Lost in Translation

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Poetry is what gets lost in the translation – Robert Frost

This quotation is one of those handy catch-all phrases that scholars love to use to explain – and often excuse – people’s inability to capture the essence of a statement when it’s translated between languages and cultures. Examples of miscommunication between peoples are everywhere.

One of the most startling examples of the limits to cross-cultural communication occurred during US-Russian nuclear talks. Disarmament expert Geoffrey Forden writes:

‘It turns out that when the US START II treaty negotiators tried to explain to their Russian counterparts the need for a “strategic reserve” of nuclear warheads, they called it a hedge. The Russian interpreters alternately translated that as either “cheat” or “shrub”.’

You can imagine the confusion and consternation this would have caused. More than poetry was at stake in this particular translation.

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Kinder Capitalism

This week, Bill Gates made a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, calling for what he describes as a ‘kinder capitalism’. The Wall Street Journal states that his newfound humanitarianism was born of the awareness that although capitalism has served many in the developing world, it leaves the poorest of the poor behind.

Gates sees capitalism’s worst failings in the areas of technology, health care and education. Billions are invested in each of these sectors, but only a tiny fraction of that investment reaches the two billion poorest members of the population.

His prescription? “We have to find a way to make the aspects of capitalism that serve wealthier people serve poorer people as well,” says Gates. He goes on to describe how businesses should task some of their best and brightest with creating products and services targeted at the poorest of the poor.
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