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Open to Interpretation: Students Visit Geneva to Experience a Multilingual Society

A country with not one, but four national languages, might encounter a host of communications challenges. Yet Switzerland, with French, German, Italian and Romansch as its official languages, handles its multilingualism remarkably well. In fact, many international organizations have made the country their home, one of the many reasons it was the ideal location for one of this summer’s PIIRS Global Seminars.

David Bellos, the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at PIIRS, led the seminar entitled, Our Multilingual World: Regional and Global Responses to Linguistic Diversity, which examined how a multilingual society like Switzerland actually works and how international bodies deal with diversity in languages and its associated issues. Through innovative coursework that included language study and field visits to places like the UN, the International Labor Conference and the headquarters of the World Intellectual Property Organization, students experienced first-hand the complexity surrounding working in a multilingual environment.

Bellos, who is also a professor of Italian, French and comparative literature at Princeton, explains: “The point of the course was not to produce translators, but to produce citizens who can understand the issues of translation.”

During their six weeks abroad, 20 undergraduate students, including five from the Université de Genève, the host school for the seminar, participated in a variety of learning opportunities that illustrated how critical language knowledge is and how cumbersome translation can be. An excursion to the southeast part of Switzerland where many people speak Romansch, proved to be one of the most educational aspects of the trip, Bellos says.

He shares an example of how the students visited a television station in which the station staff insisted on speaking French to students. “This was done very deliberately,” Bellos explains. “It was effective rudeness. He wanted to illustrate to them what it’s like to experience linguistic exclusion. The students immediately felt the frustration of not speaking the language. It was a good lesson.”

Throughout the course and on visits to places like the UN, students experienced what Bellos refers to as “the artificiality of interpreting,” the time lag between hearing and understanding what was being said. “There is no substitute for learning language,” Bellos explains. “Translation is like Nescafe. They say Nescafe is like coffee, but we all know that it isn’t,” he laughs.

In addition to Bellos, instruction was provided by faculty from the world-renowned Faculty of Translation and Interpreting at the Université de Genève and by experts from European Studies, Law, and Machine Translation.

“This was truly an ideal location for this seminar, between the coursework and location,” Bellos says. “Where else would students have the opportunity to listen in on the interpreting booths of committees for a UN Treaty? Never. It was an amazing experience, and it really opened their eyes to the complexity of translation.”

Because of the popularity of the program, Bellos received more than 70 applications for 15 positions. Choosing which students to take proved difficult for the affable Bellos.

“It really was a complicated process,” Bellos explains. “Many of our students spoke several languages, besides English, and one spoke six. They were from all different academic disciplines, and I purposely chose a diverse group with varied interests to make a more interesting group. The one thing I didn’t want was for this to be their first trip abroad because of the type of work we’d be doing. I wanted for them to have some international experience. The students I ultimately chose had backgrounds in science, physics, international relations, comparative literature—and linguistics, of course.”

In addition to partaking in a variety of classes and lectures, there was also plenty of time for play, as day trips included Aosta, a French-speaking part of northern Italy; Basel, a tripartite city divided between France, Germany and Switzerland; as well as excursions to Mont Blanc and Château de Chillon and a day-long ride on the spectacular Glacier Express.

"One of my favorite excursions was to the canton of Graubunden," says Avaneesh Narla, a sophomore who attended the seminar. "We ventured into the high Alpine villages to explore the usage and prevalence of Romansch, and it was an amazing experience to try and do fieldwork ourselves. I was with two University of Geneva students, one of whom knew Romansch. But he had learned Romansch Grischun, which is the standardized and unitary version and is significantly different from the five idioms of Romansch (as they are called, neither dialects nor languages). Through him, we were able to understand the intricacies of Romansch usage. It was also in a very beautiful setting, the Alps, which contributed to a great experience!"

Feedback from the course was excellent not only from the students but from Bellos who said that "this seminar was the most enjoyable course I have ever taught."

Here are two videos of the PIIRS Global Seminar in Geneva, Switzerland, produced by student Kristen Coke.

Learn more about next year's Global Seminars.