September 21, 2004

Freedom of speech and obfuscation

In a recent post I challenged Language Log readers to:

explain to me how having your federally subsidized medical advice and instructions translated limits your freedom of speech

Kevin Russell takes up the challenge via e-mail.

Kevin writes:

The cynical answer is: Just as the freedom of religion includes the freedom not to have any religion at all, freedom of speech includes the freedom not to speak -- or in this case the freedom not to make yourself understood. The medical profession has a lot invested in the mystique of being incomprehensible to ordinary mortals. (Not that we linguists would ever dream of doing anything similar. Nah!) If the absence of a locutionary force is a deliberate part of your perlocutionary force, then having the government substitute its own perlocutionary force does indeed infringe on your freedom of speech. (Should government proofreaders be allowed to "correct" Jabberwocky or Finnegans Wake?)

Kevin's right -- that is a pretty cynical answer. My cynical rejoinder is: does this mean that medical professionals (henceforth MPs) are free to only accept patients who don't speak English natively, so that their advice and instructions are better obfuscated? Or to give their advice and instructions in a language that their patient does not speak? (I realize that this is kind of a red herring, but as long as we're being cynical, let's put that aside.)

Kevin continues "[a] bit more seriously, in the interests of reducing our levels of hypocrisy:"

Yes, it's a very good thing for government-sponsored communication to be understandable and understood. Such a good thing that I think it trumps the interests of professions in encouraging obfuscation and even usually the freedom of speech of its employees and sponsorees. But given governments' utterly abysmal success at accomplishing this in every other area, it's not too hard to understand why these doctors might see hit-and-miss attempts at imposing comprehensibility in just this one context as being a bit unfair.

I take issue with Kevin's notion that "translating" is the same thing as "imposing comprehensibility". There is no guarantee (or requirement, as far as I can tell) that a translation of medical advice and instructions from English to any other language will be any more or less comprehensible than the original English, to the patient or otherwise. True, a translator may request clarification from the MP in order to better do their job, but an English-speaking patient also has the right to request clarification directly from their MP -- and, presumably, MPs can in both cases continue to obfuscate if they so choose, at the risk of their patients not understanding them (and, hopefully, choosing to get their medical advice and instructions elsewhere).

To me, it all boils down to the playing field being as level as possible. All else being equal, (native) English speakers are at an advantage when it comes to receiving medical advice and instructions in English. To the extent that federal law sees this advantage as being unfair, translation of federally-funded medical advice and instructions should be provided to the patient free of charge. (As I insinuated in my original post, I think the point of the relevant lawsuit is that at least one of the plaintiffs is of the opinion that federal law should see the advantage of (native) English speakers as fair and just. If they succeed with this lawsuit, it will likely set a precedent that will be very difficult to ignore, much less overturn.)

Kevin concludes:

Most of me agrees with you in saying: Tough luck, then don't take federal money. But part of me asks: If it were a requirement of accepting a grant from a research council that your findings would be butchered by a clueless journalist, how many linguists would simply pass up federal money without complaint?

Personally, I might grumble a bit once I read how my findings have been butchered by the clueless journalist. (I would also cringe at any "corrections" to Jabberwocky.) But I would be consoled by the fact that the original material is still out there, available to anyone who gives a damn, and that I also have the opportunity to respond to any misrepresentations of my work -- whether they were required by the terms of my funding or not.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at September 21, 2004 02:37 PM