Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Mali May I

There are many subtle ways in which translation influences power[i], some of which are quite obvious while others may be less apparent.  In the following examples, I describe how translation technology claiming to facilitate communication,  is sustaining a power imbalance. 

In December 2011, Al Jazeera English launched an SMS polling initiative with Ushahidi, a crowdsourcing platform, designed to give a voice to the people of Somali and share a picture of how current violence is impacting everyday lives.[1]  A call for translators in the diaspora, particularly Somali student groups, was issued online, and phones were distributed on the ground throughout Somalia so multiple users could participate.  These volunteers translated the SMSs and categorized the content as either political, social, or economic.  The results were color-coded and aggregated on a map.  The stated goal of the project was to give a voice to the Somalia people, but the Somalis who participated had no say in how their voices were categorized or depicted on the map. The SMS poll asked an open question:

How has the Somalia conflict affected your life?

It was the translators’ choices and the format of the visualization tool communicating we were seeing.  In one response example:

The Bosaso Market fire has affected me. It happened on Saturday.[3]

The response was categorized as ‘social.’ Why didn’t the fact that violence happened in a market, an economic center, denote ‘economic’ categorization?  There was no guidance for maintaining consistency among the translators, nor any indication of how the information would be used later.  It was these categories chosen by the translators, represented as bright colorful circles on the map, which were speaking to the world, not the Somalis. Their voices had been lost through a crowdsourcing application which was designed with a language barrier. They could not suggest another category that better suited the intentions of their responses. The danger is that these categories become the framework for aid donations and policy endeavors; the application frames the discussion rather than the words of the Somalis. The simplistic categories become the point of departure for aid agencies and policy-makers to understand and become involved with translated material.

An 8 December 2011 comment on the Ushahidi blog described in compelling terms how language and control over information flow impact the power balance during a conflict:

A----, My friend received the message from you on his phone. The question says “tell us how is conflict affecting your life” and “include your name of location”. You did not tell him that his name will be told to the world. People in Somalia understand that sms is between just two people. Many people do not even understand the internet. The warlords have money and many contacts. They understand the internet. They will look at this and they will look at who is complaining. Can you protect them? I think this project is not for the people of Somalia. It is for the media like Al Jazeera and Ushahidi. You are not from here. You are not helping. It is better that you stay out. [4]

Ushahidi director Patrick Meier, responded to the comment:

Patrick: Dear A----, I completely share your concern and already mentioned this exact issue to Al Jazeera a few hours ago. I’m sure they’ll fix the issue as soon as they get my message. Note that the question that was sent out does *not* request people to share their names, only the name of their general location. Al Jazeera is careful to map the general location and *not* the exact location. Finally, Al Jazeera has full editorial control over this project, not Ushahidi. [4]

As of 14 January 2012, there were still names featured on the Al Jazeera English website.

A new project Mali Speaks is underway asking,

Do you think France should have intervened in northern Mali? And why? Thanks for responding with your city and first name. [5]

The Al Jazeera website reports that the responses, translated into English and grouped into five pro-intervention categories based on tone, are overwhelmingly favourable (96%) to the French military intervention. The categories are: stability, security, necessity, gratitude and anti-terrorism.  Just 4% of responses were anti-intervention. [5]

The gratitude category is particularly tricky.  Are translators picking up on notes of gratitude to the forum, Al Jazeera, the possibility of a Western audience, or something genuinely related to the situation?  In my experience as a translator, respondents are polite and positive in countries with little chance of free expression.  Their responses should be measured against the context.  Previous Al Jazeera projects similar to this one have encountered problems in which the respondents were concerned about retaliation for their comments, so perhaps the high positive response is related to perceived power relations on the ground.  

Here are two examples pulled from the website which illustrate the misleading nature of the visualization and problematic translation/categorization method. 

Evidently France had to intervene in the north of Mali since the Islamists were progressing so rapidly and our soldiers lacked the means and often the motivation—whereas the enemy is supported by invisible hands. [5]

This was categorized as ‘anti-terrorism’ demonstrating an (un)conscious equivalency between Islamists and terrorists. 

The Malian army doesn’t have enough force to confront the groups here. [5]

Categorized as a security issue, this statement is substantively similar to the first, except for the mention of Islamists.  Has the evidence for the two categories been exaggerated or skewed?

While Al Jazeera is a news organization not a research institute, it plays an important role in informing electorates who can put political pressure governments involved in the conflict such as France and the U.S..  Furthermore, this same type of technology is being used on the ground to gather information in crisis situations at the governmental and UN levels.[6]  Decisions and policies developed from the translated information are less connected to ‘real voices’ than decision-makers at the final end of the information chain believe.  Negotiating the language/power dynamic so that Malians are directing the information flow about the future of their country should be the goal rather than perpetual simplification into the client/victim that is waiting to be given a voice.[7]


[1] Al Jazeera English. Somalia Speaks. 2011. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/spotlight/somaliaconflict/somaliaspeaks.html (Accessed January 2012).

[2] Al Jazeera English. 2012. Somalia Speaks: screenshot 14 January 2012. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/spotlight/somaliaconflict/somaliaspeaks.html  (Accessed January 2012).

[3] Anonymous. 2011. Reports: 26721350 December 6, 2011. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/spotlight/somaliaconflict/somaliaspeaks.html (Accessed January 2012).

[4] Meier P. 2011. Amplifying Somali Voices Using SMS and a Live Map: #SomaliaSpeaks – The Ushahidi Blog. http://blog.ushahidi.com/index.php/2011/12/08/somalia-speaks/ (Accessed January 2012).

[5] Al Jazeera English. Mali Speaks (Accessed 24 January 2013).  http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2013/01/201312113451635182.html

[6] The Standby Task Force Admin. 2011. Libya Crisis Map Deployment 2011 Report: 1 September 2011. http://blog.standbytaskforce.com/libya-crisis-map-report/ (Accessed October 2011).

[7] Mavhunga, C., mavhunga@mit.edu, 2012. Article on likely intervention in Mali: Reply. (email) message to: H-AFRICA@H-NET.MSU.EDU listeserv‏. 18 December 2012.


[i] See work on traducture of Sideni Group and Wangui Wa Goro (online) http://wiki.ikmemergent.net/files/1202-THE_FINAL_REPORT_DOC_sub.pdf
[ii] Some elements of this piece appear in a version of the article: Sutherlin, G. forthcoming. A voice in the crowd: broader implications for translation crowdsourcing during crisis. Journal of Information Science.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Dividing Peace

While traveling abroad for a conference my frequent interjections about cultural difference, whether about language, perception, values, or cognitive processes, were met with considerable friction from my academic colleagues (all reared in shadow of the failed European multicultural experiment-- a quick note about that...

After the 2005 riots in France, Jane Kramer made a comment in The New Yorker which neatly summarized European multiculturalism strategies:
There was the British “multicultural” model—or, to put it perhaps more accurately, the “You will never be us” model. There was the “We’ll support you, but please be invisible until you are us” Scandinavian model. There was the “integrated but not assimilated” oxymoron called the Dutch model. There was the “You’re guest workers, so you’ll be going home” German model—which, until the late nineties, put off even the possibility of citizenship for most immigrants and their children.
.... so that's the background.)

Each time I pointed out difference, they told me I was bumming everyone out with my negativity.  That certainly wasn't my intention, but they felt a valued schema was under attack.  A schema is the term in psychology for a conceptual framework which we use to make sense of information we encounter.  It facilitates our ability to handle tremendous amounts of information by acting as a shorthand; however, it can also make us blind to information which does not readily fit.  My colleagues operated with the schema that all human beings are universally, deep-down, the same.  We love our children.  We yearn to improve our lives.  We love peace and hate violence.  Each time my very intelligent, well-traveled colleagues encountered individuals from new cultures, this schema selected what information they heard and how they made sense of it.  In other words, when they were in a new environment bombarded by tons of new information, they were ever more reliant on a schema to make sense of things.  The familiar bits jumped right into place on the scaffolding of the schema, and they were contented that what they felt to be true had been confirmed.

So why do I point out differences?  Am I denying deep, universal human values?  Am I being contrary?  Not really.  I just find this particular schema misleading at its core.  The observer has defined and thereby recognizes 'universally human values' from self-reflection rather than observation.  From limited exposure, often through a translator, an encounter might go like this:
The way that woman expressed caring for her mother reminds me of how I care for my mother.  Caring is a deep, essential quality of human beings.  She and I are alike.  Humans are all alike. 
The schema prevents the observer from making sense of information without bias, and in particular, from listening.  So many misunderstandings start right at this moment when first impressions are slotted into schemas unconsciously and assumptions are made which inhibit all parties from seeing and hearing each other fully.  This schema was born as a result of the divisive policies of European multiculturalism which emphasized difference, so with the best intention of reparation, this framework focuses on the commonalities that unite us.  But this oversimplification can be just as dangerous in my mind.  Particularly, when it slots all of humanity into a value-system defined from the self-reflection of individuals from one culture.  Critics to my approach rush tell me how I'm a killjoy who is arguing that mothers across cultures don't all love their children.  But these critics will have to convince me how it is they come to know ALL of anything as complex as the human mind and spirit.  I'm not making any such claims. 

It is much harder to try and process so much new information without a schema.  To just see.  To just listen.  It's nearly impossible.  Reminders of difference are meant as speed-bumps, to slow down my colleagues who are so smart and facile.  It is an unusual pace.  An unusual level of patience both with oneself and with the situation.  It is uncomfortable to operate without a schema, a scaffold, a net.  Reminders of difference are alternative threads, but not full schemas, to start to make sense of the deluge.  The results of this patience might be, that from a particular encounter, you do find many commonalities.  But you may find differences too.  And that should be ok.  You find what you find.  As humans have spread across the earth, they have developed different ways of going about life-- cultures.  Attaching a positive or negative value to each alternative is a choice.

The enjoyment I get from noticing difference was certainly nurtured by my own cultural upbringing which prizes individualism, but honing it as a skill has helped me listen and observe things I would otherwise have missed. And I am not alone in this pursuit.  There are many interculturalists who've developed wonderful books and courses on the topic.  My own learning began when I noticed how often the assumptions, or schemas, I brought to new situations failed me.  Instead of confidently piecing knowledge together, I found myself humbly backpedaling in order find solid ground to start again to make sense of things or to listen to what someone was really trying to communicate.  My moments of utter wrongness have been, pride notwithstanding, an utter delight because they have  been the moments when, sometimes, I glimpse the world that is most different from my own.  And what else do travelers crave?