What is Gained and Lost in Translation? Part 1


The Real World as a Common Language

Akudo Ejelonu and Gregory Koutnik

Like in all academic fields, scholars of the environmental humanities (EH) face challenges when they try to describe their work to people outside the discipline. Perhaps even more than in other fields, however, EH scholars must also find ways to communicate with one another - architects with anthropologists, art historians with political scientists, engineers with Germanists - translating their findings into terms that fellow EH scholars in other fields can understand. This challenge is an outgrowth of the greatest strength of environmental humanities, namely its interdisciplinary breadth, heightening the need for a common intellectual language.

We found that one of the most promising strategies for making ourselves mutually intelligible is to communicate our research through real-world examples, grounding our ideas in practices widely known within academia. For example, as Akudo described her research interests regarding sustainable development to Greg, she began with the example of marginalized communities in the Caribbean who are disempowered as a result of an ecotourism industry that develops around them and not with them. By explaining her research interests in this way, Akudo allowed the real-world manifestation of more abstract ideas she was interested in exploring — environmental racism, issues of local control — to speak for her. This made her ideas accessible to a fellow EH scholar without leaning too heavily on the technical language her field has developed for its practitioners. 

No matter how theoretical or technical it may often be, our research seeks to engage with the world around us. Indeed, if there is one thing EH scholars have in common, it is a mutual interest in real-world environmental issues and the potential for interdisciplinary scholarship to shed light on them. We can gain much from leveraging this to forge a common language to discuss our work with one another. Even if we lose the specificity afforded to us by specialized jargon, we stand to gain points of reference through which we can discuss our research and its real-world relevance to a wider audience.