What is Gained and Lost in Translation? Part 3

Pululuahua volcanic caldera, Ecuador (Photo credit: Shereen Chang)

Pululuahua volcanic caldera, Ecuador (Photo credit: Shereen Chang)

When local losses spell global gains

Shereen Chang & Tabeen Hossain

People in the same academic field have shared jargon and expertise, allowing them to communicate easily with colleagues about their research ideas. This specialization organically develops as colleagues with a shared background create shortcuts to mutual understanding. By assuming a shared understanding of core ideas, people in the same field can efficiently and effectively communicate with each other. However, as disciplines develop their own norms of specialization, each field moves further away from the others, forming chasms and barriers between them.

When we first try to explain our research to a broader audience, there are two main kinds of change we need to make. Either we need to provide additional context or background, necessitating an extra investment of time and effort, or we must forgo unnecessary jargon and technical details. For Tabeen, it means having to provide historical context and explaining the background in a way that is not necessary when conversing with those familiar with the field. For Shereen, it may mean eliding the specifics of models of justification for analogical inferences about the mental capacities of nonhuman animals. We inevitably lose something, whether it’s the technical details of our work or the explanatory shorthand of our field.

From within our respective fields, we may mourn this loss. Yet from the larger perspective of the environmental humanities (EH), this apparent loss may actually represent a net gain. In the interdisciplinary discourse of EH, it may help to abstract away from technical details in favor of emphasizing the big-picture questions regarding the contributions and consequences of our research. It helps to remind interlocutors of the big-picture context in order for us to discuss the different approaches we take toward achieving our common goals.