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Two Web sites help reporters overcome the language barrier

SHOWCASE | October 07, 2005

MEMRI translates Arabic, Farsi and Turkish media to English and other languages; 'Watching America' focuses on what the world thinks about the U.S.

By Alex Kingsbury



The language barrier is one of the greatest hurdles American journalists face in many overseas assignments. While some foreign language news organizations, like Al Jazeera, The Daily Yomiuri  or Pravda have English language portals, many other outlets do not. Now, however, the Internet has enabled journalists to bridge these gaps in language in ways never before possible. Automated translators like Babel Fish, for example, can decipher entire Web sites and offer rough approximations of meaning, if not coherent copy.


Here's a look at two organizations trying to bridge this linguistic divide.


The Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) is a useful tool for journalists who are interested in the content of Middle Eastern media but who lack conversational fluency in Arabic, Farsi or Turkish. Archives of print and video translations are available free of charge.


The Web site Watching America is also a handy addition to a reporter's toolbox. The site collects and translates foreign print media to "discover what the world thinks about U.S." It relies on a combination of computerized translators and native language speakers to verify the accuracy of its content. This site is also free.


Both sites offer snapshots of the vast amount of non-English media generated every day. The content selected for translation is specific to each site's editorial direction. As is always the case, readers should keep in mind the context of the translated material, which is not always clear from these sites; the size and composition of the intended audience; and how representative these items may be.


The Middle East Media Research Institute

The Middle East Media Research Institute was founded in 1998 by Yigal Carmon, a retired Israeli military-intelligence officer. MEMRI monitors broadcast media an average of 16 hours per day and advertises its "in-house capability to translate, subtitle and distribute the segments from Arab TV in real time to Western news channels across the world."


"Our goal is bridging the language gap between the Middle East and the West,"says MEMRI executive director Steven Stalinsky.


Out of offices in Washington, Berlin, Baghdad and Jerusalem, the Institute provides translations in English, German, Hebrew, Italian, French, Spanish, Turkish, and Russian. They regularly monitor the print media in numerous countries, religious sermons, textbooks and a host of television channels including Al-Arabiya TV (Dubai), Al-'Alam TV (Iran), Iqra TV (Saudi Arabia), Syrian TV (Syria) and Al-Majd TV (UAE).


MEMRI boasts 75,000 subscribers to its daily mailing list, including many journalists and academics, who receive regular updates about new translations. The institute also delivers briefings on Middle Eastern media to the FBI and Congress, Stalinsky says.


Video clips and translated transcripts are MEMRI's bread and butter. Recent items include a sermon by Sheik Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi addressed to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, an interview with former Tunisian education minister Muhammad Al-Sharafi, and a story about female Palestinian suicide bomber Hanadi Jaradat and her family.


The institute has been the target of criticism for highlighting inflammatory statements from the vast stream of Middle Eastern media. Stalinsky says that while there is editorial judgment in deciding what gets translated, the Institute also covers and amplifies the voices of Middle East reformers.


Other areas of focus include anti-Semitism, the war in Iraq, U.S. and the Arab regimes, and, often most interestingly, conspiracy theories.


A recent translation, for example, features excerpts from an Al-Jazeera program "The Truth behind 9/11," which contends that Israeli intelligence was involved in the 9-11 attacks. "It is noteworthy that in those moments, the Mossad agents here, according to eye-witnesses, were dancing and cheering in front of the WTC," says the anchor of the documentary, according to MEMRI's translation. "The Israelis were arrested in New York. Later, they were moved to Washington, and from there to Israel, and the report was quickly suppressed."


In one of the most shocking items, MEMRI provides a translation of an article which appeared in the Saudi Arabian daily Al-Riyadh that details "how the Jews drain the blood from their young victims."


In the coming months, Stalinsky says, MEMRI will launch a new Web site on blogging. It will collect and translate Arabic and Farsi Web logs that deal with reform in the Middle East, hopefully acting as a clearing house both for Middle Eastern reformers with a cyber presence and English speakers seeking to know more about them.


Watching America

This new Web site features a digest of articles from the foreign press which, in one way or another, deal with America. Much of the content is foreign policy related, but there are other topics of interest as well.


Despite the machine translation, Jean-Pierre L'onardini's article in L'Humanite reads easily. "Mr. Thierry Breton, Minister for Economics and Finance, had to try and persuade recalcitrant American financiers that "France is one of the most attractive countries for foreign investors," he writes. "Despite France's rejection of the European referendum [the E.U. Constitution], it has not been immobilized, France continues to make reforms."


"If all the world's a stage, then what's playing on it is America as morality play. And the painfully clueless Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes...is the new drama director," reads an article from the Arab Times. "The problem here is not American popular culture... Rather, the problem is American foreign policy, which remains, where it is not bellicose, overtly and unabashedly moralistic in tone. Unless you live like us, they seem to be saying, yours is an inferior species of social formation."


"The revision of America's position on nuclear weapons by the Bush

Administration, for example, reveals the clear intention to maintain a colossal arsenal, without time limit, to secure for itself such an overwhelming superiority of forces that no one could threaten or even challenge it," writes Jaime Acosta Espinosa in a translated article from Ecuador's Hoy Online. "This is a some way to direct the world, to once again make national interest the prime measure of international relations!"


"President Bush is my North American hero. And the fact is that someone has to speak up in defense that misunderstood and much-maligned statesman, who is gambling everything for the sake of democracy and the survival of the Western world," writes Mario Fernando Prado in a translated version of his recent El Pais (Colombia) article. "Why, if those who wear the turbans can knock down two of his tremendous towers, doesn't he have the right to knock down their tiny towers?"


one man's babelfish is another man's babelcrap
Posted by Alejandro Moreno
07/25/2009, 09:53 AM

Babelfish is great if you know how to use it. To say or even imply that the automated translations it would give, especially of an entire website (let alone an entire paragraph) a coherent, contextually conscious and correct translation is misleading at best. If you want decent translation from Babelfish or anything similar to it, you need to break down paragraphs into sentences, and complex sentences into short simple portions that are easy for Babelfish to digest. Anything more than that and you get what my colleagues and I call Babelcrap, half jibberish. So if you need to do anything academic or professional, beware of how you use Babelfish. It's like a paper shredder - you have to be careful of how much you feed it, otherwise it'll just mangle things instead of finely processing, and you'll have to pull out the jammed copy and re-feed it bit by bit. Then again, if you don't know the quality of the translation you're getting, ignorance is bliss.

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