The Need for Cultural Translation with Community Media

    by Jessica Mayberry
    July 26, 2010

    The TED talk of Ethan Zuckerman, the founder of the international blogging site Global Voices, provides amazing insight into the challenges of telling international stories online. It’s told in the great TED way of painting lots of pictures and using a ton of anecdotes.

    Zuckerman said it’s a big myth that the web is bringing us closer to other cultures or countries — when we’re on the web, we’re basically in our own small islands of our social networks. Most of us who are building businesses/non-profits around non-traditional media content know this, but he has some great PowerPoint slides that add a lot of meat to the arguments. Give it a look:

    Cultural DJs

    In addition to providing some very telling facts — did you know that “Madagascar” the movie is a bigger brand than Madagascar the country? — he talks about translation. And not just the challenges of literal translation from one language to another, which is something Video Volunteers faces in our work all the time, especially now when we have community video correspondents working in nearly every state of India, a country with dozens of official languages. He talks about “cultural translation.” He makes the point that we need more “DJs … skilled human curators” who can speak the language of the West and of other cultures at the same time.


    The incredible editors at Global Voices fit that bill, and so does the blog Afrigadget. Video Volunteers attempt to do this, too, in the articles that accompany the online videos made by our community correspondents in our new IndiaUnheard community news network.

    This is really interesting to me because at Video Volunteers we talk a lot about the need for “unmediated” voices — essentially, voices that are not culturally translated. This is one of the differences between community video, which to us means equipping traditionally “unheard” communities to tell their stories in their own words, and documentary film, where a professional uses his or her artistry and insight to translate community voices for outside audiences.

    At VV, we believe, in fact, that so much is lost in translation that you want to keep “cultural translation” to a minimum. And so, with our newly launched IndiaUnheard community news network, we want to bring voices out voices in their raw form. As my partner Stalin K. often says, “if I say the words ‘Masai warrior’ you get an immediate visual in your head. You don’t, in a similar fashion, hear their voices in your head.”


    We know from TV what the Masai look like. But we don’t know what they sound like, because in traditional National Geographic-type media, we just see the Masai with a narration; their whole culture, never mind their language, is translated for an international audience.

    There are real limits to the possibilities for translation. As I heard Zuckerman himself say at a Civic Media conference, it’s hard enough to find cultural translators for English to other cultures. But what about all the learning that could happen between the readers of, say, Kurdish media in New York City and Haitian media in New York City? How is that translation going to happen? I don’t know that we could ever have enough translators to solve that problem.

    Two Videos to Watch

    So how do we get people to watch — rather, to want to watch — videos like these two posted below, made by our IndiaUnheard correspondents? If the world had an ideal system for enabling the poor to represent themselves in the media, which I would say is something like one community journalist per village (or even per 20 villages), how would we interest people outside those villages to watch this content? Here are two recent videos to check out and see what you think:

    Children Carry Trash, Not Books shows how children of poor families do not benefit from the current schemes on compulsory free education. The video is produced by Pratibha Rolta, a community correspondent from the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh, who works as an activist on women’s issues.

    The second video, titled Children Denied Education, captures the plight of child labourers in Haryana’s brick kilns who are deprived of several rights, including education. The correspondent here, Satyawan, was a Sarpanch (village head) for five long years before joining IndiaUnheard, and has in-depth knowledge of corruption within the local administration.

    Besides our own website and within the communities where the producers work (where most of our work is shown) there are some forums for videos like this. I showed these two videos two weeks ago as a panelist at the IFP/UN-sponsored ENVISION 2010: Addressing Global Issues through Documentaries, an event organized by the IFP, UN Communications Department, and New York Times. This was a one day conference on education and documentary films and, happily, there was space for user-created content.

    A few years ago there probably wouldn’t have been. I was on a panel about the impact of user-generated media, along with with Mallika Dutt of Breakthrough, John Kennedy of World Without Borders and Ryan Schlieff of Witness — all good friends in the field of media and human rights. People in the world of documentary film, or in the UN sector with its huge budgets for traditional communications, were getting a taste of what’s possible when you turn the camera over to communities. This is progress towards the acceptance of these voices.

    More Global Than Ever

    With our work, I take a long term perspective. (Wanting every village in the world to have someone skilled and motivated to represent his neighbors’ concerns in the media kind of requires that!) I think that media preferences are not fixed in stone. What Americans liked on TV and in the movies in the fifties is different from what we liked in the seventies and today. Who knows where people’s tastes will be twenty years from now?

    I’m an optimist. I think we will only get more global and more curious, and more open to raw, unfiltered reality. I believe there are even studies that show that kids today who’ve grown up with mashups and social networks are much more open to gritty media that their parents wouldn’t look at.

    In the meantime, we keep telling our correspondents to tell their stories in their own words, with their own style, their own analysis — no matter how challenging it may be for outsiders to understand without translation.

    Tagged: community correspondents community journalism community media cultural translation ethan zuckerman haryana himachal pradesh indiaunheard satyawan verman translation video volunteers
    • Early, I saw an interview with Ethan Zuckerman on guardian.co where he talked about cultural translation too. I agree that it’s hard to find cultural translator for English for other countries. Cultural field is somewhat neglected.

    • I would find difficulty to quarrel with the statement of Ethan Zuckerman that the web (unfortunately) has not yet bring us closer to other cultures and countries. On the Net, we are still walled off from each other by language barriers.

      The flow of information across languages is scarce in comparison to billions of gigabytes of content created in the digital universe. Machine translation, after more than fifty years of development, has not been able to help web users to overcome the language barriers. It produces law quality output which is difficult to understand.

      However, crowdsourcing translations may be a way out to make the Internet less fragmented by language. Many companies/projects already use “the power of the crowd” to translate their content. By the way, Global Voices also uses volunteer translators in the effort to make content available to speakers of other languages.

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