Found in Translation: Multi-Sociality, Disability, and Digital Media

If you were to look at my undergraduate transcript, you’ll quickly and quizzically notice that I’ve ‘multi-tasked’ my educational areas of interest as many times as my browsers on any ether-day.

In my first year at Trent University, I took Spanish 100, with the aim of future work in Latin American countries, and a year abroad. I found the language relatively easy to engage with, given its similarity to French. I did all my homework, participated in the class seminar and lab seminar, though I found the latter surprisingly challenging.

But about three weeks into the course, a curious thing happened; an event that changed my life forever. I received an email, one that I inspected almost too swiftly, considering it to be spam. It appeared as this:

To: Jes sachse
Subject: mama (fss)

Text:
I have a daughter. I live in Peru. I want to chat.

Angela

It was, before almost deleting the message, the letters ‘fss’ that caught my eye. FSS is the acronym for my disability, Freeman Sheldon Sydrome. At this realizing, the wheels began spinning, and I then vaguely recalled registering on a disability community website years prior, where I might have shared my email.

Not a moment before the thought completed itself, this person popped up on my MSN Messenger (yes, I am dating myself here. too bad I didn’t say ICQ). She sent me an instant message saying “Hola”, to which I replied excitedly with the two phrases I knew in Spanish: Hola! Mi llama Jes. Yo soy Canadiense!

My earnest studentship gave the person on the other end of the chat the indication that I spoke Spanish, and she immediately launched into too many questions too fast, which had me scrambling around my student apartment for my beginner textbooks and dictionary.

With a bevy of books on my lap, I realized quickly that this was slowing me down, and not necessarily the best way to chat with this woman and find out why she had contacted me. It was then that I dissevered the free translation website, which allowed me to plug in Spanish sentences, and render them into English, and draft my replies and do the reverse.

In two hours that flew by like two minutes, I learned that Angela lived in Peru with her husband and three children, the youngest of whom was diagnosed with Freeman Sheldon Syndrome. At a year and a half, Esmeralda had grown into a lively little girl, but faced many challenges associated with a disability that is quite rare. The genetic lottery is 1 in 150 million for FSS, and today there are approximately 65 known cases- which means that in certain countries, physicians have little to no experience with FSS.

The culture of disability in Peru is one of shame. Angela confided that the doctors had accused her being an alcoholic, and a a drug addict, to have produced a child like Esmeralda. Children with disabilities often live lives segregated from the rest of society, in care and education institutions.

Angela’s community had raised money for her to buy a computer, which the internet cafe in the neighborhood allowed her to run a line to her home, so that she could research and try and connect with other parents of children with FSS. Which led her to me.

Our relationship was a welcomed addition to my already full course load. We chatted for about two hours every night, with a webcam (minus sound). Angela asked countless questions that had been keeping her up at night. “She snores loudly when she sleeps – is this normal?”

“Her feet are like this. What are your feet like?”

Her other children, Franco and Fiore would be in the room as well, giggling and pushing their faces up to the screen. As the months passed, I used free translation less and less, but not so much the phrase ‘No entiendo’.

When December approached, I stared at the OSAP I had remaining in my bank account, a sum indicative of a shy little recluse, living thriftily and not drinking. Then I had a thought: what if I visit Angela in Peru?

Because of the rarity of FSS, and the genetic mutation involved in its production, I had never met another person with FSS in person before. I suppose I too had turned to the Internet at one point, but Wikipedia’s summary was a little terrifying and diagnosing.

If you Google image searched FSS in December of 2005, four images might have come up; eyes blacked out, medical shots portraying bodies that bear facial similarities. But Angela exchanged photos of Esmy, and we discovered that she looked remarkably like I did (and was affectionately given the nickname ‘Latina Jessikita’).

Arriving in Lima by myself, I was met at the airport by Angela and her husband Raul, who lived a rural village called Huaycan-Vitarte, about a hour from Lima city proper, and speak only a few English words between them. I can recall the challenge of the taxi ride to their house, how much more challenging it was without the facilitation of the Internet, and yet how different a community experience it was to be in person with Angela and her family.

Through the Social Media Project, I was reminded of this adventure when I begun to think about Modern Languages and the Internet. When we talk about the technology of the book, we inject a fear into the apparent ‘scattered’ organization of the Internet, and the loss of ‘print’ and the mastery we have.

In Mark Poster’s book “What’s the Matter with the Internet?”, he discusses an interview with Baudrillard, and his fear and refusal to merge with machine. He sees his typewriter as subject to his process, and the manuscript as a tangible; a product to consume. And that has been a technology to certainly shape the 20th century. But the 21st century has shown digital media to be not simply objects of utility, but an entire shift of cultural process. We have entered an era of pervasive and perpetual production.

“The screen is a permeable, seductive interface that joins computer and person into a synthetic cyborg. [...] And with this disappearance, I argue, so vanishes the citizen of the nation, the subject formed in the bosom of the nation-state in the age of first of print, then of broadcasting.” (114)

Baudrillard declares “Cyberspace is not of great use to me personally,” when asked about the potential that new technologies offer him. He demonstrates the same fear and ignorance that pundits like Mark Bauerlein do- Bauerlein, being more dismissive and insulting the intelligence and educational desire of today’s youth, and pointing to the digitization as culprit. But as we move away from false fears that ‘print is over’, and ‘social networking is a distraction’, we begin to examine the shift into a multi-sociality that is in fact shifting access to texts in much grander sense.

My experience as new student in a Spanish language course, was that it was the constant, consistent exposure to the language that remedied my learning, rather than the grades in the half hour tech lab, or practical quizzes.

Today, I have several Facebook friends who communicate in multiple languages. Recently, the Microsoft Bing browser has developed a new tool. When these languages appear on my news feed, which is set to English, the browser acknowledges that it is foreign to me, and asks in a hyperlink if I would like a translation.

Presently, in print, the English language is staggeringly dominant. However, digital media stands to influence a multi-lingual reality – one which no longer needs to privilege English. Hypertext markup language (HTML) itself is not inherently English, either.

The further development of these language technologies stands to have a remarkable impact on the Digital Humanities. Perhaps, Baudrillard and Bauerlein dystopically would caution that this new language freedom might create temporal communicators. Reading accounts like the personal narrative I shared above, the authenticity of my practice in the Spanish language spanned only one academic year. After returning from Peru, and completing the entry level course, without regular use, I slowly lost the learned use of the language.

However, I would like to link this technophobia to a greater dystopia of this century, that can be connected to narratives of ‘progress’. Is it necessary for human pursuits of language to take on the form of a consumption? Should I have learned ‘Spanish’, so that I always have ‘Spanish’? What about the language practice I learned in chatting with Angela, the language of CTRL+P, of ALT+TAB, of the computer grammar that could not replicate Peruvian Spanish, the influence of Quechuan words that faded under the force of Spain’s terrible colonization? These words were not in my textbooks either.

They were in the large hands laughing, pressed apron pockets of Abuela, who taught me names and sounds, as I taught scar lines and surgeries; and both, a resilient womanhood. The inherent challenge to nationalism that these global networks incite, threatens of course, those in the dominant power groups. If English becomes less solely necessary, as the reality of the framework and participation in the Internet, we will see increases in attempts to control this shift, undoubtedly. But utopically, we have present a newer opportunity of networking ourselves, that grants certain citizenship to anyone connected to one or any variety of portals.