Author Archives: Liz Sabatiuk

About Liz Sabatiuk

Be it through digital media, Argentine tango, or interdisciplinary studies, I seek connections. Discovering unexpected connections is crucial to solving the complex problems of today’s world. And the feeling of connection – to self, community, and the planet – can drive us to make changes large and small in our lives and the lives of others. I’m pursuing an M.A. through Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology program to learn to better identify, explore, and facilitate these connections. When not studying at Georgetown, I create and edit content for Bedsider.org, a birth control support network that makes birth control easy.

Building a Little Brand Universe (by Word, by Phrase, by Lexicon)

Between now and June, I’m responsible for “transcreating” significant portions of the website I edit, Bedsider.org, into Spanish. Translation is never trivial. As our readings make clear, language is a multi-layered system and we have many options for how we say things and how we interpret them.

Bedsider wasn’t developed by linguists, but it was developed by marketing and design professionals who carefully crafted its approach. We often talk internally about voice, tone, and style. If pressed to parse these descriptors, I would say “voice” refers to the core language we use as “Bedsider.” (For instance, we refer to Bedsider as “we” and address “you.”) Tone would be the overall feel of the language on the website – informal, friendly, approachable, authoritative. Style would be the linguistic and visual tools we use to create our brand.

A lot of research and thought went into developing the brand and as it’s grown, a lot has gone into extending it to produce new digital content that fits with the original vision. When I edit a new article, it’s a little like I’m trying to channel a spirit to figure out how “Bedsider” would say something. When I edit a contributor’s work (to appear with a byline), I have to negotiate a line between their writing voice and their contribution’s place within the environment of the site.

After several years of refining and extending the English brand, we’re now tasked with creating a Spanish-language version that we hope will resonate with the audience we want to reach just as well as the English version does with our current audience. (An evaluation has shown that Bedsider actually does what it was designed to do – decrease rates of unplanned pregnancy among young adults. In a controlled trial, people who were exposed to Bedsider were less likely to have an accidental pregnancy than the control group.)

The Bedsider brand was designed to address a problem – the problem that authoritative information about birth control tends to be delivered in jargon-ey, unrelatable language that may be boring or difficult to understand. This information tends to be delivered in a clinical setting where the last thing people are thinking about is sex. A primary insight in developing Bedsider was that people don’t care about birth control – but they do care about sex. So in addition to making information easy to understand, a key element of our approach is to connect birth control to sex. This needs to come through in the tone and the style, not just by throwing the word “sex” around. Could this mean that the Bedsider brand is in some sense its own little language? And if so, what could be lost in translation?

In a sense, we are generating a lexicon based on the pragmatics of our target audience. Ideally, I would like to bring as much nuance to the language we use in Spanish as we bring to English. Our first step is to build or identify the English lexicon of the brand. I’m not sure whether phrases can technically be included in a lexicon, but it will be crucial to go beyond individual words. For example, we often use the phrase “We’ve got you covered”, which refers both to our service of providing information about sexual health and to birth control covering individuals against pregnancy. Knowing the Spanish translation of the verb “cover,” for example, doesn’t take us very far in conveying the intended message.

We will need to think beyond individual words and even beyond phrases to translate the essence of the brand’s approach. Once we have some starting points for Spanish versions of the core messages and terms of the brand, we’ll look for feedback from members of our target audience of U.S.-based Spanish speakers to learn whether the language we’ve chosen resonates with and engages them. This is similar to the process we went through in English. The hope is that with the right language, the core approach of the program will translate.

The Rainbow Pinwheel of Death

Processors, state changes, different kinds of memory… I know it’s far from a novel comparison, but the readings for this week made me think a lot about similarities between human cognition and computer processing. In 506 we’re learning the basics about how computers work. (And yes, in spite of using them daily for work and personal life, this is new information for me.) The concepts of extended cognition (Clarke), Symbolic Material Culture (Renfrew), and symbolic representation (Deacon), as well as Wong’s ancient evidence of a propensity for decoration, all point to a creative essence. Creative in the sense of building and looking for answers – not necessarily coming up with something no one has ever ever thought of before.

In Dr. Garcia’s Networks and Creativity class we’re talking about the distinction between an idea and a process of creation – R. Keith Sawyer’s Explaining Creativity (2012) describes the conflict between the Idealist theory, which posits that an idea is the creative process, and the Action theory, which posits that the creative process lies in the execution of the idea (Sawyer 87). Sawyer comes down squarely on the side of the Action theory, which I would associated with the concept of extended cognition. Both Action theory and extended cognition recognize the importance of ongoing interaction between the person with the idea and that person’s environment. The anecdote between Richard Feynman and Charles Weiner in “Supersizing the Mind” reminded me of this distinction. The paper Feynman used to write was integral to his creative process. Indeed, without that external storage, if you will, he would not have been able to accomplish what he did.

As its name suggests, Dr. Garcia’s course explores the role of networks in the creative process, attributing great importance to the context of a creative act. This may refer to a creator’s social context (people who helped, supported, critiqued, etc) but also to political factors and individual circumstances. In that class we’ve also discussed the idea that being creative has a lot to do with accessing and applying stored information quickly. Our external and symbolic storage systems make it possible for us to access and apply so much more information than if we were doing it all “in our heads” without these references.

Personally I’m fascinated by the idea of our daily communion with the outside world as input that we process, store, and sometimes output into action. I find myself using the term “processing” frequently to refer to needing time with new input before coming up with an answer. And of course, the mac’s rainbow pinwheel of death is the symbol this process conjures in my mind.

References

Sawyer, R. K. (2012). Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation (2 edition.). New York: Oxford University Press.

The cumulative heritage of traces

“If man is the animal which has a history, then the nonbiological, artificial transmission of acquired features is another name for human culture. The animals communicate; they do not transmit. (They know the message by the signal, not the cumulative heritage of traces).”

-Translation of Régis Debray, “Qu’est-ce que la médiologie?”

I have a tendency to think about Argentine tango first when I think about language and communication – perhaps since it’s the language I learned most recently, and one I plan to study for the rest of my life. In Semiotics: The Basics, Daniel Chandler notes that “Language is almost invariably regarded as the most powerful communication system by far.” But what about a tactile language that fulfills higher social functions of recreation, artistic expression, and community building and doesn’t necessarily convey explicit concepts or messages, being instead, in a sense, movement and communication for its own sake? (A language that in some ways transcends spoken language since two people without a common spoken language who both know tango can communicate through movement?) Is there a way to take an integrative “complex systems” approach to this particular contemporary medium?

A quick explanation of tango. It’s completely improvised, at least the way it’s danced socially. To dance it, you learn a vocabulary of movement and common phrases as well as a syntax of technique. Once you begin to grasp the basics, there is room to invent. Tango is usually danced to music produced in Argentina and Uruguay in the 1930s and ’40s. (Including in communities of people who don’t speak Spanish and have never been to that region.)

The embrace as the first medium. Tango dancers communicate their content (interpretation of the music, emotion, and personality) through the embrace. Generally one partner is the “leader” (traditionally a man) and the other the “follower” (traditionally a woman). The embrace cuts down many walls: between man and woman, between self and other, between mind and body, and between message and interpretation. Here’s my all-time favorite example of the connection that’s possible through tango. (Note that the music they’re dancing to is contemporary, not classic tango music.)

The music as the first content. Returning to Chandler’s articulation of semiotics, can tango music be an example of double articulation? The same music is referred to over and over, but each time, between the venue, the partner, and the moment in the dancer’s life, it will mean something different. Some core songs are played by different orchestras in different times, perhaps recorded on multiple occasions, perhaps recorded to a record, perhaps transferred to digital formats – or transcribed and played live. Dancers then dance to those various core songs at various moments in time, probably with various partners, definitely with different meanings associated each time.

The couple as the next medium. The embrace and the music make possible the movements that are perceptible to the outside world, be it people at a tango event (milonga) or the millions watching YouTube videos. As first a student, or simply an appreciator of tango, then as a dancer or even teacher, we learn to observe tango from outside the couple. The movements that result from the synergy within the embrace are decoded by viewers, either as part of a community (or outside a community) or as an anonymous viewer online, and also interpreted individually.

Online video as the medium that takes tango global. There is no question that the proliferation of videos of tango performances on YouTube has affected the way tango is taught, learned, and danced. But what is the meaning of that medium itself? For me, what’s powerful about these videos is their relationship with time. They “capture” one couple in one instance of interpretation, but they live on far beyond that instance. The dancers can only dance that particular moment in their lives one time, but I can watch the performance years later or over and over again. In the case of this video, this couple is no longer together, but in the imagined community of tango-video watchers, their collaboration lives on, creating new meanings.