Recently in our Digital Fellows weekly meetings we’ve been talking about doing skill shares with each other. A great idea, sure, but I was immediately gripped with anxiety at the idea. As the fellow with arguably the least amount of technical skills, sometimes I feel a touch of imposter syndrome. The idea of a skill share made me question if I really had any skills to offer a group who can use digital tools that I’ve never even heard of. I can use WordPress pretty well, can teach it to people who have no idea what WordPress is, have a passable understanding that the Internet is made of a series of tubes, and can even do some basic CSS changes to a style sheet, but so can everybody else in the group.
After calming down and reassuring myself that I’m not a dolt, what I came to identify as my shareable skill was that of translation. My foreign language skills are laughably poor for an ABD doctoral student (shout out Google Translate!), but the language I’ve been relatively immersed in (both in research and in practice) over the last couple of years is Techspeak. In my capacities as a Digital Fellow and as a Community Facilitator at the City Tech OpenLab, in my dissertation research into the political economy of the Internet, and in my collaborative work with the CUNY Digital Labor Working Group I find myself tasked with attempting to translate technical language into terms that people with little to no technical skill can at least begin to understand.
In my role specifically as a Digital Fellow assisting faculty with digital projects in the New Media Lab, that translation is of a very specific kind. When writing and researching, one’s approach to this labor of translation has time to develop and deepen, maintaining (at least hopefully) the nuance and complexity of the meaning of that technical language. However, when actually interacting with a live human being who has their own language and understanding of what they want to say and whose original meaning you’ve been tasked with keeping intact, this translation must be done on the fly and without committing the cardinal sin of claiming that the words you are translating mean something that they don’t. In the context of advising people which digital tool to use and how to use it, you cannot claim that the technology can accomplish all the things they want it to.
In research and writing about technology you are speaking for the technology. This is, of course, a one-way relationship unless someone else enters into the conversation to tell you that you’ve mistranslated a phrase. However, when consulting and producing with technology, you are attempting to make the technology speak, utilizing its language to make a statement that was more often than not formulated in a language more native. This is a two-way negotiation that requires understanding the parameters of the technical language you’re working with. In my job, there is the added difficulty that I work with faculty members who teach at the Graduate Center, people so deeply embedded in the languages of their disciplines that the need to learn an entirely new language is often quite overwhelming. But because of this two way relationship, I try to think of this problem as more open, as a dialogue: you don’t need to necessarily know what all the words mean, just what they don’t. The task of technical translation means being able to negotiate these limits.