The internet is a highly multilingual place, but speakers from different languages still don’t interact much with each other. Bob talks to OTM producer Mark Phillips about a man named Roland Soong, one of the few people in the world who is translating Chinese web content into English.
BOB GARFIELD: At the moment, 27.5 percent of Internet conversation is in English, but it’s clear that the future of the Internet will be one where no single language dominates. Next week, OTM producer Mark Phillips will report on what this means and how new tools could try to link these different languages together. But there’s something that didn't quite make it into his piece, a conversation he had with a man named Roland Soong, one of the few people in the world right now who’s translating Chinese Internet content into English. And Mark’s here to tell us about him. Hey, Mark, welcome to the microphone.
MARK PHILLIPS: Hey, how’s it going?
BOB GARFIELD: Listen, before we get to this guy, just tell me briefly about the English/Chinese language gap, what that means and what we're doing to close it.
MARK PHILLIPS: Well, there’s actually some sites that are translating English content into Chinese. There’s a group that calls themselves the Eco Team. They're huge fans of The Economist, and they take the print version of The Economist each week and translate it into Chinese. There’s another site called Yi Yan which translates New York Times articles, influential blogs, The Guardian. So there’s lots of English being translated into Chinese. There’s just this one guy translating Chinese into English.
BOB GARFIELD: This is Roland Soong.
MARK PHILLIPS: Yeah, he’s got a blog called EastSouthWestNorth, to translate Chinese newspapers and blogs into English. And the site is – it’s not pretty to look at, and it only gets about 20,000 page views a day, but it’s a really interesting site and really important, in a way. I went over to talk to him at his apartment in New York, and he told me just how influential his blog is.
ROLAND SOONG: A survey of foreign correspondents based in China showed that about two-thirds of all foreign correspondents will consult my website. So the influence that my blog has is not so much the 20,000 but how foreign correspondents may be influenced by what I write and, in turn, will influence tens of millions of people all over the world.
BOB GARFIELD: So this guy is a translator. He’s also an aggregator and, I guess, a curator because what he decides is translation-worthy makes a big difference, huh?
MARK PHILLIPS: Yeah, I mean, I asked him which articles he chooses, and he said, at first, you know, just kind of whatever I'm interested in. But I pressed him and tried to get him to really explain why he chooses what he chooses.
ROLAND SOONG: My starting point is reading news about China written in English, so I get some sense what the sort of main theme of the day is, according to the English-language media. Then I would go into the Chinese media or the Internet and follow up on these stories. Very often what I find is that the Chinese media or the Internet have taken a completely different angle.
BOB GARFIELD: Did he give you any examples?
MARK PHILLIPS: Google was hacked, apparently, by someone in China, and when that was first happening The New York Times reported on it and said that the cyberattacks were carried out from two schools inside China. Soong looked into it, though, and this is what he found:
ROLAND SOONG: One school I recognized because it’s a famous technology school, and I can believe that, but the other school I had never heard of. So I went into the Chinese search engines and look it up, and lo and behold, this is a vocational school which principally trains people to become hairdressers or bulldozer drivers, and so on.
[BOB LAUGHING] So from the Chinese side, they think this whole story is hilarious. If you were to only read the English-language media, you would never get the impression that this is how the Chinese are reacting to the story.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s pretty funny.
MARK PHILLIPS: Yeah, and he told me another story about this journalist who was tagging along with a police officer, and I guess she was writing a story about cracking down on traffic violations. And the police officer pulled over this woman for driving the wrong way on a one-way street, and the reporter tried to ask the woman a couple of questions. And the lady - hit her in the face. At first, Roland thought this was a pretty simple story. He kind of ignored it. But listen to what happened.
ROLAND SOONG: Two days later, I get on the Internet and I am completely astonished by Chinese Internet users responding to this very simple story. They are saying she was defending her civil rights to slap the reporter in the face. So coming out of China is an emergence of a sense of a person’s civil rights, which to Chinese people include, I don't have to talk to the press if I don't feel like it. When you look back and say, oh my God, you know, this sort of thing, if it were to happen five years ago, you know, the female driver would have been sent away for five years in jail or something like that for an assault.
BOB GARFIELD: We were talking about his methodology for choosing what to translate. I guess some of it has to do with the art and science of figuring out what is just state propaganda and what has just been very heavily censored by the government or the party, huh?
MARK PHILLIPS: Yeah, and Roland says you have to know how to pick and choose which media is going to tell an interesting story.
ROLAND SOONG: There are more than 2,000 newspapers in China. You can't have a - one guy sitting in the capital reading all of them before you allow them to go out. This guy may be looking at the national newspaper, but then you have provincial newspapers that has a different bunch of people looking over it. You have city newspapers. You have county newspapers, and so on. They have different degrees of tolerance.
MARK PHILLIPS: So there’s one paper called Southern Metropolis Daily that’s in a city that’s pretty lax with censorship, and Roland relies on that paper a lot for his material.
ROLAND SOONG: They are a Chinese-only newspaper that is published in the city of Guangzhou, no further reach, but they are considered an international force, thanks to my translations. They actually keep me on a internal mailing list just to make sure I get the editorials [LAUGHS] before it shows up in the newspaper.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] But he doesn't work for the newspaper. What does he do for a living? Is he a professional translator?
MARK PHILLIPS: No, no. He works for this company that has a New York office, and it has nothing to do with translation. I asked him how he manages to spend so much time translating these articles and keep a regular job.
ROLAND SOONG: One reason: In my regular job I actually don’t do anything. I merely tell people, you do this or that, but I actually don't do much.
MARK PHILLIPS: And does your boss know that you don't do much work?
ROLAND SOONG: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
[LAUGHTER] Definitely. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Mark, this is fascinating. I really look forward to your big piece next week.
MARK PHILLIPS: Yeah, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Phillips is a producer and reporter for OTM. We'll be airing a report by Mark next week all about translation on the Internet. Here’s a sneak peak, courtesy of Ethan Zuckerman, cofounder of the multilingual blog, Network Global Voices.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: When you can read what people say in their own languages, it’s often a lot less diplomatic, it’s often a lot more nationalistic. My favorite example of this is Jack Cafferty of CNN.
JACK CAFFERTY: We’re in hock to the Chinese up to our eyeballs as we continue to import their junk-
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Who referred to the Chinese as:
JACK CAFFERTY: Basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: That comment was widely translated. And some Chinese citizens sued CNN, and while the lawsuit, I don't think, had legal implications, CNN was forced to apologize. As we get better and better at translating, I think what it’s really going to do is force us to address each other’s preconceptions, prejudices, biases. But unless we can actually hear what people are saying, it’s very hard to start on that process.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani and P.J. Vogt, with more help from Alex Goldman, Peter Henderson and Linn Davis, and edited this week by our senior producer, Katya Rogers. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Michael Raphael.
John Keefe is our executive producer, bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. We are follow-able on Twitter at On_the_media, and friend-able on Facebook. You can subscribe to our podcast via iTunes. This is On the Media from WNYC. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I'm Bob Garfield.