Translation and Mediation a language teaching perspective

Michael Byram


: , 2008 4.  . 22-26.


This article discusses how the well known difficulties of transferring meaning in full from one language to another are also part of the experience of people as the move from one culture to another. By discussing the relationship to mediation, as evident in for example the Common European Framework of Reference, the article suggests ways in which the loss of meaning can be understood and if not remedied at least complemented by a richer understanding. It is the R16; intercultural speaker R17; who has the competence necessary for this but the intercultural speaker is also a concept which can be further enriched by relating language teaching and learning to education for citizenship. The article thus introduces the notion of intercultural citizenship as a further refinement of what language people R11; whether translators of teachers R11; can contribute to our understanding of the relationship among cultures.

Lost in translation and Lost in Translation

The phrase lost in translation and the notion that all translation betrays were commonplaces for language people before Lost in Translation became the title of a book [Hoffman, 1989] and a film, the former undeservedly being less well known than the latter. The change from commonplace to book title embodies the insight that not only are meanings lost but also people. The poignant message of Hoffmans book is that, despite having an outwardly very successful life in North American and in English, she remains distant from the society in which she lives and has no longer any relationship to that from which she came:

No, theres no returning to the point of origin, no regaining of childhood unity. Experience creates style, and style, in turn, creates a new woman. Polish is no longer the one, true language against which others live their secondary life. Polish insights cannot be regained in their purity; theres something I know in English too [Hoffman, 1989: 273].

This is difficult, it causes pain but that pain and the fissures between languages are how I know that Im alive. Hoffman in a remarkable analysis of her loss of language reveals the impact of acquiring new words:

The words I learn now dont stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. River in Polish was a vital sound, energized with the sense of riverhood, of my rivers, of my being immersed in rivers. River in English is cold a word without an aura. It has no accumulated associations for me, and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation [Ibid: 106].

Her account of the process of acquiring a life in a new language is also remarkable for her mastery of that language, English, with which she tells of the loss of Polish. Even in this passage, she does not give us the Polish word for river; English dominates, perhaps because she, or her publisher, fears that a Polish word will disturb. She is talking about the loss of meaning which translators are always aware of, the connotations for the individual. These connotations are shared however with others and the loss is not just personal. The Polish word, as translators know, can never be entirely translated into English. Ultimately, by the end of the book, Hoffman takes a positive view, being able rejoice in her freedom from absoluteness: Because I have learned the relativity of cultural meanings on my skin, I can never take any one set of meanings as final (). Its not the worst place to live; it gives you an Archimedean leverage from which to see the world: [Ibid: 275]. Hoffman has found a resolution of her loss by embracing the position she shares with millions of other people in the contemporary world of migration and displacement.

The question that I would like to address here is whether this experience of being translated as a person enables her and people like her to act as translators between two worlds, in her case the world of Polish and the world of North American English?

Translation, Interpretation and Mediation

In addition to translators and interpreters, there is another group of people who are professionally engaged in explaining and transferring meaning. Anthropologists, when analysing and explaining the lives of one group of people to another, often write texts in the language of their reading public about people who live in a different language. They write ethnographies about social groups, traditionally they focus on tribes in Africa or the South Pacific in pre-industrial societies, and write for a professional audience in a language other than the language of the group they have studied. In recent decades anthropologists have also studied social groups in post-industrial societies, and have found an audience in the general public. In this case they may write in the language of the group which is the language of the readers. A book about the English was written in English [Fox, 2004]. A book about French bourgeois culture [Le Wita, 1988] was first written in French, but was then translated into English [Le Wita, 1994].

Anthropologists have long been aware of the complexities of this process as Winchs work from 1964 shows. He starts from the problem of explaining beliefs about magic, beliefs which we cannot possibly share [Ibid, 1964: 307] and takes a Wittgensteinian view that Reality is not what gives language sense. What is real and unreal shows itself in the sense that language has (). If then we wish to understand the significance of these concepts, we must examine the use they actually do have in the language [Ibid: 309]. This then leads to a position in which the engagement with another way of life and language requires a change in our own: Seriously to study another way of life is necessarily to seek to extend our own, not simply to bring the other way within the already existing boundaries of our own, because the point about the latter in their present form is that they ex hypothesi exclude that other [Ibid: 317:18].

From this perspective, translation and interpretation, as understood by language people, are too narrow. Winch requires what Hoffman has described, but Hoffman has shown how painful the experience can be¹. Some people, including migrants, even refuse the pain and stay within their own life and language, acquiring other languages only for instrumental and transactional purposes, to meet their everyday needs for survival in the environment they inhabit.

The notion of survival takes us to foreign language teaching. One of the consequences of migration and in particular the mobility of people in the European Union searching for better jobs, is the plethora of survival language courses. These are sophisticated developments from phrase books for travellers and they are intended for adults. In Western Europe, they began to flourish in the 1970s and are related to work at the Council of Europe where the linguistic needs of migrants led to a reassessment of all language teaching, in schools as well as in adult education. The philosophy was liberating. Instead of attempting to become a perfect speaker comparable to a native speaker learners and their teachers could envisage success before perfection, and competences at different levels could be recognised and rewarded. Eventually, this philosophy was presented in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages [Council of Europe, 2001], the CEFR.

The CEFR is most widely known and most influential through its descriptions of six levels of competence. The level descriptions cover many kinds of communicative language activities and strategies [Ibid: 57-90]. The majority of these activities are described at different levels, based on descriptors available in examination systems. Mediating activities are also considered to be communicative activities but they do not have such descriptors, presumably because no examinations pay attention to this activity. Mediation is nonetheless an activity which is given much prominence throughout the CEFR and is linked throughout with translation and interpretation:


¹. For an interesting discussion of translation see Jordan (2002)


In mediating activities, the language user is not concerned to express his/her own meanings, but simply to act as an intermediary between interlocutors (). Examples of mediating activities include spoken interpretation and written translation as well as summarising and paraphrasing texts in the same language, when the language of the original text is not understandable to the intended recipient [Council of Europe, 2001: 87].

Despite the extension of the concept in this definition to activities within the same language, elsewhere in the text there is only reference to translation and interpretation between two different languages.

Neither translation nor interpretation are thoroughly analysed in the CEFR. The term translation appears in the index with only one page reference and interpretation does not appear at all. The definitions in the text are simplistic:

Translation: the user/ learner receives a text from a speaker or writer who is not present, in one language or code (Lx) and produces a parallel text in a different language or code (Ly) to be received by another person as listener or reader at a distance ()

Interpretation: The user/ learner acts as an intermediary in a face-to-face interaction between two interlocutors who do not share the same language or code, receiving a text in one language (Lx) and producing a corresponding text in the other (Ly) (Ibid: 99 my emphasis).

We know from Hoffman and Winch that a parallel or corresponding text is a terminology which hides many complexities. Other references throughout the CEFR reveal that translation is understood in ways familiar to language teachers but not to translators referring to translation of example sentences or translation equivalence, for example. Interpretation as an activity is not discussed in any detail in the CEFR.

This is not to imply that the authors of the CEFR were naïve about translation or interpretation. It is to say, rather, that these activities are under-emphasised. This may be because they wished to avoid any suggestion that a grammar/ translation method of teaching languages is acceptable, since a communicative methodology is dominant and is an implicit rejection of the grammar translation method was and is widely castigated as an unsuccessful and undesirable method in language teaching. Nonetheless, it remains the case, that language users/learners to use the CEFR terminology are expected to be able to translate and interpret and that this is not the simple matter which the CEFR implies it is.

A different perspective is found in the CEFR in an interesting description of intercultural skills, referring to the role of intermediary again. Intercultural skills involve the ability to bring the culture of origin and the foreign culture into relation with each other and inter alia the capacity () to deal effectively with intercultural misunderstanding and conflict situation [Council of Europe, 2001: 104-5]. This is not however developed further but remains an indication of the origin of some sections of the CEFR in the concept of the intercultural speaker.

The intercultural speaker, mediation and intercultural citizenship

The phrase intercultural speaker was coined by Byram and Zarate in a working paper written for a group preparing the CEFR. In that paper Byram and Zarate (1994 and 1997) attempted to refine what in CoE papers (e.g. van Ek, 1986) was called sociocultural competence by defining four dimensions of knowledge, skills and attitudes (four savoirs). In 1997, Byram published a monograph, Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence, which built on but modified substantially the earlier Council of Europe paper. During this process the coining of the phrase intercultural speaker was accompanied by the introduction of the phrase intercultural competence and then, in the monograph, intercultural communicative competence, and the description of a model of intercultural competence.

The main development in the 1997 model from the work of Byram and Zarate (1994) is an emphasis on the pedagogical purposes of foreign language teaching in obligatory education. This is the fifth savoir, referred to in English as critical cultural awareness, and in French as savoir sengager. It is compared to the purposes of politische Bildung in the (West) German educational tradition with its aim of encouraging learners to reflect critically on the values, beliefs and behaviours of their own society. In foreign language education, this is done through a comparative study of other societies. Furthermore, substantial changes were made to definitions of other savoirs; only savoir être and savoir apprendre remained unchanged. The two models are different.

The definition of savoir sengager is: an ability to evaluate critically and on the basis of explicit criteria perspectives, practices and products in ones own and other cultures and countries. This definition involves a number of assumptions but its main focus on ability to realise some activity is part of defining intercultural competence as abilities, knowledge and dispositions. The choice of the phrase savoir sengager, with connotations of political engagement, was deliberate, and, in more recent writings, the relationship of intercultural competence to political literacy and involvement in community action has been developed further [Byram, 2008].

The original coining of the phrase intercultural speaker was a deliberate attempt to distance the notion of intercultural competence from the cultural competences of a native speaker. The phrase intercultural speaker was not taken into the CEFR, although some of the ideas were, including the notion of mediation, to a limited extent as we have seen. Zarates work has taken it forward in her vision of the language learner as someone between / entre deux, emblematic of the conditions of many people in post modernity, whose identities and identifications are far less simple than those promoted by identification with nation-states [Zarate, 2003]. This has sometimes led to the substitution of intercultural mediator for intercultural speaker.

Intercultural speaker can thus be used in a minimalist way simply to refer to someone who has some or all of the five savoirs of intercultural competence to some degree. Learners can use these competences in many contexts; for example, in periods of residence in another country, in interactions with people of other social groups in their own country, in their daily experience of hybridity of cultures, which are not simply a product of postmodernity, as Le Page and Tabouret-Keller have shown (1985). This usage emphasises the differences from the cultural competences of a native speaker. It reminds teachers and learners of the educational aims and objectives of foreign language teaching. It does not have any implications for the psychology of the individual, or their identification with any specific roles or social groups.

Intercultural competence can also be interpreted in a more complex way, where people can draw on their competences to act as intermediaries and in the resolution of conflicting understandings. In this enriched understanding, it ca also be linked to the concept intercultural citizenship. This is a further development of the central concept of critical cultural awareness or savoir sengager.

Education for citizenship is a recent formulation of what, in some countries, has long existed as politische Bildung, éducation civique, civics and so on (for accounts of different traditions, see Alred et al. 2006). It has been recently promoted on a European scale by the Council of Europe education for democratic citizenship (, where a new emphasis has been placed on learners becoming actively involved in their communities and not just acquiring knowledge of the political system in which they live. Knowledge should be accompanied by action, and the competences described, to be used as objectives for teaching and learning, include skills of communication, mediation and conflict resolution. These echo the description of the competences of the intercultural speaker.

The weakness in education for citizenship is the assumption that the focus of attention should be local and national, that political literacy means knowledge about processes and institutions within ones own school, neighbourhood and state, and activity should be focused at one or more of these levels. There is nothing surprising in this since education systems are usually national, and were formed with the intention of creating identification with nation-states [Hobsbawm, 1992]. But this is now a weakness in the contemporary world of global economies and international organisations, both civic and political.

The notion of intercultural citizenship and a description of the competences involved addresses this weakness, and introduces into education for citizenship an international or supra-national dimension. Combining a definition of intercultural competence with a definition of the competences of citizenship provides a set of teaching objectives which can guide cooperation across the curriculum, and particularly allow foreign language teachers to include in their teaching aims the encouragement of international political activity among their learners.

Political activity does not necessarily lie in the narrowly political sphere but, more often, in action in civil society. Such action involves cooperation with others to pursue agreed purposes, and presupposes the creation of a community of communication and action, permanent or temporary. Such communities of action may form within a state, bringing together people of different languages, ethnicities and cultures, and this requires intercultural competence. Intercultural citizenship encouraged by foreign language teachers goes further, and promotes the formation of communities of action beyond the boundaries of the state. Such communities bring new perspectives international groups for human rights, for environmental issues, for example which do not exist within their national or subnational equivalents, but they also bring misunderstanding and conflicting traditions. Intercultural competence is a crucial consideration, as well as the competences required for political activity.

The notion of intercultural citizenship is thus not confined to foreign language teaching, but it does introduce into foreign language teaching a political education dimension in a more complex and specific way than is present in the notion of intercultural competence and savoir sengager. It remains to be seen if this will awaken interest in or reflect the commitments of language teachers in practice in the way that intercultural competence has done.


1. Alred, G. Education for intercultural citizenship. Concepts and comparisons [Text] / G.Alred, M.Byram, M.Fleming. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2006.

2. Byram, M. From foreign language education to education for intercultural citizenship [Text] / M.Byram. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2008.

3. Byram, M. Definitions, objectives and assessment of sociocultural competence [Text] / M.Byram, G.Zarate. Council of Europe: Strasbourg, 1994.

4. Byram, M. Defining and assessing intercultural competence: some principles and proposals for the European context [Text] / M.Byram, G.Zarate // Language Teaching. 1997. 29. P.14-18.

5. Council of Europe 2001. Common European framework of reference for languages: learning, teaching, assessment [Text]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

6. Fox, K. Watching the English [Text] / K.Fox. London: Hodder, 2004.

7. Hoffman, E. Lost in Translation. A life in a new language [Text] / E.Hoffman. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

8. Jordan, S.A. Ethnographic encounters: the processes of cultural translation [Text] / S.A.Jordan // Language and Intercultural Communication. 2002. 2. P.96-110.

9. Le Page, R.B. Acts of identity. Creole-based approaches to language and ethnicity [Text] / R.B.Le Page, A.Tabouret-Keller. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

10. Le Wita, B. Ni vue ni connue: approche ethnographique de la culture bourgeoise [Text] / B.Le Wita. Paris: Fomndation de la Maison des Sciences de lHomme, 1988.

11. Le Wita, B. French Bourgeois Culture [Text] / B. Le Wita. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

12.Van Ek, J. Objectives for foreign language learning [Text] / J.Van Ek. 1986. Vol. 1: Scope. Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 1986.

13. Zarate, G. Identities and plurilingualism: preconditions for the recognition of intercultural competences [Text] / G.Zarate // Intercultural Competence / M. Byram (ed.). Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 2003.

Michael Byram, 2008



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