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Context

The setting in which a thing is found or occurs is extremely important for the

associations that are so crucial to memory. Without that context it is just an isolated

item; in context, it is part of a whole interlocking network of meaningful things.

For example, in Chapter 7 we will be taking a new look at terminology studies,

based not on individual words and phrases, or even on larger contexts like "register,"

but on working people in their workplaces. Contextualizing a word or phrase as

part of what a person doing a job says or writes to a colleague makes it much easier

to remember than attempting to remember it as an independent item.

The physical and cultural context in which the learner learns a thing can also be

helpful in building an associative network for later recall. Everyone has had the

experience of going in search of something and forgetting what they were looking

for — then having to return to the exact spot in which the need for the thing was

first conceived, and remembering it instantly. The place in which the item was initially

moved to long-term memory jogged that memory and the item was recalled.

Students tested on material in the room where they learned it tend to do better on

the test than those tested in another room. "It seems that the place in which we

master information helps recreate the state necessary to retrieve it, probably by

stimulating the right emotions, which are very important influences on memory"

(Gallagher 1994: 132).

This phenomenon involves what is called "state-dependent learning" — the

peculiar fact that memories retained in a given mental or physical state are most

easily recalled in that state. People who learn a fact while intoxicated may have great

difficulty remembering it while sober, and it will come to them immediately, almost

miraculously, when under the influence again. It may be difficult to remember the

most obvious and ordinary everyday facts about work while relaxing in the back

yard on Saturday; when someone calls from work and you have to switch "states"

rapidly, the transition from a Saturday-relaxation state to a workday-efficiency state

may be disturbingly difficult.

Winifred Gallagher comments in The Power of Place (1994: 132):

The basic principle that links our places and states is simple: a good or bad

environment promotes good or bad memories, which inspire a good or

bad mood, which inclines us toward good or bad behavior. We needn't even be

consciously aware of a pleasant or unpleasant environmental stimulus for it

to shape our states. The mere presence of sunlight increases our willingness to

help strangers and tip waiters, and people working in a room slowly permeated

by the odor of burnt dust lose their appetites, even though they don't notice

the smell. On some level, states and places are internal and external versions

of each other.

Interpreters have to be able to work anywhere, requiring them to develop the

ability to create a productive mental state regardless of external conditions;

translators tend to be more place-dependent. Their work station at home or at the

office is set up not only for maximum efficiency, dictionaries and telephone close at

hand, but also for maximum familiarity, at-homeness. They settle into it at the

beginning of any work period in order to recreate the proper working frame of mind,

going through little rituals (stacking paper, tidying piles, flipping through a dictionary,

sharpening pencils) that put them in a translating mood. What they learn there they

remember best there; thus the notorious difficulty of translating while on vacation,

or at someone else's work station. It's not so much that the computer keyboard is

different; it's that everything is different. All the little subliminal cues that put you

A group of translation scholars from various places in North and South America

have gathered in Tlaxcala, Mexico, for a conference on scientific-technical

translation. One night at dinner talk turns to travel, and to everyone's surprise the

Cuban interpreter who has told stories of the collapse of the societal infrastructure

in Cuba has been to more exotic places than anyone else present: Bali, Saudi

Arabia, etc., always on official (interpreting) business. She starts describing the

places she's seen, the people she's met, the words she's learned - and is disturbed

to discover that she has forgotten an Arabic word she learned in Riyadh. Playfully,

a dinner companion from the US unfolds a paper napkin off the table and holds

it in front of her mouth like a veil. Her eyes fly open in astonishment and the word

she was looking for bursts out of her mouth; she laughs and claps her hands over

her mouth as if to prevent further surprises.

in the proper frame of mind are absent — with the result that it is often very difficult

to get the creative juices flowing. Translators who travel extensively now rely

increasingly on portable work stations, especially laptop computers; the computer

and other related paraphernalia then become like magic amulets that psychologically

transform any place — an airport gate area, an airplane tray table, a hotel bed — into

the external version of the internal state needed to translate effectively.