outside” is also too plain. How about “postcolonial others”? To speak postmodern properly one must master a bevy of biases besides the familiar racism, sexism, ageism, etc. For example, phallogocentricism (male-centredness combined with rationalistic forms of binary logic).


Finally, “affect us” sounds like plaid pajamas. Use more obscure verbs and phrases, like “mediate our identities.” So the final statement should say, “We should listen to the intertextual multivocalities of postcolonial others outside of Western culture in order to learn about the phallogocentric biases that mediate our identities.” Now you’re talking postmodern!

It’s lighthearted, but he’s really making a point here. Most people, I think, understand if a thing is described as racist. That term is common enough.

But how about some other words? Xenophobia, nativism, decolonizing, misogyny, internalization, intersectionality, gaslighting, microaggression. These are very specific words, developed to accurately describe real things. They are important words.

But I think that when we sling these words around, they go over many peoples’ heads. They’re very technical; they’re jargon. Jargon is “a type of language that is used in a particular context and may not be well understood outside of it.” So, sure, when we’re Tweeting about these things, we could tell people to “look it up” or to “educate themselves” (which I have seen people do). But how many people would really take the time to do that?

Often, I have heard Trump supporters say that Trump “tells it like it is.” And, while this is incorrect in a factual sense, it is true that Trump doesn’t use jargon. He speaks at a middle school level.

Let me emphasize that “speaking at a middle school level” is not an insult. It’s kind of what I have to do for work every day. It’s why I wouldn’t describe MRI as “non-invasive imaging with unlimited depth penetration,” because I know that I’ve already lost like half of my readers. (Note that this is a real sentence that I included in a press release, and of course my editors chopped it out.) We have to translate in order to make things accessible.

Look, I am not trying to belittle or look down on any person here. However, very few people have the training or time to understand thick scientific jargon, and it’s the same for ANY kind of jargon — including sociological jargon.

I honestly think it resonates with more people to say: Trump unfairly judges Muslims to be bad people, and he is mean to women when they don’t look pretty, and he boasts about his policies being the literal cure to every problem, and he doesn’t truly apologize for his actions. Discuss the actions that warrant the labels. Discuss the actions that are sexist, racist, xenophobic…

Unpacking what we’re saying includes more people in the conversation. It’s tiring, I know—I do it every day with science. Please don’t think that I’m saying that any of these sociological words are unnecessary—they are so necessary. Just this summer, I had a lengthy discussion with my amazing friend Emily who taught me about the weight behind the word “racism” — how it comes with connotations of power imbalances, and sociologically means more than just “prejudice based on race.” So these words are complex, and wonderful examples of how nuanced language can be. But we have to speak to people who may not understand what they mean, we have to speak to people who feel like we’re talking down to them. We have to talk to each other.

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