The Preservation of Language, Love & Leadership in Abu Dhabi

On The Role of Interpretation

By Raquel Ríos, Ph.D.
In Collaboration with Carla Abdel-Karim

“Education is one of the most powerful tools and important pillars of a flourishing nation: without it a society can wither and die… No amount of infrastructure, from highways to high-rises or televisions to telecommunications, can ever equal the power of education. It is our responsibility to give the next generation the gift of learning so that they can take our country beyond our dreams. We must teach our children to live peacefully, in harmony with nature and their fellow human beings. Our society is now a cosmopolitan- one in which people of all different races, colours, and creeds work, study and play side by side. We must be respectful of others’ beliefs and wish, tolerant of different culture and nationalities, more understanding of diversity.” ~Mohammed Al-Fahim, From Rags to Riches, Story of Abu Dhabi, 1995

I write from New York City, a small brown desk in the Bronx. Rain flows from the sky. Skies are grey here almost every day since my arrival. Flavors of Middle Eastern cuisine, the stark contrast of crowned statuesque men dressed in bleached white dish-dashes gliding alongside beauties shrouded in black, groups of Pakistani men crouched down low beneath patches of shade lining the wide, under-construction Abu Dhabi streets, the hustle and bustle of my team bumping elbows at the crack of dawn, an early start on a training day. All seem very far away. Dream scenes, perhaps, that surf the heat waves of the dessert and arrive outside my window on the other side of the world. I almost expect to see the enormous billboard of Sheikh Zayed waving at me from in front of the Emirates Palace. Instead, I see a row of English Tudor houses and a sign warning cars about alternate side of the street parking.
On my desk, a copy of Mohammed Al-Fahim’s book, a gift given to me by one of the interpreters I had the pleasure of working with in Abu Dhabi. As I pass my hand over the smooth surface, I am flooded with images of Emirati women sitting attentively at my last training. There, I read aloud the same passage you just read above. It was for them, a reminder of the purpose behind our monthly sessions. School reform in Abu Dhabi is a momentous part of history and we are honored to be a part of the birth of a knowledge based economy.
I am interested in exploring the education reform movement in Abu Dhabi, particularly as it relates to the role language plays in the reform model. What are the implications of instituting a bilingual program where students are being taught in both English and Arabic in order to provide them with a globally competitive education? Is it possible to safe guard the unique linguistic and cultural fabric of a people who will continue to play a significant role on the world stage at a time of rapid globalization and the privatization of education? Is it possible for educational leaders in the UAE to make decisions that ensure the survival of their own language, their own unique way of seeing when the Arab world looks to the West for access to knowledge and modern day infrastructures to build a nation?
In order to unpack some of these questions, I engaged in a dialogue with Carla Abdel Karim, an interpreter and translator assigned to our team. Carla, born in Lebanon, has lived in Abu Dhabi for over 29 years. She has a Masters and a teaching degree in translation and languages from St. Joseph’s University in Lebanon. After interpreting and translating for over a decade, Carla is about to embark on her own consultancy business in Abu Dhabi this summer and agreed to speak with me on some of these questions. One of the fundamental matters we discussed was what can we learn from the role of an interpreter on the impact of language and change leadership for schools in Abu Dhabi?
In preparation for our dialogue, we both read, Confessions of an Arabic Interpreter by Leslie McLoughlin (2010), in which we were reminded of the Italian: “Traduttore, traditore” meaning “A translator is a traitor.” In his book, McLoughlin shares anecdotes spanning a period of 50 years. When reading his book, I am even more convinced that the role of the interpreter is critical in the exchange of knowledge across the globe and whether the job itself can be considered a political act is a worthy debate. Even though McLoughlin argues that the interpreter should always remain neutral in his job, that is—honor the words and message of the person he or she is interpreting… it is by no means an easy task.
He writes, “The consecutive interpreter listens to the speakers, with whom he or she is normally sitting and puts the source language into the target language after the speaker has reached an appropriate point to make a pause. The other speaker responds and the same interpreter or possible another will do the process in reverse. And so on, throughout the meeting… Clearly, the first essential will be for the interpreter to have an excellent knowledge of both languages, so that he or she sounds perfectly fluent. However, it is the note-taking which is essential to ensure both fluency and total recall.”
If this is the case, then how can the act of interpreting be considered political?
McLoughlin retells an anecdote from Urquharts’s, A Life in Peace and War when a Russian interpreter caused the African delegates to storm out of the Security Council. Apparently, he (the interpreter) had tried to improve on “his” speaker who was addressing chronic problems of underdevelopment in Africa. The speaker declared that the root cause of under-development was a complex of factors including tribalism, the legacy of colonial empires, the lingering effects of Great Power competition in the Cold War, etc. The interpreter, using a newly discovered idiom said, “The nigger in the woodpile is…” and sadly was not allowed to finish his sentence.
At first glance, this may appear to be a harmless anecdote on the nuance of interpretation, but I can’t help think about the implications of this event. Did this incident have an impact on the roll out of historical events? If we understand politics to be about relationships and the process in which we make collective decisions—is it hard to believe that such an emotional and psychological disturbance would not have somehow impacted future meetings? In the very least, if we just look at the variable of time alone—one might ask: did they reschedule the meeting or was the meeting left incomplete? What impact might this incident have, however minor, on the course of events within history? If they did reschedule, isn’t each passing day a completely new context and set of circumstances that may influence relationships and the processes involved in decision making?
Arabic is the language of daily communication for some 325 million native speakers. It is one of the six working languages for the United Nations and it is the language of Islam. It is the language in which the Holy Qur’an was originally recited, from early in the seventh century AD. Although there are over one thousand million Muslims all over the world there is no authorized translation of the Holy Qur’an. It is a Muslim belief that the language in which Allah revealed the Holy Qur’an to the Prophet Mohammed has qualities which make it impossible to use any other language to convey the same meaning. (McLoughlin, 2010)
If there is a Muslim belief that the language has qualities which make it impossible to use any other language to convey the same meaning with regards to the Qur’an, is it possible that the same “belief” may hold true for other contexts, like say in the field of education? Is it possible to convey the exact same meaning from one language to another? If so, what are the nuances and complications that arise that may impact relationship building and the process of collective decision making for education reform both at the school and district level? And finally, what is the role of the interpreter, charged with consecutive interpretation of “education best practice” and terminology within the socio-cultural and socio-political context of modern day society?
The following is a recount of the dialogue I had with Carla Abdel Karim, the interpreter assigned to our team in Abu Dhabi.
When I asked Carla to think about how ideas behind the education reform movement were presented and interpreted to school principals and vice principals in Abu Dhabi by our team, she exclaimed, “You cannot impose a certain view or a certain mentality on people. This is a completely different approach, a different perception, a different kind of vision for that matter, and you can’t assume people will understand. You have to localize the vision to help people grasp the ideas.”
Carla explained that after several months of traveling with our crew and interpreting a multitude of education concepts to school principals and vice principals, she began to reflect on the nuances involved in her work, especially with regards to the impact language had on both the process and the outcomes of education reform.
“You need to research the culture and look into the language. Language and culture go hand in hand. How does the language depict some notions…? What does the terminology really mean? Terminology does not refer to the same concept when it is translated literally. There is a whole cultural luggage behind each word. What I mean is the upbringing, the religious principals, traditions, for example– there are words we cannot utter in Arabic because it would be a taboo, or it would bring about a topic that should not be mentioned in public.”
When I ask her: How does this impact their understanding of educational leadership? She responds, “The trainees understand the concepts, but their understanding of it is quite cultural because the concepts need to be further elaborated. The problem is the Arabic language is not prepped with the appropriate education terminology and research in this field does not yet exist in Arabic. It’s just starting up, actually. The educational systems in other countries have been developed, whereas here it’s a young nation in some respects. In the Arab world, education research has never been done in Arabic. Fields like law and medicine, these overlap, yes, but for education and pedagogy, these concepts have just recently started to exist and explored within two decades. We can take a few examples we’ve witnessed up front. We speak of the “Pedagogy Matrix” and “Smart Goals” in the trainings. These concepts are obvious for the trainer who has familiar notions, but translating these expressions without prior explanation makes no sense to those receiving the information in the frame of a consecutive interpretation. The word and the meaning, together, do not exist—nor are they meaningful in the target language. There’s a term called terminological morpheme—which refers to the written form of the word. Each morpheme has a meaning or content behind it. This is the semantics of a language. Semantics is directly linked to the culture and language as it carries a lot of cognitive content—what a person has acquired and gathered over a life time. Using one term can bring in a total recall of how a person views or perceives the world. So, using terms from the source language for a people requires extensive explanation in the target language so they can grasp it within the frame of a verbal communication brought about by consecutive interpretation.
Another example of this would be the expression, “think outside the box.” When we used that during training, we knew this was an “untranslatable expression.” We cannot tell someone in Arabic, think outside the box. You have to say, “be creative,” for example. Yet, we don’t want to simplify that term either but we have to do our best to use phrases to capture what is meant. Finding an exact equivalent is not always obvious in a given situation when you have to also be politically correct and appropriate for the context.”
“Are school principals and vice principals grasping the main ideas at the trainings and if not, what is missing? How can we improve our delivery of the information?” I ask.
“Yes, there is definitely the beginning of understanding… but even then, it happens after a lot of time and effort. It took seven months for all of us to connect the dots between both languages. The language barrier was a tough one to cross. There is understanding when there is a dialogue that starts a real discovery of the appropriate terminology… that can only come from this live exchange. By building terminology in a specific language, you start building meaning and only then can these concepts be clarified before real teaching and learning starts. In the trainings that I have been a part of, sufficient time is usually not built in. Why? Because we want change to be immediate. There is not enough interaction and we know that any teaching and learning operation has to include back and forth interaction to ensure that people are completely involved and they feel involved. They have to feel that they are part of this process.
“It is my understanding that leaders want change to happen quickly because there is a sense of urgency in matters of education. In order to compete with the rest of the region and the world, they need to build up future generations and the education infrastructure accordingly with the development of the country and the needs of a knowledge based economy. You also have to prepare the community and society to be ready for this future. You need to raise awareness, while the process of reform is ongoing; you have to raise awareness not only through schools, but generally across the population. We should rely on schools to communicate this vision but we have to partner with different entities and organizations that work with the community.
“There is urgency because at this time, the UAE is still a country riddled with consultants. They have had to rely on consultants because they come with experiences that are relevant and see best practice in the education field. But the Emirati are their own people, with valuable experiences as well. Why should anyone want to depend on consultants all the time? And that is why there is pressure for change…fast change in education. There are some consultancy firms hired for strategy planning, for example, but some are setting up strategies and systems—that are not quite sustainable or readily implementable because they don’t apply to the cultural or national context. This is a real challenge. We need to customize and prepare the ground, make sure the people understand the vision. When I work as an interpreter with educators, I can see that in discussions with them. I believe they can tell us if the vision is doable and whether or not it is achievable.”
When I ask Carla what have been her observations with regards to the exchange of knowledge and information between the western cultures and the Emiratis, she responds, “There is not a different understanding of knowledge and exchange. It’s a completely different perception of the world. The Arab perception of knowledge is such that… Look, we have the greatest researchers… mathematicians—scholars such as Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī and Ibn Sīnā who did research in math and science, etc. Amazing discoveries… these are the people behind knowledge and were at one time translated to inform western knowledge and the great majority of western work is based on these ancient writings and scholars.
“Arabs were considered the holders of knowledge for centuries, at least until the beginning of the Renaissance. But, then politics and globalization happened. When you start thinking about borders, wars, money, defending differences, you lose the sense of intellect and knowledge. Anything besides strategy and business becomes invalid throughout the world. The Arab world is rich in culture …but the problem is there was a breaking point and we have drifted. Now we depend on others to bring us an understanding of what education should look like.
“The UAE is seeking to diversify its economy and wishes to do so by seeking best practices and experts across continents. Its people, its culture and its heritage are at the heart of the changes taking place. In this era of mass media and globalization, they have welcomed many different nationalities and cultures, and have above all, preserved their own. These practices are embedded in the Arab culture, the principals and vice principals need only to reposition themselves to identify and actuate them. How many times have we heard them say, “we know this,” or “we already apply that?” They are referring to practices that are already existent but have not been conceptualized or articulated in the same way. My message to them is always—we are not learning something new, merely returning to the greatness of our ancestors.”
As I listened to Carla, I began to think about the notion of repositioning one’s own culture so that learning is not something new but a return to the greatness of one’s ancestors—is that what we call prior knowledge? If I expand this notion to include all learners, from any culture at any time in history, then we can argue that human beings are born with knowledge and that the process of learning is the process of remembering and that teaching is about helping others tap into this wealth of information. Carla’s insights as an interpreter seemed to be right in line with my philosophy of teaching and learning, especially, within the context of language and literacy.
I realize that what we learn from our experiences training principals and vice principals expands our understanding of the reform model at the classroom level.
Many case studies have described biliteracy as an ideological struggle between beliefs and concepts of language use. Martinez-Roldan & Malave (2004) suggest that young bi-literate children may acquire English at the expense of children’s native language because they develop beliefs and attitudes that contradict the goal of biliteracy (Kabuto, 2011).
However, advances in the study of language acquisition (with the goal of ensuring literacy in both the first and second language) point us to the fact that children should develop and value their native language, alongside the second language, with maximum exposure to comprehensible input (Krashen, 1985) and significant opportunities for learner output— that which allows the learner to express voice (Ellis, 2008).
In order for this to happen, the medium of instruction for content areas should be provided in both Arabic & English, with an emphasis on Arabic as the medium of instruction in the earliest years because Arabic –being the mother tongue, acts as the necessary conduit to transfer language learning for English. Prior knowledge is embedded in the words and context of the mother language.
Perhaps this is why Benson (2002) a leading scholar in bi/multilingual education suggests that the mother tongue is the most efficient language for early literacy and content area instruction. Children who receive English as the language of instruction (in content areas) without the same in their native language are at risk of losing literacy skills in both languages, but with greater risk falling on the loss of proficiency in the mother tongue. This is called “subtractive bilingualism.”
Many countries are choosing biliteracy programs because English is considered the language of business and commerce. It has “value,” in the global economy. Therefore, the child’s perception of the language (both the language of the mother and the language they are learning in school) will impact learning outcomes. This perception of value will be learned from the parents, the community as well as the educators they encounter in the school building. Therefore, many linguists, psychologist and educators argue that the formal education context must consider how to foster and encourage academic proficiency in the first language, not only as a way to access English, but as a way to ensure social and cultural continuity and to develop self-confidence and self-esteem. (Bell, 2010).
In conclusion, if we are working towards biliteracy in education, then we need to ensure that the national culture and language are preserved and valued at all costs. Trainings must build in the time necessary to, as Carla put it— create a dialogue that starts a real discovery of the appropriate terminology that can only come from this live exchange. This education terminology— these concepts, need to be clarified before teaching and learning starts.
The exchange of knowledge from leadership training to the implementation at the school level is contingent upon our ability to clarify and localize meaning, put the vision and purpose into the hands of the community.

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