💡 An essay about CIVIC’s approach to translating “Context-Aware Systems”. Thoughts on connotations, word choice, and navigating narratives around data and technology.

Why did we feature Context-Aware Systems in these languages?

Languages: English | Spanish | German | French | Dutch | Catalan | Finnish | Turkish

Accommodating different languages that reflect the plurality of thought and practice within our community is central to CIVIC's vision. From an accessibility standpoint, this is practical as we don’t always assume a western and English default in our work. The languages featured on CIVIC’s website are representative of the countries we work with and some of our community members’ first languages.

Yet the implications of considering connotation across cultures are more profound than the task of translation and clarify a challenge of how to convey what we really mean when we’re communicating new concepts in technology and innovation.

Generally, mainstream terms which arise to describe “cutting edge “ technology are influenced by Silicon Valley values and business vernacular of the Global North. These terms carry connotations, denote value judgements, and infer culture that not only transcend translation, but even for native English speakers, can easily break down into jargon. This is a bias which is illuminating to be aware of, while we can also admit that it’s hard to describe new ideas. As a society, we are constantly evolving and remixing—- building from shared vocabulary, known reference points, and evoking common narratives.

We point out this bias not to create a judgement, but to recognize that language is powerful and yet insufficiently objective. When the collision of technology (which wants to be certain and concrete) meets the language of vision (painting a picture of the world which may rely on concepts that don’t yet exist) it takes extra effort to communicate in a way that resonates as both immediately real and eminently transformative.

In CIVIC’s development of “Context-Aware Systems”, we are referring to a field of research and applied practice that considers how infrastructure can contain and evolve situated knowledge. While there can be many expressions of context-aware infrastructure, CIVIC’s expertise and applied work is primarily focused on data and digital information systems. (To learn more and browse CIVIC’s learning ecosystem of Context-Aware modules, go here.)

Translating the phrases “Context-Aware Systems”, and our guiding principle “All Data are Created” in fact was not straightforward, and brought up several fascinating aspects of perspective. This example frames how associations can fundamentally affect how we perceive technology and data, and challenges us to think about how we can reorient our assumptions.

As an exercise, we’ll dive deeper into the translation of “Context-Aware Systems” from English to Spanish and German:

English: Context-Aware Systems Spanish: Sistemas sensibles al contexto German: Kontexsensitive Systeme

Let us dive deeper into the Spanish example. Note: ‘sensible’ in Spanish is not the same as ‘sensible’ in English. ‘Sensible’ in Spanish translates into ‘sensitive’ in English.

The first thing you might notice is how the word ‘aware’ in English appears to be translated to ‘sensible’ in Spanish.

One option to translate the English word aware (EN) would be consciente (ES) in Spanish. However, consciente (ES) has to do more with consciousness in English, rather than with awareness. If we were to use consciente (ES), we might picture technology that has the ability to be self-conscious about context and decide best how to operate. However, it is more accurate to think of contextual-awareness as a human effort to strategically integrate environmental characteristics into data and technology, and acknowledge the continually evolving nature of culture and other factors informing those characteristics.

Choosing instead the term sensible in Spanish, translated as sensitive in English, we highlight the values of reflexivity and positionality that the work of creating context requires. However, whether or not you imagine “sensitivity” as a positive trait, might be influenced by your background, perceptions, and language(s) you speak.

In Spanish, ‘sensible’ is a strongly gender-coded word, with feminine connotations that can carry condescending distortions. Consider the following screenshot, which shows how Spanish synonyms for ‘sensible’ (ES) include words such as “sentimental”, “emotional”, or “weak”.

(Note: “sensible” in Spanish does not translate to “sensible” in English and is considered a false friend in linguistic terms.)