The role of languages and translation in bridging cultures and civilizations, and the emerging influence of artificial intelligence (AI) in language-related professions, were among the various themes addressed by an international conference on language and translation held at Notre Dame University-Louaize (NDU).
The Faculty of Humanities’ (FH) Department of English and Translation (DET) at NDU organized its first international conference, “Language and Translation: Cross-Cultural Contexts,” in collaboration with UNESCO’S International Center for Human Sciences (CISH) and the Hanns Seidel Foundation (HSF). The two-day event took place on March 22 and 23, welcoming approximately 40 scholars and practitioners from Lebanon and abroad, around different panels with specific themes and objectives. Key attendees included the Minister of Culture, H.E. Judge Mohamad Wissam Al-Mortada, the NDU President, Fr. Bechara Khoury, represented by the Vice President for Academic Affairs (VPAA), Dr. Michel El Hayek, the Vice President for University Advancement (VPUA), Dr. Antoine Farhat, Deans, faculty members, staff, and students.
The first day’s conference sessions were preceded by the Opening Ceremony at the Issam Fares Conference Hall, moderated by Associate Professor and Chairperson of the DET, Dr. Maya El Hajj. Her address introduced the conference theme and emphasized the increasing need for cross-cultural communication in the present day: “When cultures converge, they build bridges, refining and accentuating our humanity.” Though cultural rifts are inevitable, and oftentimes pervasive, there is much to be earned from a continued search for points of contact. El Hajj underlined the University’s part in fostering this conversation, NDU providing a framework in which “the individual is fully formed and integrated: scientifically, culturally, socially, and intellectually.”
DET Professor Naji Oueijan, Chair of the Conference Committee, echoed this sentiment in his speech, calling to mind the consequences of globalization, “whereby the revolution of digitization has rendered world culture immediately accessible.” Oueijan highlighted the implications therein, “which are numerous given our dependence on the internet and now AI.” Technology and artificial intelligence have facilitated cross-cultural communications, in addition to language learning, but the question remains as to what the long-term consequences of these developments are regarding linguistic and cultural metamorphoses, a question the conference aims to address.
Dr. Maria Bou Zeid, Interim Dean of the FH, explained that the purpose of the two-day event was to provide “an international platform for scholars, researchers, practitioners, and students to engage in a multidisciplinary atmosphere,” one that paints a larger map of the intersections of languages, translation, communication, and technology. Bou Zeid contextualized this purpose within the mission of the FH, “which continuously strives to be the hub of scholarly and academic activity in the University.”
In support of the conference’s endeavors, Resident Representative of the HSF, Mr. Kristof Duwaerts, stated that though language is the main form of human communication, it is not enough to transform one language into another, a concept that is currently being contested by the increase in AI translation programs. Duwaerts asserted that human translators cannot be replaced, nor are they going to lose their jobs to digital translators. “The foundation of every language is contextual, containing meaning and nuances,” he said. “Artificial intelligence will never replace the analytical and culturally-informed mind of the human being. AI cannot produce, only reproduce.”
The floor was then given to CISH Director and Conference Committee member, Dr. Darina Saliba Abi Chedid, whose address called “for an international commitment to preserve endangered languages and promote multilingualism.” Although globalization has created a framework for cross-cultural communication, it is necessary that we do not fall into global homogenization. “The identities, communities, and social integration informed by languages are being threatened by globalization,” said Abi Chedid. “When languages disappear, so does cultural diversity.”
El Hayek’s word relayed a brief history of NDU and its actions in fostering these values of cultural and social integrity in its students. “We have a role at the University, one that is mission-driven and student-centered,” said the VPAA. As an institution of higher education, one of NDU’s prime goals is rearing generations that are in tune with global conversations, so that they may continue to be on the frontline of innovation and dialogue. “Translation is a vital aspect of our global society,” according to El Hayek. “Given this fact, there will always be a demand for translators whose work is exceptional and of high quality. Societal advancement will become null otherwise.”
The Opening Ceremony concluded with an address from H.E. the Minister of Culture: “We navigate cultures by way of translation. This conference constitutes a map constellated by several languages, from Arabic to German, and everything in between.” Through this communicational tool, we possess the power to translate our thoughts into words, and our words into actions. The Minister encouraged the latter in particular, referring to it as an individual and collective duty, in order to fill all gaps in current dialogues surrounding societal improvement and advancement.
The conference featured three keynote speakers, Mr. Francesco Medici, Dr. William Davis, and Professor Ameen Albert Rihani, and included a dedicated panel to the Lebanese writer, Gibran Khalil Gibran, and the translations of his works.
The first session was a panel dedicated to assessing the use and challenges of the French language, given that March is the month of Francophonie, and in collaboration with the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF), the Institut français du Proche-Orient (IFPO), and L'Association Libanaise des Enseignants de Français (ALEF).
The session was followed by Medici’s keynote address; the Italian literary critic and translator gave an overview of the translation of the Lebanese Mahjar writers into different languages, such as Ameen Fares Rihani, Gibran Khalil Gibran, and others. He also assessed the role that the translators have played in history in communicating to the world the ideas and writings of these authors.
Associate Professor of Comparative and German Literature at Colorado College, USA, Davis’ presentation, “Translating the Classical,” demonstrated the link between Ancient Greece and German Romanticism and philosophy, introducing the topic with the German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin, who subsequently informed Martin Heidegger’s philosophy in the 20th century. Heidegger admired Hölderlin for interpolating Hellenic themes into German writing largely because of the former’s conviction that the true way to be a philosopher is through German or Greek. Davis presented a quote from Heidegger, in which he says: “I am thinking of the special inner kinship between the German language and the language of the Greeks and their thought.”
In the aforementioned panel dedicated to translating Gibran, El Hajj, Medici, and the musician and literary critic, Ms. Nadine Najem, recounted their two-year process of translating Gibran’s Al-Musiqa. The book was published with the support of NDU, CISH, the Gibran National Committee, the Gibran Museum, the Italian Cultural Institute in Lebanon, Edulibano, and the Lebanese Embassy in Italy. El Hajj relayed the importance of translating and disseminating this particular piece, as it reflects Gibran’s less-explored interest in and appreciation for music.
The other sessions revolved around translation studies as an academic discipline and translation through the arts, all converging to the conclusion that languages and translation are an essential tool to foster mutual understanding among cultures and civilizations. Such communication, as was demonstrated, can be verbal, non-verbal, and even visual.
The second day of the conference began with the third keynote speaker, Ameen Albert Rihani, nephew of the aforementioned Ameen Fares Rihani. Albert Rihani contextualized the historical accounts of the Arab Renaissance leading to the modern translations of the Bible into Arabic, detailed in his latest book, The Arabic Translation of the Bible and the Impact on the Arab Renaissance. His presentation concluded that the Arabic Bible produced a new cultural, poetic, and philosophical renaissance in the east and west, ultimately influencing contemporary Arab literature.
The remaining sessions featured an in-depth look into the modern contexts in languages, translation, and education. Different panelists tackled issues ranging from the challenges of the Arabic language, to the relationship between Arabic and Persian, the issue of feminist translation, lexicology, and post-pandemic education in Lebanon.
At the heart of the debate was the emerging AI paradigm that is due to change the way education is implemented. A session highlighting the contexts of digital transformation and AI featured five expert speakers who addressed the influence that technology can have on languages, translation, and education in general, presenting the negatives as well as approaches to capitalize on the positives.
Closing the two-day conference was a detailed look at the practices of translation and interpreting in an ever-evolving professional landscape. Five speakers, including two NDU alumni, shared their experiences, the hurdles they had to overcome, and their current and future challenges in both translation and interpreting. The arduous task of simultaneous interpreting was also addressed, highlighting the skills required for such an endeavor and its role.
One of the key recommendations of the conference was a reiteration of the role that languages in general and translation in particular play in bringing people together, fostering mutual understanding and empathy, and promoting the transfer of knowledge and science. A significantly important recommendation highlighted the role of ethics across cultural communication and lifelong learning. Another equally important recommendation was to embrace digital transformation and AI in a way to use technology rather than resist it and consider it an enemy. “Technology does not knock on our door and ask for permission to enter our lives, it just does, so we have to embrace it and deal with it,” Bou Zeid concluded.