Lost (?) in translation

Published : 20 Dec 2012, 02:53 PM
Updated : 20 Dec 2012, 02:53 PM

When I peruse the news, I of course start with bdnews24.com. I look at the Opinion section, my favourite part, and then I go to the Bangla Opinion page, and, I'm ashamed to say, I paste sections into Google Translate.

And what do the busy little robotic translators at google tell me my counterparts are saying? Well, things like-

"Why is so much of my own little car embassy attacks?"

I think, dude, you need a mechanic pronto. Or-

"Stumbling on my feet at the West for a team that could not read."

Hmmm… That's an especially grave problem for a writer. He stumbles along, but he has to walk. He can't drive until someone does something to fix his little car's tendency to attack embassies.

Of course, these problems stem from my continued ignorance of the language, which forces me to depend upon Google Translate for my understanding of Bangla text. The glacial state of my actual language learning hasn't been helped by how busy I've been since the hurricane. I'll learn Bangla by and by, helped by all of your efforts to put me on the right track. Until then, Google translate will render that last sentence as, "I and Bengali, you can try to be fine for me to help," when I translate it from English to Bangla (to Spanish) back to English.

I do what I can to understand the news. Even with the poor translation, I can glean the meaning of my Bangla-writing counterparts from what I have read in the news section of the bdnews24.com.

After reading bdnews24, I scan CNN. This is generally my primary US news source. Occasionally, I also read CNN's international affairs section. My daughter has suggested I also take a look at Al-Jazeera, so I do that as well. See, whatever the American news outlet's spin on a story, all American networks seem to be reading off the same newsfeed. Today it's fiscal cliff, more fiscal cliff, legalizing marijuana and gay marriage in Washington State. Syria is big. Morsi is hot news as well. Only Al-Jazeera reports about a meeting between President Obama and the representatives of 566 Native American tribes. At stake? Only the extinction of language and culture.

That's less important to CNN than Catherine's morning sickness in England. Wow. Seems like only yesterday I was mocking their wedding. "Their Royal Highnesses the hospital to get treatment for female workers forceful. Thank you. Want." That's how the last line of the article translates to Bangla and back, not even putting it into Spanish first.

Next, I check my local New Jersey news, via Riverside Signal, which will consolidate with another newspaper in January. I write for the Signal, so I get a firsthand account of that news.

I look for the American spin on news from Bangladesh; usually, our news outlets are silent. I don't get anything back. No articles, nothing. I have written to CNN and the New York Times in the past about this: the Princess vomits and it's front-page news. Bangladeshi kids are tortured and killed on the Indian border and the press is silent. Why?

But The Wall Street Journal and CNN both led with stories from Bangladesh. The Wall Street Journal's piece was about the garments factory fire. On CNN, I saw pictures of a horrifically scarred child with a dented skull. I noticed that the caption underneath mentioned Bangladesh. The details of the story indicated that this boy had been attacked, gutted like an animal and sliced in such a way that he could never hope to urinate again, let alone to have children. He'd been found by his mother, lying in the streets of Dhaka.

The CNN story is about American altruism, born of our nature as volunteers. Americans often "step to the plate," to use a baseball term, and in this case, the boy was championed by some Americans to create a real feel-good piece that painted the local police as callous, calling the incident a "neighborhood dispute."

I was happy that the story ended well for the boy. Apparently, the father, a rickshaw-puller, had owed money, according to an earlier article, and this brutal act was an attempt to collect a debt. The boy would not have received justice except for a Bangladeshi lawyer named Alena Khan. An advocate for children's rights, she knew her life would be in danger, yet in 2010, she filed charges against the perpetrators and went to the press with the boy's story. I google the name "Alerna Khan". Not many results appear. I try "Elena Khan".

My Google screen fills with stories which mention the activist, including articles about the fire in that garment factory last month. I read the headline: "WalMart rejected proposals to protect Bangladeshi factories against fires." WalMart, whose profits weakened to a total of 3.2 billion dollars this quarter, couldn't muster the human concern for a simple fix. I wonder if those WalMart officials would have hesitated if their own family members had been employees there. They didn't ask that question. As a result,112 lives were tragically lost.

I struggle to connect the events I'm reading.  The CNN article says that the Bangladeshi boy was given presents upon coming to the hospital for restorative surgery. I wonder if those gifts were purchased at WalMart. My mind races.  We are all people, struggling to save a buck, make a living,  and survive. How differently those drives manifest for each individual!  Yet the common denominator in these stories is the courage of Elena Khan, despite death threats, tilting with windmills and giants, advocating for the human rights of her people.

I read the news and it depresses me.

Apparently, Elena Khan reads the news and it inspires her to do good.

No matter what language we speak, or how our words may be twisted by misunderstanding and strange translation, two universal truths govern the behavior of heroes. First, in order for evil to triumph, good people must do nothing. Second, we should never do to someone else anything that we would not wish done to us. This is an ethic that we have all learned, no matter our religion. This is the basis of the social contract, and of mutually assured survival. At the same time, two universal truths permit acts of villainy. First, that some end justifies doing unto others something we would never want done unto ourselves or anyone we love. Second, that economics, cowardice, or plain old laziness exempts us from doing something for a stranger we would do for a loved one.

Tonight I had to purchase some items as part of our December 6 St. Nicholas celebration. Usually, I buy these items at WalMart. It is convenient. I couldn't shop there tonight , knowing what I now know. I do not wish to celebrate the life of a saint—who, incidentally, was known for the protection of women and children from predation and exploitation—by supporting a company that could have helped to prevent the worst factory fire in Bangladeshi history. When it came to the dictates of their hearts versus the bottom line, WalMart made the economically expedient choice. They lost my business in the process.

Meanwhile, the monsters of this world come to justice thanks to Khan. It appears that the thugs that mutilated the boy had been trafficking in the kidnapping, murder, and mutilation of children with a goal of making them more pitiable beggars. I'm guessing that the victims are children of people who could not pay off a debt, and this horror is the means by which that debt is collected. I'm glad to see that these creeps will be brought to justice.

But what sort of justice? Bangladeshi law, according to the article, says that anyone forcing another to beg will be sentenced to a three-year prison term. OK, this may be acceptable if the perpetrator is a parent, holding his own child in his arms, feeling like he has no recourse but to go with his children onto the streets to acquire enough to eat.

However, if the individual forcing the child to beg is not a family member, but some outsider, then the penalties for that outsider are way too lax.  I would say that even fifteen years may be too lenient for a loan shark who forces a child to beg.  And in the case of mutilation? Honestly, I feel like reverting to the code of Hammurabi – an eye for an eye. Whatever mutilation a child has suffered should be inflicted in the same way on evil person who mutilated the child.

Of course, Bangladesh is a civilized country, and that is a cruel and unusual, though very viscerally satisfying, punishment. I think that in a civilized nation, it would not be excessive to impose a life sentence on a mutilator of children.

I am proud that individual Americans helped this particular boy. I am happy that our national instinct is to declare, "Let me help!" One American immigrant's son, Aram Kovach, decided to step up and help. He arranged the trip and financing of the trip to America to get surgery to restore him. When the father of the mutilated boy asked Kovach, "why?" He answered, "That's what we do. It's just what we do as human beings."

And there's my connection. I look up from the CNN article, and notice I have fifteen tabs open, all focused on different angles of this story and WalMart's connection to the fire. I open Google Translate and type in the words, "That's what we do. It's just what we do as human beings." And I smile.

See, what's good and what's bad, I'd like to think that that's beyond the scope of culture or language. I would like to think that, no matter who we are, we are obliged to be good.

"এটা আমরা কি করব তা. এটা কি আমরা মানব হিসাবে না."
"Esto es lo que hacemos. Esto es lo que hacemos como seres humanos."
"That's what we do. It's just what we do as human beings."

The truth of the message survives the translation.

Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called "You Think What You Think And I'll Think What I Know." He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, "Learning Little Hawk's Way of Storytelling", teaches the native art of oral tradition storytelling.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher