Now that we just finished our “Authors Meets Critics” on Gustavo Leyva’s La filosofía en México en el siglo XX – a book written in Spanish by our Mexican colleague who prefers to speak in Spanish – I’m thinking about how best to organize conferences or sessions or journals so that they are bilingual, so that philosophers can produce their best work in their native tongue, and so that we exclude as few as possible. Here are just a few notes before I forget. Please send any other suggestions along.
I should add that this is on my mind because Carlos and I are organizing our next biannual conference on Mexican philosophy in Mexico next year, and are already receiving inquiries from our Mexican colleagues regarding whether we are going to publish Spanish contributions in our online journal.
First, the assumption should be that participants (or readers) have at least a passive familiarity with the language in question. For those of us who have had to learn a language from scratch, you’ll remember that it was much easier to read or understand a new language, passively, than it was to speak and articulate one’s own views. And part of the reason we have to assume this is that it’s unlikely that we’ll have the resources for simultaneous translation–money and translators, of course, but including the time in a session to let one present and then translate the presentation.
Another part of the reason is that I believe strongly that we philosophize best in our own language, that is, that language is not merely a vehicle for conveying a proposition, but that the sentence reflects the physiognomy of one’s soul (as Wittgenstein put it, following Schopenhauer). (I should also go dig up Kierkegaard’s petition to write his dissertation in Danish, even though he had to defend in Latin and though it was common practice to write in Latin as well.) Anyway, the idea is that we should be able to be ourselves when philosophizing, which is a matter of the language we do it in.
Finally, we have to recognize that there’s a long tradition of linguistic and epistemic imperialism that requires non-English speakers to learn English, and for us Mexican-Americans to forget Spanish. It’s high time we put an end to that and start shouldering half the burden of communicating across cultures.
So how can we make it easier on newcomers to a language who want to converse with their colleagues across a border?
- If the assumption is that everyone has at least a passive familiarity with all the languages spoken, we should also make sure that we provide robust abstracts in all languages ahead of time. Perhaps even require that some version of the papers are given in advance.
- We may not be able to provide simultaneous translation, but we should name several translators in the group who can take turns briefly summarizing questions and responses. It won’t be perfect, but it won’t be nothing.
- We ask everyone to slow down when they present, ask a question, or respond. This also means that we ask everyone to write less, maybe even give strict word counts instead of time limits, which nobody ever follows anyway. (Probably a good rule in general.)
- We have to encourage a culture of asking for help, or asking someone to repeat themself, or asking someone to slow down. At first this may be the responsibility of those who are perfectly bilingual.
- And, finally, we need to keep organizing and producing more and more in bilingual settings. For now, Carlos and I have decided to publish up to 25% of The Journal of Mexican Philosophy in Spanish. Maybe that will change to 50% down the line. In any case, we want to make clear that Spanish is a philosophical language, too, and it’s time we add it to the list of languages one can learn for the Ph.D. language requirements, where those still exist.