Translating between Species

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The emergence of species within evolution provides for ecology where differentiation is valued. Species branch off, isolating and defining themselves as different from their predecessors. This is not only true for species in biology. It is a process visible in culture, and in academia. Each field of academia is a self contained species, with individuals sharing a common biology and society of existence. Each species and culture must coexist. Exclusivity between subjects is not possible or even viable. Symbiosis is a mutually beneficial existence; all species exist within an ecosystem. Species exist in a web of interconnectivity which sustains them and the whole. Abandoning connections with others leaves a species, or academic field, dangerously isolated. Interaction, and therefore intercommunication, is essential for the different species to successful survive.


The issue of intercommunication is not merely an issue of speaking to each other. Like different cultures and nationalities, different fields of academia have different languages even when speaking the same official language. The method of discourse is different, as is the jargon used. Moreover, the connotations are radically different. Much of what is spoken is not related merely to the meaning of the words used, but the associations grow from the use of the word.


In The Evolution of Stories and the Story of Evolution[1], Lisa posted in the Serendip forum with the question, "evolution... is trial and error....the "error" slowly weeded out...some of us... may be errors."[2] A heated debate arose in class if it was even possible to define people as errors, and more importantly, what constituted an error. The word error, it was agreed, has a negative connotation. Since the process of evolution is neither one with value judgments or an overarching structure to determine what would be an error, any judgment would be a human decision. In addition, to determine is something was an error, one has to make a judgment after the fact. In the case making a holistic evaluation of a human, a judgment would have to be after their lifetime. How far after their lifetime would become a further debate since the direction of evolution is difficult to discern from just a short human life span.

The true problem of debate was that different discipline carried with them a different interpretation of the word error. Error in mathematics is a much more concrete decision. However, error in biology is less clear, whereas in the humanities it is impossible to isolate. There was no common ground upon which to establish a basis for "error" due to the different uses of the words in different fields.

While some may claim that "truly great work comes from specialization,"[3] it is specialization that leads to needless disagreements such as that of the use of the word "error". The disagreement over "error" prevented further discussion. Even a temporary definition upon which discussion could have been based would have been productive. Isolation within specializations fails to capitalize on the chances for generativity which always arises in the meeting of different perceptions.


Diana Chapman Walsh, former president of Wellesley College, saw her job as president and an administrator to translate between departments[4]. She acted as a mediator who would help reconcile differences and miscommunication. She describes how "a trustworthy translator brings curiosity, receptivity, respect for the dignity of those who are other, alien or consigned to the margins. A trustworthy translator starts in humility and yet never fails to ask how we know what we know."

Delegating the role of a translator to the administrators of a college is somewhat practical, since they are exposed to different fields. This may diminish their own personal bias in approaching the languages used in various disciplines, but can never eliminate it. Moreover, it is impossible to have an administrator present at every interdisciplinary situation in light of practical concerns. The conclusion can only be that students, professors and practitioners become versed in the importance of establishing common ground with other fields and being willing to discard their own in order to forge a debate.


To accomplish a common ground, a Hegelian model[5] can be used. There need not only be two views of a term of concept, but a synthesis must be reached. One synthetic result from the debate on error was that some students adopted the usage of "a non generative member of society." Thus, a person could be an error is they did not help further the generation of the human species. A new problem arose from this. Was direct reproduction necessary to be generative, or could being a positive member of society be enough to satisfy this requirement? Nevertheless, it was a demonstration of the possibility of finding common ground, however brief the tenure of such agreement may be.

The standardization of common ground between fields is impossible. Each term and concept is always context based. The usefulness of overarching terms is often unimpressive: a factor which led to the introduction of specific uses of words over simply the adopting of the more general terms. Thus common ground must be found that applies to the interactions which it is trying to manage. "Meaning making, learning, and change are always context specific. Translations are also context-, time-, and audience-specific."[6]

Standardization can survive in the emergence of new species of academia since "translation… preserves something of the original or previous versions, and… renders a new version appropriate to the new context."[7] The field of psychology evolved from the study of the Christian soul, such as the work of Rene Descartes, to the empiricist schools that inspired John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Now it is applied to a more scientific process, through the application of scientific methods to an area previously dominated by philosophy. Economist and political scientists have merged into the interdisciplinary field or political economy. Interconnections are constantly breeding new fields, and help produce more detailed, expansive work and study. This work is often more appropriate and useful in practical elements than the colliding fields alone.


There is no true translation between fields. Even though "the desire to translate is born of the impulse to preserve"[8] there is no true common ground that can hold perfect perseveration between disciplines since their diversification fundamentally separates them. Symbiosis is possible and useful for different species, as it is for different disciplines. The physicist does not have to understand the history of a painting to benefit from it, but understanding it can led to a greater generativity of ideas due to new perspectives. But seeing differences and building new common ground, there are new opportunities for generativity.


There are still unanswered questions left. How do we reconcile interdisciplinary study and multidisciplinary study? To what extent do all individuals need to engage in dialogue outside of their specialization? And how do we keep the advances that specialization brings while still understanding other fields? These are questions not only for pedagogues, but for researches, and ordinary individuals.






[6] Cook-Sather, Alison. Education is Translation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. pg 87

[7] Cook-Sather, Alison. Education is Translation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. pg 26

[8] Cook-Sather, Alison. Education is Translation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. pg 26


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