Lost and found in translation

One of the most valuable things of research trips is that it makes me reflect on my earlier work. And it makes that have I to sharpen and polish the narrative about the key findings of that work.


In my previous blog post I have shared the presentation that I gave at the International Forum on Urban Policy for the Sustainable Development Goals in Seoul on 9 June. That presentation gives a good insight in the main findings from my earlier four-year research project in which I have studied 60 voluntary programs for low-carbon and resource efficient buildings and cities.


The presentation came, however, with a slight shortcoming. What I presented at the Forum was a well-polished narrative, but it was polished for an academic audience. There’s a logic why for that: up to then I had predominantly presented the key-findings from the project to other academics. I hadn’t yet exposed the narrative to a more policy and practitioner oriented audience. And from the comments, questions and talks afterwards I learnt that was taking things for granted that are not that for granted when you think a little longer about them.


Normally I don’t really take (or make) the time to think longer about these things. Of course I have all good intentions after the Q&A sessions at conferences, but once back home life sneaks up on me with emails, meetings, and what not.


Forced to think a little harder

On research trips the pattern is a little different. I have to introduce myself and my research over and over again at the start of the many interviews I have. And I have to summarize the findings from my earlier research projects over and over again—often at the end of an interview. This normally results in an ever shorter, ever sharper, and ever better flowing narrative. It’s always a big win to not be at my home-desk for a while.


This time, there was a complicating factor, however, but one that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I had to work with an interpreter in most of my interviews. Not only did I have to explain my findings to an audience that is slightly different from to one I normally interact with—policymakers, bureaucrats, practitioners, and civil society activists as opposed to academics—I also had to get my message across through someone who was an absolute layman when it comes to cities, climate change and governance.


Trust me. That’s a challenge. But not a challenge that cannot be overcome with a bit of persistence—and a bit of luck. The lucky part here was a patient audience, eager to learn, and a great interpreter: Jin.


Lost in translation

To explain the key-findings from my earlier work, most of my interviews ended with me drawing the diffusion of innovations slide—featured in my previous blog post—to illustrate the chasm in uptake of the 60 voluntary programs that I have studied before. I used it to explain that to make the move from leadership and front-runners (those actively participating in urban sustainability programs) to the majority market a different narrative than a leadership narrative is required, and that different incentives than leadership incentives are required.


Did I lose you there?


Well, I’m afraid I lost my first couple of interviewees there. The word leadership doesn’t mean the same to everyone. The word narrative doesn’t. The word incentive doesn’t. Add to this that part of this fairly complicated message likely got lost the translation from English to Korean, and I found myself in a place where I didn’t want to be: people with more questions about what I consider the problem to low uptake than what I think is the solution, and what is a good approach to governance for urban sustainability and resilience.


Of course, the knowledge I wanted to get across at the end of my interviews is the solution. I can talk enough about the problem in my (academic) writings. The people I’m meeting here in Korea are the audience to discuss solutions with. So all time needed to explain the problem of low participation in governance programs for urban sustainability is lost time.


Yet, as I already indicated, by repeating the narrative on solutions in my interviews it often gets smoother and zooms in on the information for the target audience—in this case policymakers, bureaucrats, practitioners, and civil society activists. And this time that was no different.


Found in translation

But this time something else happened also. When I drew the diffusion of innovations slide in my notebook at the end of an interview to explain my key-findings, Jin followed me and drew one in his notebook. When I scribbled words like ‘leadership’ and ‘market uptake’ in my notebook, he scribbled the (I hope!) Korean words for them. Once I was done drawing the key-findings in English in my notebook, Jin had drawn those key-findings in Korean in his.


And then the magic happened.


I could watch people respond to Jin’s version of my drawing and the narrative that accompanies it.  I could see what worked, and I could see what didn’t. Allow me to repeat: I could see what worked, and I could see what didn’t. I could not hear from responses what worked and what didn’t—well, not until Yin translated the many questions people had—but I had the unique opportunity to watch non-verbal responses.


I have never experienced that before.


It provided me with the unique opportunity to study the effects of my changing narrative—the different ways of getting my core message across. Changing the terminology I used worked wonders. Cutting down the number of categories I used worked wonders. Shifting from the abstract insights I talked about to using clear examples worked wonders. Over time I noticed that it became easier and easier for Jin to explain my narrative. It goes without saying that he became more proficient explaining my work, but the truly exciting thing was that comments from my interviewees changed from ‘explain me again’ to ‘tell me more’.


…but what I really wanted to say…

Well, that was a long intro to what I had planned to a blog on another topic.


The real challenge of refining my narrative, I have come to realize, is to translate grey areas. The area between top-down and bottom-up governance, between mandatory and voluntary regulation, between government and civil society activism. This does not so much seem to be a problem of language (from English to Korean and so on), but more a problem of considering these concepts as the limits of sliding scales rather than dichotomies.


I have promised quite a few of the people I have interviewed that I would put on paper what I think is possible in terms of governance for urban sustainability and resilience in this grey area. But let me make that the topic of a next blog post. I think here it suffices to give a big ‘thank you’ to Jin and all the people who have made time for interviews over the last four weeks, and for making me reflect on my earlier work. It has really helped me ahead. Thanks so much.


To be continued.

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