Thursday, 14 July 2016

The language barrier in psychical research

Dr Carlos Alvarado has produced a blog post which points out that a large quantity of psychical research has been published in languages other than English, aptly titled All Our Past is Not in English.  He notes that publications which rely solely on English-language sources often provide an incomplete, or even erroneous, picture because they fail to take account of what was going on elsewhere and not reported in English:

'These works tend to emphasize developments in the English-language world—such as the work of the Society for Psychical Research and of J.B. Rhine and associates—to the neglect of developments in other countries. No one would deny the importance of this work. What I decry here is that reliance on these sources produces an incomplete view of the development of the discipline. But what is worse is that some seem to have accepted these incomplete views as the whole canon, and feel no need even to qualify the obvious incompleteness of their writings.

This concern resonates with me as Reviews Editor of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.  I am aware that a great deal is published which is not in English, and much of this remains inaccessible to the monoglot English-language reader.  Occasionally I am able to run a review, in English, of a foreign-language book (usually either German or Spanish), which I am happy to do because the Society for Psychical Research is an international organisation, but I am always conscious that the bulk people who read the review will not be able to access the original text.

The major difficulty I have, over and above hearing about and being able to evaluate such books, and the perennial one of people not having the time to write book reviews in any language, is finding reviewers who are both knowledgeable about the subject under consideration and able to write decent enough English that I at least know what they are trying to say, even if the review requires polishing to bring it to the required standard.  Those obstacles mean it is possible to cover only a small proportion of what is published in languages other than English.  There is a considerable volume that English-language readers never even get to hear about, much less read.

Alvarado is quite correct in highlighting an issue that many writers seem happy to ignore; after all, a smooth enough history can be fashioned from English-language sources and whatever happens to have been translated.  He remarks that the situation is improving to an extent, though with historians rather than psychical researchers tending to make the running.  I have to say that while this is to be applauded, there are often problems when non-specialists tackle an area in which they may possess depth in the specific topic they are examining but not breadth in the wider subject.  And English-language readers still do not have access to the sources to be able to check the validity of what is written.

What can be done about this state of affairs?  Well, certainly we could all learn additional languages, however reaching the required standard isn’t going to be feasible for most adults.  At one time the SPR was not afraid to publish reports in non-English languages on the assumption that readers would understand them; those days are sadly long gone.  Being practical, professional translations would be ideal, but translators are expensive and not always au fait with specialised terminology.

One possibility that would help to address the problem in a small way is group sourcing of translators, a kind of Wiki effort involving a number of people collaborating to produce translations with the consent of the author that could either be submitted to a publisher or appear in an online edition.  This type of project might be best aimed at journal papers rather than books and requires careful quality control.  It would make sense to focus on rendering foreign works into English as this would make them accessible to the greatest number of people.  Something that might stimulate interest in translation is to institute a book prize.  The Parapsychological Association makes a number of awards each year and one for the best translated book could easily fit into its scheme.

Those researchers who are fluent in more than one language should try wherever possible to make their results available in them all.  A number of scholars are keen to transcend linguistic boundaries to reach the widest possible audience.  Carlos Alvarado himself is one, bringing foreign-language information to English-speaking readers.  Icelandic Erlendur Haraldsson writes in English, as does German Andreas Sommer.  In the opposite direction, Francisco Cánovas Picón has a blog in which he frequently translates English-language material into Spanish (including an article of mine on the Warrens and Enfield).  Alvarado suggests recruiting colleagues who can help with the literature in various languages, as he has done in his tireless efforts to disseminate the international history of psychical research.  The key to progress is to share information, and the wider it is shared, the greater will be its contribution to enriching the field.  That entails breaking down language barriers wherever possible.