L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

04 October 2006 Blog Home : October 2006 : Permalink

Linguistically Challenged Experts

In one of those serendipitous events that makes blogging fun, Chris over at Buyo drew my attention to a new vintage of Martin Jacques article on Japan, at the same time that the Marmot's Hole points out a very interesting article at Coming Anarchy about whether or not you need to be able to sling the lingo to be an expert on a country.

Let me start with Prof Jacques. As Chris points out this article is subtly different from the usual Jacques formula, a formula that permitted Chris to create a "write your own Martin Jacques article flowchart" last year. Oh it's not massively different - I said last year that:

You see in Jacques' world, Japan can only achieve nirvana through perpetual grovelling apology a.k.a. "coming to terms with its past". The result is that poor communist superpower China is a perpetual victim destined to suffer forever for the rampaging invasions of Japan until Japan commits national seppuku to expiate its shame.

and this still basically holds true, however there are differences. Chris claims that the prof's columns have been accidentally exposed to the real world, I propose a different explanation: what we are seeing now is a new vintage. Japan has a new prime minister so Prof Jacques feels that he ought to come up with a new improved formula, along the lines of new "squeezy marmite" or "new coke". Will "new Jacques" be more successful a makeover than "new coke" or will we see a return to the original formula?

One of the reasons why we find Prof Jacques' columns so trite is that they add very little to our understanding of the countries they are discussing. His column last week could effectively be summed up as
  1. New PM Abe is quite nationalistic
  2. China wants more apology from Japan
  3. But Japan is becoming more assertive not more apologetic
  4. China and Japan are the 3rd & 2nd largedst global economies
  5. So any rise in tension will affect the rest of the world
As a moderately informed resident of France who speaks very poor Japanese and has been in the PR China precisely once, I could have written this column. It makes the drive-by reporting of the NYT that I commented on a couple of days ago look good, and it is precisely because I find this level of superficial knowledge so infuriating that I read blogs written by Japanese and Korean residents and speakers and I would suggest that Grauniad readers who actually want to know what the average Japanese on the Yamanotesen is thinking would do better to do the same rather than rely on experts like Prof Jacques who seems to show no ability to communicate in any Asian language.

And this of course leads me to the Coming Anarchy post and the Marmot commentry thereon. Curzon concludes with:

Which brings me to my final point. If you want to study Japan, guess what—most of the novel research on Japan is done in Japan, by Japanese people, in the Japanese language. Only a fraction of it is translated. That’s true regardless what the topic is, whether it’s business, politics, culture, history, law, economics, or anything else. And it’s true not just about Japan, but the world in general. Experts in the West who build their career on knowing a region had better know the language if they want to be taken seriously, and as consumers of the analysis we should be wary of who and what we read.

As a general principle I would agree with this. Until we get to the sort of machine translation that is depicted in SF books, the only way to read books etc. written in a foreign language is going to be learning that language to a sufficiently high level, and if you can't read the books etc. in a particular langauge you can't tell what people who speak that language are thinking about unless you have a very good interpreter that you can trust. We have seen the disastrous effects of precisely this inability in the abysmal MSM coverage (and apparently in CIA and other government agency knowledge) of the Middle East. One of the major attractions of MEMRI is that it simply translates Arab media output into English so we can see for ourselves what they are talking about. I find it fascinating that many of the MEMRI critics claim that it is selective in its choice of stuff to translate but none of them seem to be interested in supporting an alternative that provides translations of other stuff:

As far as relations between the west and the Arab world are concerned, language is a barrier that perpetuates ignorance and can easily foster misunderstanding.

All it takes is a small but active group of Israelis to exploit that barrier for their own ends and start changing western perceptions of Arabs for the worse.

It is not difficult to see what Arabs might do to counter that. A group of Arab media companies could get together and publish translations of articles that more accurately reflect the content of their newspapers.

It would certainly not be beyond their means. But, as usual, they may prefer to sit back and grumble about the machinations of Israeli intelligence veterans.

However the Marmot points out that linguistic competence is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for regional expertise.
If I didn't think the same, to some extent, I wouldn't be so willing to comment on Japan or indeed anywhere outside the Anglosphere along with the French and German speaking parts of the world. And god knows the number of French people I know who can speak perfectly good English but who express a view of Anglophone politics that is, at best, naïve. And going back to the middle east two of the best commenters on events there - the two Michaels - speak practically no Arabic or other relevant language despite having travelled there a lot.

I think the critical point is to recognise the potential biases and errors that abound and attempt to avoid them. The fact that the frequently MSM seems unable to do so is just one more reason why the intelligent person will treat MSM reportage as just one element in his search for knowledge and understanding. 

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin