Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Translation, Interpretation, Sensemaking

my bad, people
I could fast-forward life
and look at all this with a numb eye
to be like the total past

K. Silem Mohammad


Af few weeks ago, I raised some concerns about Karl Weick's collage of Alfred Schutz and Robert Pirsig. I've now taken a closer look, and the passage can actually serve as instructive example of common problems of interpretation and translation, i.e., quite literally problems of doing research in a second language. In Sensemaking in Organizations, Weick writes as follows:

The idea of retrospective sensemaking derives from Schutz's (1967) analysis of "meaningful lived experience." The key word in that phrase, lived, is stated in the past tense to capture the reality that people can know what they are doing only after they have done it. (24)

Now, as I already pointed out in that last post, "lived" is not really in the past tense because it is not being used as a verb. The past participle is here being used as an adjective, and adjectives don't have a tense.

There is a deeper problem, however. Weick seems to be be suggesting that Schutz chose his words carefully in order to "capture" a particular "reality", i.e., in order to suggest a particular interpretation. Weick then draws attention to exactly that sense of the of the words. But Schutz wrote the original in German, and in German "lived experience" is written simply "Erlebnis". I've talked about this with native German speakers, and there is simply no "pastness" anywhere in that way of putting it. It could just as well have been written "experience as we live it" or "living experience"*. The "key word", "lived", was required by the translation in order to capture the important difference between Erlebnis and Erfahrung, both of which might otherwise be translated simply as "experience" in English.

So the take-home message here is not to attribute undue significance to the word-choices of authors you are reading in translation. In principle, there is nothing wrong with saying, "I find the past participle here to be a useful reminder that ...", but in this case the whole thing seems to be a misreading of Schutz at a deeper level as well. As far as I can tell, Schutz uses Erlebnis to refer precisely to our present experience. Still more strangely, as I read Schutz's chapter on meaningful lived experience, he is talking about the projective character of experience, and therefore about how we do make sense of our actions before we carry them out. But I'm far from an expert on Schutz.

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*I don't have the German original on hand, but it will be interesting to read it. Weick quotes Schutz again on the next page (25). "When, by my act of reflection, I turn my attention to my living experience...", writes Schutz (51, my emphasis). "Living experience" might be translating the same single word, Erlebnis, but there is no past participle in sight.

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