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Radio, translation and intercultural communication

I’m commuting from my home in western Massachusetts to the Berkman Center in Cambridge once a week, usually on Tuesdays. If all goes well, the trip takes about two and a half hours each way – in the morning, fighting traffic, it can be closer to four hours. It’s not surprising that I’m becoming addicted to talk radio, audio books and other forms of the digital spoken word.

My drug of choice is This American Life, Ira Glass’s weekly cocktail of radio documentary, investigative journalism, short stories, and personal essays. The shows are loosely linked around a theme – on one of the programs I listened to yesterday (thanks to Audible and my well-travelled iPod) was “Lost In Translation”, four essays with a common thread of intercultural communication and misunderstanding.

Tucked in between a goofy essay on comedy karaoke and a profile of Yao Ming’s translator was one of the best pieces of radio journalism I’ve ever heard. Nancy Updike interviews Nasser Laham, the editor for Bethlehem TV, a privately owned television channel in the Palestinian Territories. On a nightly TV show, Laham provides simultaneous translation of Israeli television into Arabic, giving his viewers an insight into what their Israeli neighbors are thinking and feeling.

Laham pulls no punches – when Israeli television calls suicide bombers “terrorists”, so does he, rather than using term commonly used in Palestinian media, “martyrs”. He airs hours of coverage on Israel’s annual holocaust commemoration events – when Palestinian viewers complain that they’re not interested in Israeli rememberances, he berates them, telling them it’s important for them to understand Israeli suffering as well as Palestinian.

Laham’s story is a compelling one: arrested at age 17 for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, he spent 6 years in Israeli prison. While incarcerated, he learned Hebrew, and immediately started teaching the language to fellow prisoners. On his release, he became a journalist, using his linguistic skills to monitor Israeli newspapers and draw out stories not covered by the (decidedly non-independent) Palestinian press.

Given the stories Laham covers and the critical voices he translates, one would expect him to be a controversial figure. And he is – but he’s also an incredibly popular one, and many of his viewers credit him with helping them achieve a new understanding of Israel. Still, he’s having a difficult time convincing his children that they should learn “the language of the enemy”, as they put it, or preventing them from throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. (Updike covers all this ground and more in about 19 minutes. You should listen to it now.)

In the groundbreaking 2002 Arab Human Development Report authored by Egyptian sociologist Nader Fergany and others, scholars suggested three key factors constraining human development in arab states: lack of political freedoms, lack of women’s rights and major knowledge gaps. (The Economist offers a typically smart and snarky summary of the report.) While many Arab League states spend meaningful sums on education, there’s an enormous translation gap that separates Arabic-speaking scholars and students from the rest of the world.

Roughly 330 books per year are translated from European languages into Arabic. That’s roughly one fifth as many as are translated into Greek. Since medieval times, the report estimates that only 10,000 books have been translated from European languages into Arabic, roughly as many translated by Spain in a single year. Authors of the 2003 Arab Human Development Report point out that this translation gap has symbolic, as well as practical consequences:

“Translation is a means of seeking knowledge, and it represents an interaction among civilisations through the transfer from one language to another, by humans or machines, (through) written or oral (words), with the goal of achieving scientific and cultural objectives. While more knowledge-hungry countries are paying attention to translation from sources other than English and efforts in this regard are not restricted to recent or contemporary knowledge, a marked shortage of translations of basic books on philosophy, literature, sociology and the natural sciences is quite evident in the Arab world,”

Translation’s been on my mind lately as I’ve wrestled with editing the BlogAfrica newsfeed. Like many Americans, I’m basically monolingual. Many of our best bloggers post in French, and I’m using a combination of Babelfish, high-school spanish and my francophone spouse to decipher what folks are saying. While I occasionally get the gist of people’s posts, I’m miles away from being able to provide meaningful translation.

I think the most important thing weblogs can (potentially) do is give people a sense what their neighbors around the world are thinking and feeling. I’m convinced that projects that help people build and read weblogs by people in other countries will help, slowly but surely, achieve political change, ala Jim Moore’s Second Superpower. But it’s one thing for all of us to have an online voice (and, needless to say, we’re decades away from a world where everyone has good, affordable, internet access.) It’s another thing for us to be able to understand what each other is saying.