Translating across worlds

I remember a meeting at which some of the community workers were concerned that the creative team was leaving vital issues out of the play — for example, the play was not directly addressing lack of affordable housing for youth. Yet when Catherine was able to convey the story arc she was beginning to see emerge from the youth’s stories — the arc from young people having to be vigilant about absolutely everything, to their vision or ‘dream’ of finally having the chance to relax — the community workers immediately saw the value of that, it ‘rang true’ to what they know about young people’s lives, and what they wish for them. That was one of the great ‘uncommon partners/common ground’ moments in the project. The community workers expressed their worries (and their sense of what was essential to the story) from ‘their world,’ and the creative team was called on to articulate what they were trying to ‘do’ with the play in a clearer way. Everyone came out of it with a stronger sense of shared purpose.

— Chris Sinding, TSDC research team lead, School of Social Work.

The question of ‘cultural orientation’ applies not only to workshop participants’ experiences and contexts — it also applies to the experiences and contexts of all of TSDC’s project collaborators. For example, issues of ‘cultural difference’ and the need for translation have arisen even for those of us within the TSDC research team, which includes scholars and research assistants from across the arts and social sciences.

To avoid the pitfall of assuming shared meaning we found it useful at times to preface comments with the phrase, “in my world.” The phrase can also be turned into a question and an invitation to collaborators to share their perspectives — “What’s does this look like in your world?” “What’s true about this in your world?” “How would this idea or phrase be heard in your world?”

The ‘my world’ metaphor is a way of acknowledging that:

  • Our perspectives and ways of seeing things are always reflective of the larger worlds we come from, live, and work in.
  • Our perspectives or approaches may be unique to our own field of study, practice, profession, identity, or social location.
  • Many other equally legitimate perspectives, or ‘worlds,’ exist.
  • Translation may be needed in order to arrive at shared understandings across the different worlds that make up uncommon partnerships.
  • Negotiation across the uncommon grounds of project collaborators’ worlds may be required in order to arrive at, or construct, common (or common-enough) ground.

Over the course of the project, and with the help of our community partners, we got better at recognizing moments of uncommon ground. We came to appreciate more fully how specific situations and interactions reveal the multiple and often overlapping ‘worlds’ that can be present within a particular community or workshop series, and how each of these worlds comes with its own practices, values, and vocabularies. When conflicts and misunderstandings arose, we became more able to step back, and use the confusion or tension to prompt reflection and conversation about the different ways we saw the situation, from our different worlds.

This stepping back was tremendously useful at many levels. It often revealed unspoken values or expectations about how the play would come together, the messages it would carry, and how they would be conveyed. Among other things, we came to recognize that we sometimes needed to take more time to explain to participants and community partners how we thought a particular story arc would work better to draw attention to community issues through stage action rather than by describing the issue in dialogue.

Since a distinguishing feature of theatre’s vocabulary is that it uses an embodied and poetic language to show rather than tell, we’ve also found it helpful to invite community partners to take part in some of the core exercises that we use in the workshops. This experiential understanding can be particularly useful for community partners who are involved in helping to identify and recruit potential participants for the project. But while embodied vocabulary is theatre’s strength, we know it’s not always sufficient for communicating across worlds. In addition to letting the ‘work speak for itself,’ there’s also a need for theatre practitioners to articulate what we’re doing and why.

Taking the time to translate across the common/uncommon worlds of TSDC’s many collaborators has played an essential role in facilitating the production of TSDC plays! As we noted previously, we also believe (quite passionately) that the process of sharing perspectives and approaches and of cultivating relationships among diverse collaborators is valuable in and of itself. In the words of our Good Shepherd community partner, Katherine Kalinowski, these collaborations “change all of our work for the better.”


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Transforming Stories, Driving Change Copyright © by Helene Vosters, Catherine Graham, Chris Sinding is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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