Putting Things In Context

Friday Feeling XTM International

Putting Things In Context

Some public figures are lightning rods for criticism. Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has been vocal and combative on the subject of climate change and while many applaud her for it, she is not universally popular. This week, when asked for her opinion on Israel-Palestine conflict, Thunberg posted this message on Twitter:

“I am not against Israel or Palestine. Needless to say I’m against any form of violence or oppression from anyone or any party.”

Over the past 24 hours, that statement has been torn to pieces by people demanding she say something stronger, or something milder, or something catchier, or something else.

If asking an 18-year-old to unravel the complexity of Middle East politics in a single Tweet seems harsh, then asking them to do it in a second language is harsher still. When someone makes a rousing speech to a United Nations Assembly, which Greta Thunberg did at the age of just fifteen, it’s easy to forget the effort they’re having to make to communicate clearly and persuasively in a language that may be their second, third or fourth. And it’s easy to forget the importance of context in piecing their meaning together.

In December 2019 TIME Magazine named Greta Thunberg as its person of the year. Her name was added to a list that features, among others, Queen Elizabeth II, Bill Gates and fifteen US Presidents. While speaking at a climate change event in Turin that month, Thunberg commented that world leaders who refused to acknowledge global warming and its consequences should be “put up against a wall”. In her native Swedish, this form of words means that people should be held accountable for their actions, but in English the connotations are far more threatening. When the error was pointed out to her she immediately acknowledged it and apologised – something many politicians could learn from – but she still drew criticism and ridicule, and the episode was a reminder of the pitfalls of multilingual communication.

Linguists will be aware that many Swedish words have no equivalent in English. “Vobba” is a combination of “jobba” (to work) and “vabba” (to stay at home and take care of a sick child). So vobba means to take a day of paid leave to look after your child, and to work from home while doing it. It’s refreshing that Swedish employers prioritise parenting and work/life balance to the point where new language is being built around those priorities, but it’s a conundrum for translators.

Language service professionals are frequently given cause to smile and shake their heads at misunderstandings caused by taking statements out of context, and when their work includes translating not just words on a page but video, the ability to work with visual context offers a major boost to speed and productivity. Most importantly, it means the speaker’s intentions can be clarified and the nuance of their message preserved. It may not guarantee cordial agreement, but it builds a bridge towards it.

It’s challenging for anyone to find a form of words that keeps all sides happy, and Twitter isn’t renowned as a forum for calm reflection. But even if Greta Thunberg didn’t say what everyone wanted to hear this week, surely she doesn’t deserve to be put up against a wall for it? Let’s be a little more tolerant. Let’s keep things in context.