Left in Translation
By Emma Eaton
Identity is a universal concept. It can be personal, communal, or even implicit. The idea merely states that as a condition of existing, one can be understood in relation to context. I like to break identity down three ways: private definitions of identity, social recognitions of identity, and cross-cultural translations of identity. While not mutually exclusive, these boundaries represent where one would expect to find the greatest discrepancies. The individual chooses what is shared within their own society. This society constructs it within a similar set of schemas. And, when translated across cultures, the interpretation of the individual is reconstructed within an entirely new set of schemas. Identity is not a one dimensional “I am _____.”
I’ve never had to consider this framework more explicitly than in this week at the NFLC. The first two concepts are familiar. My identity has not always been something that I’ve been comfortable sharing, so I can easily recognize the distinction between personal and communicated identities. The third, however, only matters if one needs it to matter. Extreme cross-cultural interactions are often short-term, making repression a somewhat more appealing alternative to actual investments in sharing. And that’s where the NFLC comes in. As a long-term program centered around cross-cultural engagement, it would be almost dishonest for miscommunications of identity to remain unaddressed. This doesn’t just mean listing every word that one would use to describe themselves. It requires making sure that both parties have the tools necessary to actually comprehend the significance of those words.
This week has arguably been the most abstract. Unlike ecology, where personal anecdotes serve to supplement the material, the topics at hand (gender and anthropology) are so inextricably intertwined with identity. As such, it was only fitting that we began our unit with an identity exercise. The prompt was pretty straightforward: think about how you would define yourself and share that with the class. Assuming a more one dimensional analysis of the exercise, I would say something like this:
“Today we were asked to share how we identified ourselves with our peers. I noticed that the Keystone students all listed their tribe and religion, while the Cornell students used more varied descriptors like ‘feminist’ and ‘Latina.’ This suggests that the Nilgiris culture values more communal forms of identity, while the United States is more individualistic.”
But how much does that really tell you? All I did was plug “x tribe” and “x religion” into my outside understanding of “x tribe” and “x religion.” There is zero recognition that sixteen identities from two incredibly different cultures just crossed major communicative and interpretive boundaries. No one’s asking if the Keystone students grasp the implications of “feminist.” No one’s asking if there’s a reason why the word “queer” was never used. And no one’s asking why it’s okay for me to make a judgement after a one-sided engagement with just eight pairs of words. My point is that identity takes more than just being said. It has to be heard.
So let me revise my previous statement: On Monday we learned what our classmates were comfortable sharing about themselves and defined that within a set of limiting frameworks. Except even that wasn’t complex enough. We learned that lesson on Tuesday when “Latina” was assigned a colonial history not unlike India’s own — on Thursday when “feminist” became a recognition that it’s not the cake’s fault that the boy ate it. As we engage with these complex issues, we’re creating new schemas to understand them. Up until Friday, the word “queer” only had two boxes to fit into.
To suggest that our identities were lost in translation would be inaccurate. We left them there. Maybe not deliberately, but we have a responsibility to return them to an honest meaning. A week later, that same identity exercise would yield completely different answers and interpretations. A week after that, even more so. The day we stop trying to understand our peers is the day we can say I am existing in your exact state of being – and the next one, and the next one… Identity is dynamic. It deserves more than a one dimensional acceptance of its spoken form.