Mandarin at Graduation

I’m pleased to see that my alma mater, Swarthmore College, will offer simultaneous translation of commencement today into both Spanish and Mandarin. This recognizes that families and friends of students graduating from college may be more comfortable listening to speeches in languages besides English, and will allow them to participate more fully in graduation. (The article does not mention that Commencement is already translated into ASL).

This can remind us of the many spheres where language policy matters. Often people think about language policies – choices about what languages to use when and where – only in classrooms, even though these choices are also made in street signs, legal proceedings, and within families. Even within education there are important language policy decisions made outside the classroom  – for example, at graduation. It’s also a great example of using students’ linguistic repertoires as a resource. The Mandarin translators are both current students, one of whom is planning to translate her own graduation ceremony. As they mention in the Philly.com story, it can be challenging to translate things like idioms.

Vice President Joe Biden’s commencement speech this year at the University of Pennsylvania is an example of what can go wrong in graduation speech translation. According to the Daily Pennsylvanian, Chinese students felt that Biden’s discussion of his opinions of China were inappropriate for the venue, especially when many Chinese students were graduating. In Penn linguist Victor Mair’s analysis at Language Log, though, he points out that one student’s complaints centered on the meaning of the word nation, which does not have exactly the same set of meanings as its nearest Chinese translation, mínzú 民族. As Johnson points out, nation as Biden used it is attached to a very specific, European concept that does not reflect the Chinese usage of nation. Johnson points out that even the American usage of nation to mean country is different from the European usage.

Given this recent controversy, Swarthmore’s decision to allow simultaneous translation into both Spanish and Mandarin, including a livestream on their website, by students is a gutsy one. The College notes, “Additional languages for translation may be considered for future ceremonies,” leaving open the possibility of even more multilingual graduations.
Translation can be a minefield, in part because language is tied to history and social interaction. Writing about these challenges isn’t meant to discourage multilingual practices, but to help us think about the issues we face in advocating for a fairer multilingual world. But it’s also a noble goal – I wish these students the best of luck!
-Miranda Weinberg
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