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.

The continuing confrontation between the government of Vanuatu and business interests over recent amendments to the Employment Act is being exacerbated by exactly such a syndrome. Either through unwillingness or inability to bridge the gap between cultures, needs and concerns, people on both sides of the issue now find themselves staring each other down.

The fuse has been lit on an issue that could have explosive impact on ni-Vanuatu and expat alike, but nobody seems to be able to step forward and quench it.

The majority of business owners recognise the need for improved economic conditions, in the abstract at least. But ask them about the details and one quickly encounters significant intransigence. In one particularly spirited discussion I was reminded that much of Vanuatu’s cash economy was supplemented by informal transactions at the family and village level. That’s true, but does nothing to diminish the fact that Vanuatu’s minimum wage is too small to live on.

Recent studies have shown that many village livelihoods are significantly supplemented by transfers of cash from family members in town. Food from the garden no longer comes free for much of our workforce.

I remain convinced that Minister Crowby introduced these recent amendments with the best of intentions. There might be something to the intimations that there’s political hay being made, but I see nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Helping one’s constituents is the very essence of a politician’s role.

It’s also likely that the details of the legislative changes were inspired by a mistaken perception of just how much of a burden local businesses can realistically bear. That too is understandable. One needs only walk the streets of Nambatri to see the stark contrast between walled expat compounds on one side of the road and corrugated tin shacks on the other. Any observer could be forgiven for believing that the distribution of wealth in Vanuatu is decidedly uneven.

But there’s a vast distance between understanding the fact of these economic disparities and understanding the mechanisms that bring them about.

Vanuatu society’s most salient feature is the collective refusal to allow any individual to raise himself so far above the others as to be out of reach. There are no kings here. Imagine how it feels, then, to walk several kilometres to work every morning, breathing the dust of countless Hilux trucks roaring past at speed.

Ask the driver about this, and they’ll reply with the central tenet of capitalist culture: If you work hard, some day you can be the one in the Hilux.

That’s true enough. But even at twice the minimum wage, that truck will be forever out of reach.

In times past, village chiefs used to carefully arbitrate the use of land and resources in order to make sure that nobody went without and nobody – himself included – got too much. Their carefully cultivated humility is a direct response to the sharp-eyed jealousy that drives island egalitarianism.

As far as I can tell, Minister Crowby is playing the role of chief. He’s spotted an inequity and decided to correct it by adjusting the proportions to be distributed to employer and employee alike. The numbers, of course, are wrong. But only when viewed through the capitalist lens.

Of course, that’s the only lens we have when dealing in a market economy. A supplier in Australia isn’t going to drop its prices just because we want to get a higher mark-up without raising our own rate, no matter how good our intentions are. They might sympathise with our plight, but their sympathy stops at the cash register.

Whether we like it or not, we live in a capitalist system, and that system cannot bear the onerous burden placed on it by these new amendments. Whatever his intentions, Minister Crowby must accept this indisputable truth.

We need to find common ground. We need to find a way to bring the market into the nasara. We need to know our place, too. Capitalism is a compelling force, but it’s not stronger than kastom here in Vanuatu. We need to recognise and validate the chief’s role, to recognise his imperatives as well as our own.

That’s not an easy job, but it’s got to start now, before these conflicting cultures clash.