Thursday, December 01, 2005

Traduttori Traditori

The Washington Post reports on a meeting between United States Marines and Sunni Arab tribal leaders in Ramadi, Iraq.

"We're here to work through the problems," Williams urged. "These are complex problems. There are not easy solutions, but there are solutions."

His words were translated differently, however. "I don't have any time to waste," is how they were conveyed by another army interpreter, an older Lebanese man, seemingly impatient after five hours of talks, and improvising in an apparent effort to bring them to a close. "Even if you all do have time to waste, today's not the day."

Thus prodded, Marines and tribal leaders reached an agreement: Anbar's elders would come up with a plan that would satisfy U.S. conditions for security and allow U.S. troops to pull out of Ramadi, and Williams would try to pitch it to Baghdad. Despite the disconnect, both sides had gotten across enough of their points to satisfy, at least to a degree.

Well, let's hope so.

I had welcomed the passage of Senator Feingold's Civilian Linguist Reserve Corps amendment because it directly addresses the military's need for competent translators. But that program cannot be the end of the story. Foreign language education must be treated as a vital national (indeed, international) interest. The imperative is both practical and ethical. In cases of military engagement, the moral quandry created by an inability to communicate is obvious enough. Less obvious perhaps is the imperative to communicate across language barriers when the possibility of military confrontation would appear to be quite remote. When we look at the field of diplomatic engagements, the frontline as it were against resorting to military action to solve disputes, it becomes evident that the system as a whole does not function as a tactical (or, primarily, strategic) alternative to war. It is only from the point of view of national security strategies that diplomacy serves such a function, begrudgingly. The culture of diplomacy obeys its own logic, homologous to but not reducible to the logic of ongoing conversations. The ongoing character of diplomatic engagements, together with what Jean-Loup Amselle describes as the "mestizo logic" of cultural differences, carry implications for ethical conduct within and beyond the realm of strategic calculations. To see what I mean, you can experiment with grunting at people in lieu of greeting them to see how it impacts your quality of life--recommended only for the brave.

In recent memory the United States Congress has been remarkably ungenerous to foreign language studies. Congressional debates over Title VI (Area Studies) appropriations have too often been less about solving realworld problems than they are about scoring points for narrow interest groups. One simple solution to address future needs: allow undergraduates to receive Foreign Language Area Studies scholarships, which are currently awarded only to graduate students. This is a provision included in Senator Dodd's International and Foreign Language Studies Act of 2005 (S.1105), and it's been kicked around in some other bills on the Hill. There is no broad bipartisan support for this initiative. (Senator Dodd's bill is indeed presented in English, and it doesn't say "Even if you all do have time to waste, today's not the day." I checked.)

As I've been writing this post, Richard Chappell has put forward a call for investing in rational capital. I wouldn't know whether ratiocination is the be all and end all of problem-solving abilities--I'm reminded of Rorty's defense of sentimental education--, but it surely has a handy place in the good citizen's tool shed. And the suggestion that politics today is too far down the path of emotional appeals and mindless insults certainly resonates here in the States. What to do about it? It's a set of complex problems, but they must be addressed because the consequences of sustained willful idiocy are too serious to ignore.

posted by Fido the Yak at 5:25 AM.


Blogger alex said...

Being familiar with, and being able to utilize, the language of another culture seems to me the first, and essential, step towards being able to negotiate when differences arise. That we neglect this, in our education institutions and in a general downplaying of foreign linguistics' import in popular culture, is indicative of an undergirding chauvinism in our attitude regarding our place in the world.

I agree that "rational capital" is a useful tool, and am also wary of going overboard in that direction. It educates persons to think carefully about statements and situations presented them, and helps avoid tangles and traps in our language-games. However, when conceived as the foundational conduit for discourse, 'rationality' has a tendency to get confused with 'reductionism.' And simply reducing a culture to our own, even "philosophical," rubric of reason is unlikely to garner a whole lot of diplomatic success.

December 01, 2005 7:29 AM  

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