A month or so I wrote a blog about why interpreters need to tackle difficult and contentious subjects which, rather flatteringly, attracted discussion (see here and here). A lot of people made interesting and thought-provoking comments particularly about the need for neutrality and balance. It occured to me that, like wisdom, balance may be easier to recognise than to achieve.
Coincidentally, at about the same time, I was asked to mentor two scriptwriters who were embarking on a new temporary exhibition at the National Army Museum. It has turned out to be an exercise in balance.
The exhibition is called ‘Unseen Enemy’. It is about IEDs. Four months ago I didn’t know what IEDs were. Now I know they are Improvised Explosive Devices. I know that modern ones have changed the nature of warfare, what soldiers have to do and medical practices. This exhibition has taught me a lot. It will be worth seeing.
Much of the exhibition will be about the conflict in Afghanistan. This is obviously contemporary and sensitive and ‘balance’ is therefore crucial.
This project has highlighted three points about how difficult and precarious maintaining balance can be.
POINT ONE: SOURCING THE VOICES
The museum wanted to balance the voice of the museum, the Coalition soldiers, and the insurgents. I began by asking to the writers how they would find those three voices.
The museum voice was straightforward, defined by the function of the institution. It gives a factually-based narrative and context including historical context and comparisons, and definitions of new or ambiguous terms. It is neutral.
The soldiers’ voice was readily accessible too. One of the writers had spent three years interviewing British soldiers about their experiences in Afghanistan to create an audio archive. She understood their perspective and had a collection of their words. This voice speaks with authenticity and power, born of experience. It is truthful, and a perspective.
The insurgents’ voice is, for obvious reasons, much harder. The Taliban doesn’t blog, nor regularly update a museum in London on how its members are thinking and feeling. This voice is unclear, the sources are unreliable, and possibly deliberately skewed by propaganda. Our understanding is shrouded by our unknowing and fear. We have no one to check it with.
The three voices cannot therefore be balanced in a simplistic way such as matching every quote from a British soldier with one from an insurgent.
So how do we represent a voice we cannot hear?
How do we include people who are silent?
In this case, diligent research by one of the curators helped us strike gold.
We also realised that we had to think about perspectives not voices.
POINT TWO: RECOGNISING BIAS
We realised we needed to keep all three perspectives in our minds as clearly and as accurately as we are capable of.
The very first question I asked the writers was about their personal connection with the exhibition content. Do they have military experience? come from a military backgrounds? have family in Afghanistan?
We all have bias on contentious issues. The vital thing is not to be neutral, which may not be possible, but to be clear about where our prejudices are. Working in a good, open team, such as the one we had, can help us to see this.
In this case, the curator who had spent so much time interviewing soldiers had inevitably come to sympathise with and understand them. The exhibition had been her idea. She understood the subject and its importance brilliantly and wrote the museum voice with clarity and passion. Just occasionally, her identification with the soldiers crept in, in a word or a short phrase that skewed the point of balance and sent the narrative off kilter. So subtle yet so potent. We learned to be vigilant in spotting and tackling the small tell-tale signs of bias.
We worked to shift the bias too. In our conversations, behind closed doors, we practiced talking about topics from an (imagined) soldier’s perspective and an (even more imagined) insurgent’s perspective. Looking at the difference between them helped us find the point of balance.
POINT THREE: INCLUDING ALL VOICES
Our brief specified three perspectives. As our understanding of the story developed, we found a fourth, the civilians’ perspective. We found ourselves referring to it, hearing it, again and again until at last we gave it a place.
In fact the civilian perspective is vital, it is a fundamental part of how IEDs have changed the nature of war so that it is no longer just two sides. I feel it would have been easy to miss this.
All this talk of hearing voices and losing balance – it’s enough to do your head in! The process is complicated. Easy truths and simple solutions often look attractive but sometimes they are an inappropriate, disingenuous and disrespectful approach. Taking time and care at the National Army Museum has been a rewarding and fruitful experience.
There is still time to book on ‘Interpretation Now’ our new training course in Wales in May where, amongst other contemporary issues we will consider the complexity of interpreting for multi-cultural and mobile audiences.