Category Archives: Columns & Features

Translation Gone Bad—and Good

BY KEVIN STEINBACH

In the previous post, we discussed what exactly translation and interpreting are, and showed how today almost everyone relies on these services to some extent. This is especially true of anyone involved in business, finance, security, international relations, and any other field in which people speaking two different languages might need to meet or interact. Even if you are not a language worker yourself, your use of language services will improve if you understand what professional translators and interpreters need to do their work. The first part of this post will explore some ways to take the best advantages of any language services you do use. In the second part of the post, we’ll bring it all together by exploring a few real-world examples of language work.

Working with Translators

If you’ve engaged the services of a translator, it probably means you have a document in one language that you want to have in another. Alternatively, you might have a video for which you want subtitles, or some other text that needs to be conveyed in another language. Regardless of your exact goals, you should keep the following tips in mind. (Note: throughout these two sections I have used the term “company” for convenience. The same goes for whatever agency, group, or other body you may be associated with.)

1. Vocabulary and Language Matters

Obviously, most of the work in the target language will be handled by your professional. However, if your company already has established terms for certain proprietary expressions relating to the project, they should be provided to the translator. Product names, slogans, personal titles, or other language relating to your company may have already been established by a previous translator working on another project, and consistency should be maintained. That said, when terms are being translated for the first time, it’s usually best not to pull out a dictionary and try to make them up in the target language yourself. Leave it to the translator to coin something appropriate. (Translators working on cutting-edge medical literature, for example, sometimes find themselves inventing new terminology as part of their work.)

In the same vein, if your company favors a certain style guide or has in-house guidelines, this should be indicated to the translator. These steps will help maintain consistency of style and terminology among documents (which may be handled over the course of years and/or by many different translators).

2. Context

In many cases, the context of a document is reasonably obvious: a juicer manual is aimed at people who will use the juicer. A patent is meant to describe what is being patented. Some documents (such as some contracts) will be mainly boilerplate, and their tone will be set by their nature. Once in a while, though, you may be requesting a translation whose context is either not immediately obvious or is especially important. This is particularly true of personal correspondence: perhaps you are writing to the president of another company, or you are sending your thanks to a host. Is this the first time you’ve written to them? Or have you known them for years? Details like this should be communicated to the translator to ensure the correct tone and usage in the target language.

3. Questions

Sometimes the source text is ambiguous, unclear, or just poorly written. When possible, allow the translator to ask questions, either directly or through a third party, of the original author(s) of the text, or someone who understands the intent and meaning of the document. On a related note, you may wish to discuss with the translator how to handle cases of unclear or badly-written source text: should she translate it just as ambiguously, or clean it up based on her consultation with author?

4. Proofreading

Ideally, of course, your translator will be a consummate professional who almost never makes an error in either her understanding of the source text or her writing in the target language. But since no one’s perfect, it’s best to have work checked whenever possible. Get a proofreader to go over the final translation—in a perfect world, the proofreader would also know the source language, though this is not always possible—and make sure there are no errors in spelling, grammar, or style, and that any guidelines as to house usage and terminology have been followed. (It is also preferable that the proofreader be capable in the target language; once in a while translators find their work being checked over by people with a less than fluent command of the language, who end up introducing more errors than they fix.)

5. Reading a Translation

The above tips have been mainly for someone commissioning a translation, but many more of us will be consumers of translations. As I said in the previous post, we may wish to read a novel, use a manual to a foreign product, watch a movie in another language, or even read a holy text first written in some other tongue. Covering the full range of potential issues when using a translation would be beyond the scope of this post, but a certain mindfulness is called for when using a text that has been translated from another language. Although it’s usually reasonable to assume professional work, there’s always the chance the translator has misconstrued a source-language construction or misused a target-language one, making the target text say something different from the original. Alternatively, there may be cultural background to the original text with which the reader is unfamiliar, and such issues are often too far-reaching for a translator to address within the translated text. In this case, readers should be aware that even passages that appear linguistically clear may not “mean” what they appear to mean; ideally, readers would seek out additional information on the source culture to better understand the translated text.

Working with Interpreters

Hiring an interpreter? You’re most likely going to give a speech to a foreign audience, speak to a foreign counterpart, or participate in a conference or meeting where more than one language will be used. Whatever the specific situation, here are some ways to help things go smoothly for both you and your language worker.

1. Vocabulary Again

Your interpreter will most likely do preparatory research based on the description of the job, but as with a translator, the more materials you can provide ahead of time, the easier things will be. If you have settled in-house terminology or if you expect certain topics to come up, let the interpreter know in advance.

2. Figure Things Out Ahead of Time

If possible, talk to your interpreter ahead of the actual job. In addition to providing any useful materials you have on hand, work out the interpreting situation: what mode of interpreting will be used? If some form of consecutive interpreting is involved, how often should you pause to allow the interpreter to speak? Even more than translating, interpreting is a collaboration between two people, almost a dance, and the more factors you can work out beforehand, the fewer surprises there will be on the day.

3. Pause for the Interpreter

Again, if some form of consecutive interpreting is involved, be aware of how long you have been speaking and how complex the ideas you’ve been expressing are, so that you can pause in time to allow your interpreter to work most effectively. Although it is probably more common for people to go too long without pausing, it is also possible to go too short, breaking up thoughts or sentences so the relationship between the pieces is not clear. This is especially true for languages that have opposing sentence structures, such as English and Japanese. A Japanese might say, for example, “Kare wa kono jiken dewa yougisha to sarete inai.” A fair translation of this sentence would be “He is not being considered as a suspect in this case.” But the Subject-Object-Verb structure of Japanese means the sentence literally reads “He, in this incident, a suspect is being considered not.” You can see how an interpreter, hearing only half of such a sentence, might have trouble rendering it into English: at the halfway point, we don’t know whether “he” is under suspicion or not.

4. Interpreters Use the First Person

People often think interpreters primarily use the third person (“He says he’s glad to see you.” “She wants to take the train to Michigan”). This does happen in very casual situations or when a person is rendering one language into another but is not professionally engaged to do so (a meeting of friends, an after-work party with teams from two countries). However, in professional situations, interpreters typically speak in the first person, assuming the “voice” of the person they are interpreting for. Therefore, Mr. Tanaka may say something in Japanese, and his interpreter may then say to you, “Hello, I am Mr. Tanaka of Jagaimo Corporation. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for a long time.” An interpreter in a professional situation effaces himself or herself so that your own words and ideas can be communicated clearly and accurately to the listeners.

5. Speak to the Other Party

Following from the above, you should not speak “to” your interpreter. Instead, speak to the audience or person(s) you are addressing. The meeting, etc., is between you and them, not you and the interpreter, who will be trying to make herself invisible precisely so that you can talk to the other party unimpeded. (This goes for interpreters working into sign language as well as spoken language.)

Translation Gone Bad—and Good

At some point we’ve probably all encountered a menu at a Chinese restaurant where the awkward expressions made us giggle (or wonder just what was in those dishes!), so we’re all aware that translations can simply wind up incomprehensible. To wrap up our overview of language work, I would like to examine a few cases which are not as egregious, and which show the more subtle gradations in communication in which translators must often deal.

1. Movies

The movie X-Men: First Class (2011) includes a scene in which two characters are about to embark on a task they have been long preparing for. Character A asks Character B, “Ready for this?”, to which character B replies, “Let’s find out.” When the movie was released in Japan (where Hollywood films are routinely released in English with Japanese subtitles) the response of Character B was “Mochiron!” or “Of course!” This is not precisely a wrong translation; it is, after all, an answer to Character A’s question. But it is a more facile line than the somewhat reluctant original, the go-to quip for this kind of situation, a bit as if Character B had said “I was born ready!” It can’t be said that Japanese lacks the capacity to express Character B’s hesitation—a line such as “Yatte miru shika nai” (“Nothing to do but try it”) suggests itself. This is a case where the translation communicates something slightly, though not catastrophically, different from the original.

2. Burger Chains

When McDonald’s adopted the slogan “I’m lovin’ it” in 2003, they decided to make it part of their marketing globally. This included translating the expression into a variety of languages; in the Philippines, for example, it became “Love ko ‘to” (literally, “I love this”). In contrast, competitor Burger King chose not to translate their slogan, “Have it your way,” when they entered the Philippine market, where English is widely spoken as a second language. This is not to say one choice is better than the other (I have no statistics on how well the chains are doing in the Philippines), but they represent two alternatives in the entrance to a foreign market.

3. Coke

coke

In the mid-2000s, Coca-Cola was using the slogan “The Coke side of life,” which they chose to translate for the Japanese market. This was perhaps not as straightforward as the McDonald’s catch phrase, since it draws on the expression “the bright side of life,” which would be known to English speakers but not necessarily to a Japanese audience. The company went with Coke no kiita jinsei wo (Cokeのきいた人生を). Back-translated, this means roughly “for a life in which Coke is active” or “a life influenced by Coke” (kiku means to have an effect, as with a medicine). Perhaps one could argue that this is not a “faithful” translation, but we are not yet in the realm of localization, either. This translation is somewhere in the middle of the scale, not preserving the English vocabulary exactly, yet conveying a very similar idea.

I hope this overview has helped readers become more aware of when, how, and why they use language services, and will help them use such services more effectively in the future. Something will always be “lost” in translation, but if we’re careful and thoughtful about how we use these resources, we might just be able to find it again.

 

A note about the author: Kevin Steinbach received his BA in Japanese from Hope College, and has received high honors in translation competitions around the globe.  He has spent hundreds of hours studying linguistics and language, including Mandarin, Japanese, and Tagalog.  He currently lives with his wife in Manila, where he continues to explore translation opportunities.

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Beautiful, but not faithful: The invaluable role of translation and interpreting

BY KEVIN STEINBACH

There is an apocryphal story about a young interpreter (when I first heard it, he was Korean) who is assigned to interpret during a speech by the president of an American company. The president opens with a joke with which he is clearly pleased, but the novice interpreter cannot fathom how to render it in his native language. Looking distraught, he says to the audience, “The president has just made a joke which he thinks is quite funny, but I am new at this job and cannot possibly tell it for you. For my sake, please, laugh anyway.” The audience, of course, bursts into laughter.

This particular episode may not have happened as such, but countless similar situations certainly have. Our increasingly globalized world demands the routine use of translators and interpreters, yet many people do not fully understand what these activities entail. In this and the following article, we will explore what translating and interpreting are, why we need them, and how they can best be put to use.

What are Translation and Interpreting?

It is fairly common for non-practitioners to use the words “translator” and “interpreter” more or less interchangeably, which can cause confusion as to who does what. To begin with, let’s take a look at what each of these roles involves.

Both activities involve taking discourse in one language (the “source language”) and representing it as discourse in another language (the “target language”). In general, translation refers to doing this in writing, sometimes using a printed source text, while interpreting means transforming one oral discourse into another (such as the young man in our opening paragraph). Thus, a company that wants an instruction manual rendered into another language will hire a translator, while one that wants their CEO to be understood on an overseas visit will get an interpreter. (Many professionals handle both tasks to one extent or another.)

A note on usage: commonly, the act of a translator is referred to as “translation” (sometimes “translating”), and the act of an interpreter is referred to as “interpreting.” The parallel construction “interpretation” is not often used, probably to avoid confusion with the word meaning “an explanation” (as in “Let me give my interpretation of this passage”).

Degrees of Translation

An old saw has it that “translations are like either a wife or a mistress: faithful, but not beautiful, or beautiful, but not faithful.” Of course, this is an oversimplification, but it is true that in translation, a choice must be made about the kind of representation desired in the end product. Translation occurs along a spectrum that runs from “literal” (sometimes called “word-for-word”) on one end to “dynamic” (or “meaning-driven”) on the other. (In principle, the same choice is open to an interpreter, but interpreting by its nature tends to favor certain kinds of rendering.)

Theoretically, a “literal” translation reflects the usage and vocabulary of the original (source language) text precisely, while a “dynamic” translation takes the ideas of the source text and expresses them in a way that sounds natural in the target language. This can be a useful distinction on some level, but it can also create the impression that there is a black and white distinction between these two modes, when in fact translation is always a delicate balance between fidelity and clarity.

For example, the French word bonjour is used as a greeting, usually during the day. It literally means “good day” (bon = good, jour = day), which happens to be an accepted expression in English as well. There are times when “good day” might be a reasonable translation of bonjour, but there are others when it may sound too stilted as compared with the more common “hello.”

A more pointed case is the Japanese expression o-kage-sama de. The “literal” translation of this expression is “by [your] most honorable shadow,” but the English equivalent is “Thanks to you” (as in “Thanks to you, we were able to raise the money we needed”). In this case, the meaning of the “literal” translation is almost completely incomprehensible. And though I refer to it as “literal,” it is only approximately so, since, though kage does mean “shadow,” the honorifics o- and –sama simply don’t have precise counterparts in English. This points up one of the pitfalls of so-called “word-for-word” translation, which is that it implies that for most or even many words there exists an exact equivalent in another language, which often is simply not true.

Nonetheless, it is possible to remain more or less close to the range of vocabulary used in the source text. In addition, there are considerations such as whether a given word in the source text should always be rendered with the same word in the target language, or if the rendering should vary depending on the context. This is a particular concern in, among other situations, translating sacred texts. For example, should the Greek word sarx, which appears throughout the New Testament, be rendered in each case with its basic meaning of “the flesh”? Or should the translation change according to the rhetorical usage—“the flesh,” “the body,” “the sinful nature,” and so on?

Lying at the far “dynamic” end of the translation spectrum is paraphrase, in which the main ideas of the source text are communicated, but in which the translator may also add some embellishment or rephrase the source text in a way he believes makes it more meaningful or communicative in the target language. In the United States, a popular paraphrase translation is Eugene Peterson’s The Message Bible. Here is Genesis 1:1-2 in the New International Version, a translation which sits comfortably in the middle of the literal/dynamic scale:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

Here is the same passage in The Message:

“First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.”

We can see how details (“like a bird”) and commentary (“all you see, all you don’t see”) might be added into a paraphrase. This is different from the shaping of a non-paraphrase translation, which might require the inclusion of asides or notes in the target language to clarify, e.g., cultural facets of the original text. For example, a translator working on a Japanese novel might translate “kare wa shouji wo hiraita” as “He opened the sliding shoji door.” Neither “sliding” nor “door” are technically in the original, as these are understood within the term “shoji,” but they are added for the convenience of English-speaking readers.

There is a third practice which is similar to but distinct from translation, called localization. In localization, a product description, ad campaign, or other text is completely reconfigured to meet the expectations and needs of a foreign audience. This sometimes looks like translation, but often goes beyond even paraphrase in reimagining the text in the target language. So when Nintendo launched its Pokémon franchise in the US, the Japanese tagline “Pokémon getto da ze!” (literally, “I got a Pokémon!”) became the English “Gotta catch ’em all!” Similarly, the names of the characters, which were all puns in Japanese, were recreated as puns in English. For example, a dinosaur-like creature with a large plant bulb on its back was called Fushigidane (sounds like “mysterious seed”) in Japanese, and Bulbasaur in English.

While localization may involve translation, it is ultimately separate, and we will not deal further with it here. Still, anyone embarking on a foreign venture would do well to consider whether translation alone will suffice, or if a broader project is called for.

Kinds of Interpreting

Those who work between languages with spoken texts may do so in a variety of situations and with any of several methods. Below is a brief overview of the forms interpreting may take.

There are two broad types of interpreting, consecutive and simultaneous. In consecutive interpreting, the speaker speaks, then pauses while the interpreter interprets. The amount of speaking done at a stretch will vary; it can be as brief as one thought or sentence or as long as an entire speech. In simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter speaks at the same time as the main speaker.

Simultaneous interpreting can be further broken down based on how the simultaneous speaking is performed. At the United Nations, for example, interpreters work from a booth in which they listen to the speaker through an ear piece, and interpret into a microphone; their words are broadcast to the ear pieces of listeners in the audience. In other situations, an interpreter may stand next to the person who wishes to understand the source language and whisper the interpretation into his or her ear; this is called whispered interpreting.

The simplest form of interpreting is a sort of hybrid of interpreting and translating. In this form, the interpreter is given the text (of a speech, say) ahead of time, and has time to do an initial translation into the target language. During the event proper, the interpreter will mainly read the prepared text, still paying attention to the speaker to allow for any impromptu changes in content. In many cases, however, the content of the source-language discourse is not fixed, such as at a conference or a court trial. In these cases the interpreter will listen to the source-language speaker and immediately render his or her words into the target language (whether consecutively or simultaneously).

Furthermore, the number of languages the interpreter handles may vary. Ideally an interpreter works into just one language (often her native or “A” language); so for example, at a discussion between a Japanese CEO and his American head of US operations, there will be one interpreter rendering the CEO’s remarks into English and another rendering the American’s into Japanese. Sometimes, however, a single interpreter will have to work in both directions. (Let me be clear that I am not casting aspersions on this position; it often happens and many interpreters are perfectly capable of it. It’s simply that much more work for them!)

Translation and Interpreting in a Global Era

All this talk about the “how” of translating and interpreting might leave us asking: why? Why should we know any of this, why should non-practitioners bother to understand what these specialized roles are?

The short answer is that we all need translation and interpreting. Our world is inescapably globalized, and growing more so every day. We read novels originally written in foreign languages, watch movies made in other countries, use products that were conceived in the US and manufactured in China from parts fabricated in half a dozen other places.

That means these practices are relevant to all of us, but especially so for people involved in business, finance, global security or international relations. In any case in which you yourself do not speak or read the other language capably, you will need to rely on a translator or interpreter to help you understand a foreign source text or get your meaning across to an overseas audience.

Anything that used to be in one language and is now in another—from movies to motorcycle manuals—has been translated. We will be better users and consumers of translation and interpreting services if we understand what is involved in the process. We are less likely to make embarrassing language-based mistakes and more likely to succeed in communicating with the other party.

And taking the time to learn something about these practices makes us not just better workers but better global citizens. Any time we reach out in a genuine attempt to communicate with another person, we are showing them our kindness and love—and translators and interpreters can be invaluable partners in reaching out with understanding.

A note about the author: Kevin Steinbach received his BA in Japanese from Hope College, and has received high honors in translation competitions around the globe.  He has spent hundreds of hours studying linguistics and language, including Mandarin, Japanese, and Tagalog.  He currently lives with his wife in Manila, where he continues to explore translation opportunities.

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Happy Thanksgiving from The Korbel Report

As many of our readers from the United States prepare to tuck into a turkey dinner with family and friends, the editors of The Korbel Report would like to express our immense thanks to our wonderful staff and readers. The Korbel Report began as a series of e-mails among friends, wondering what we could do to continue pursuing the type of in-depth research we did while students at the Korbel School of International Studies. When we created the blog, we assumed that a handful of our colleagues (and maybe our mothers) would read what we wrote here. Since we launched The Korbel Report in July 2013, we’ve shared over 65 posts, have over 300 followers on our Facebook page, and have readers from over 100 different countries. We couldn’t have done that without the support of our dedicated readers, and for that, we thank you.

The second group we must thank is our excellent staff of writers and contributors. Without you, The Korbel Report wouldn’t have the informative, timely content that has garnered a faithful group of readers. We have learned so much from your posts, and look forward to your future contributions. Often it is the best reading we do all week. It is simultaneously intimidating, humbling, and reassuring to call people who possess this dangerous combination of passion and intelligence our colleagues.

Lastly, we must give thanks to the institution that provided the foundation for this blog. Without an environment to foster our skills and develop into practical optimists, none of this could exist. And for all the foreign policy-obssessed, remember that if somebody mentions turkey or curds this Thanksgiving, they’re likely referencing foods.

Warmly,

Derek, Morgan, and Xian

TKR’s Holiday Guide to Talking International Politics

If you stuff your mouth full of food at all times, you won’t have to talk to anyone!

The upcoming holiday season means family time, and thus plenty of opportunities for giant fights to break out around the dinner table.  Or perhaps your family is more civilized than ours (and by some happy coincidence, share the same opinion on everything) and can discuss the world’s on-going events without someone leaving the dinner table and storming out the door.  Or maybe you’re sharing the holidays this year with your spouse/best friend/partner/college roommate’s family and they are brave enough to discuss global politics.

In the event that you’re not quite up to speed on why the NSA is pissing off the world, the U.S.’ current relationship with Iran, what’s going on in Syria, or other goings on in the international community, The Korbel Report is here to help you successfully navigate your way through the holidays.

 To start, let’s determine if you need this article. You don’t need this article if:

  • Your Dad can name more than 5 heads of state;
  • Your uncles can explain the intricacies if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict accurately;
  • Your grandma understands that less than 1% of the U.S. budget is allocated to foreign assistance;
  • Your sister dismantled chemical weapons factories in Syria; or
  • Those at the table who have studied abroad outnumber those who haven’t.

You do need this article if:

  • Your aunts think Africa is a country, not a continent;
  • Your cousins mistook Chechnya for the Czech Republic;
  • Anyone at the table thinks that the Fukushima disaster had anything to do with Pearl Harbor;
  • You have a cousin who just finished his/her first semester of college and took one political science class and is suddenly an expert on Israel and Palestine;
  • Your brother in law thinks Benghazi is still worth impeaching Obama; or
  • You’ve fallen down a job-specific rabbit hole, and aren’t sure what’s going on in all parts of the world.

We’ve broken down some of the most pressing, headline-catching international stories that might come up around the holiday punch bowl in the hopes that you can drop some knowledge on your relatives, impress your in-laws, or at minimum, give you a little ammo against the ill-informed. 

SYRIA
What’s going on there:
It hasn’t grabbed U.S. headlines since President Obama’s threat to intervene, but the conflict in Syria continues to rage on.  On August 21, Government forces in Syria used the nerve agent sarin to attack the town of Ghouta near Damascus.  A UN team of chemical weapons investigators later confirmed the attack.  In the wake of the chemical weapons attack, President Obama warned Syrian President Asad that it would face American military intervention if there were signs that its chemical weapons arsenal was used.  After President Obama’s threat, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Syria to allow weapons inspectors into the country and take control of their stockpile, resulting in a deal in Geneva in September.  Since then, Syria has handed over control of their chemical weapons (prompting the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to go to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), and the Syrian Army and its allies have launched offensives near Damascus and Aleppo.  As winter approaches the nearly 2.2 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, food, water, shelter, medicine are still scarce, coupled with freezing temperatures.  Many (especially children, who comprise of half of Syrian refugees) lack food, fuel, shoes, blankets, for decent shelters that are necessary to live in what is expected to be one of the harshest winters in years.  According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, approximately $4.4 billion is needed to support refugees for the upcoming winter, and only half of that amount has been raised.  Finally, in the most recent news regarding Syria, a report was released this weekend that concluded that over 11,000 children in Syria have been killed during the conflict, and are being targeted intentionally, by snipers, as well as being summarily executed and tortured.  

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“Mark my words, the Syrians will have nuclear weapons next.”
“Those people are barbarians.  We should just stay out, because they just all want to kill each other.”
“You know who’s the real winner in all of this?  RUSSIA.”
“Why don’t we just bomb them?”

How to respond:
Option A) You can get into a debate over intervention vs. non-intervention, even though the possibility of military intervention by the U.S. seems non-existent at this point in time.  Of course, this could lead to a real dark place in which you and your relatives get into a deep discussion about previous U.S. military and humanitarian operations (Somalia, Vietnam, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo), which then in turn, may lead to a discussion about American exceptionalism and the U.S.’ place in the world.  However, this could also lead to accusations about one’s level of patriotism and result in someone leaving the table.  Proceed with caution.
Option B)  Casually mention with a hint of snark that you play Call of Duty and you think you can figure out how to end the conflict based off of your video game experiences.
Option C) Make an impassioned plea to your family to donate to organizations like Oxfam, the Red Cross, the UNHCR, and other credible organizations to help Syrian refugees this winter.

THE NSA & EDWARD SNOWDEN
What’s up with that?
In early June the world found out something shocking: all this information we are transmitting to each other via email, phone, Skype, and snapchat (ok, maybe not snapchat…that’s secure) is being recorded—and guess what? The government wants to look at it! And they do look at it. Edward Snowden, a private contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton worked for the National Security Agency, broke ranks and leaked massive amounts of information to the London newspaper, The Guardian, about the NSA and the extent of its spying on everyone from US citizens to world leaders, all in the name of keeping ‘Murica secure. Snowden reveals his identity days after the first leaks, and then pisses off his girlfriend by running away to Moscow from Hong Kong, where he had gone to escape U.S. law enforcement. In a turn of events that anyone who has had to travel via Miami International can empathize with, he then realizes the transit area of Moscow area is far more punishing than any U.S. jail and starts to seek asylum elsewhere.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“Snowden is a hero/Benedict Arnold.”
“I’m with France/Germany/Britain/Canada on this one. Spying on your own people is just wrong!”
“This whole thing is just made up. There’s no way the wizard in the computer box could do all that. I can’t even set up my own email.”
“What’s that? Well, of course it snowed in Russia.”
“I don’t want Obama listening to my conversations with grandpa!”
“Why don’t we just bomb him?”

How to respond:
Option A) Point out that as Snowden remains in Russia with temporary asylum, his revelations have sparked a much needed debate about how we balance information privacy against national security in an age where all of us so willingly hand over the most intimate details about our lives via the Internet. Whether you consider Snowden a patriot, a dissident, a traitor or a vain-glorious celebrity-seeker, what is undeniable is that his actions have sparked a contentious but necessary discussion about what governments do in the name of our own protection, about the reach of corporations, and the relationship between the two.
Option B) Go more direct, and suggest that it is utterly contrary to any notion of democracy for a government that we elect to steal our personal information without our consent, whether in the name of our own good, or not. Just ask me first, okay?
Option C) Deflect: Because at the end of the day, why was Auntie Sheila Googling “octopus porn”?
Option D) Write an exasperated Facebook status update about how backward “the other side” of your family is. When your cousin reads it out over dessert, self-righteously accuse him/her of spying on you NSA-style, once you’ve had a few more seasonal libations.

THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
What’s going on with that:
This Labor Day, Business Insider gave a great overview of the global marketplace, touching on a few key themes. The United States has experienced better than expected growth. The EU is making a steady comeback, putting the Euro back on stable footing. Amid concerns that the Chinese government was going to crash–hard–the Chinese economy is still growing at a pretty steady rate. But even amid positive growth, many are still concerned about the number of jobs at home, and how an increasingly globalized world impacts the national economy.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“Why don’t we just sell more bombs? That’d make up some room in the budget!”
“This is all Obama’s/Bush’s/Wall Street’s/ high taxes’/China’s/Europe’s/the foreign aid budget’s/the military budget’s/etc. fault.”They took our jobs!

How to respond:
Option A) Ugh, getting into the technicalities of the global economy and its impact at the local level (say, on your poor uncle who just got laid off) is truly challenging. Heck, most economists don’t even agree on exactly what’s going on in the economy most of the time! If you’re reading this because most members of your family don’t know the difference between a fixed and floating exchange rate, this might be a good time to give ’em one of these:

Option B) The economy, by-and-large is getting better in the United States, the EU, and China. The real concern is that many developing economies (Brazil, India, etc.) that were on the rise before the 2008 recession were hit hard, and haven’t recovered well. This not only hurts those countries and the people in them, but it weakens the overall global economy.

U.S. – IRAN RELATIONSHIP
What’s going on there:
The US and Iran have been at odds with one another for over three decades, and many believe now is the time to act. Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani assumed office in August and many believe a rapprochement is now possible. Serious talks have been taking place between Iran and the P5+1 countries (comprised of the US, Russia, China, the UK, France, plus Germany) on reaching a compromise on Iran’s nuclear program. Major improvements were made during the Geneva talks at the beginning of November, but a deal was not formally made due to hesitations by France (not by Iran or the US). While President Obama has stated many times that military action is not off the table, many see a diplomatic resolution as the only viable solution. Given the American public’s wariness of another war in the Middle East, Iran’s threats of an all-out regional war and the blockage of the Strait of Hormuz if Israel or the US were to strike, and the innumerable logistical issues with striking a country as vast as Iran, military action would be both naive and dangerous. As for Prime Minister Netanyahu, over twenty years ago, he solemnly swore that if action were not taken, Iran would have nuclear weapons within five years. And this same rhetoric has been used nearly every year since. It is becoming very clear that Israel’s uncompromising stance is becoming more and more unpopular as both Iran and the US seek common ground.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“Israel is going to attack Iran if the US doesn’t take a more firm stance. They seem really serious this time.” (Try not to spit mashed potatoes on great-aunt Janet when you try to stifle your scoff after hearing this one.)
“Why don’t we just bomb them?”
anigif_enhanced-buzz-14447-1385051049-19

How to respond:
Option A) Discuss how great it is that last weekend, the U.S., Iran, and 5 other non-important world powers signed an agreement that would temporarily halt Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions on the country.  Because, hey, global compromises on nuclear programs are something to be thankful for!
Option B) Sit back and roll your eyes while your family calls Obama weak and powerless while discussing how much this hurts Israel.
Option C) Mention to your family you can look up on the internet how to build a nuclear weapon.  However, proceed with caution on this one, since the NSA is probably watching.

CHINA
What’s going on there:
China is at a crucial point in its planned development. The model that has caused its economy to grow at stupendous rates for the last couple of decades appears to be starting to falter, and the Communist Party is currently deliberating on which reforms to introduce in order to increase the sustainability of its growth and eventually overtake the US as the world’s leading economy, which has been a goal since the Mao era. The Chinese military is also rapidly modernizing and expanding its power projection capabilities, particularly in the South China Sea and Yellow Sea. This past weekend, China demarcated an “air-defense identification zone” over an area in the East China Sea, which covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.” Japan has protested this escalation in setting up such an airspace.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“The Chinese are going to try to compete with us militarily! I’m telling you, it’s going to be another Cold War if we’re lucky or another hot war if we’re not.”
“We owe so much money to the Chinese that it’s inevitable that at some point they’re going to come calling, looking to repossess – Sarah Palin said so.”
“Just look at what Communism does: hundreds of millions of people suffering from human rights abuses, toxic air and water, and a completely corrupt government that values money over human life.”
“We should all just start speaking Chinese now.” “We should stop them now, when they’re still weak.”
“You know, we have the Chinese to thank for Pacific Rim’s making enough money to warrant a sequel. I say, let them keep developing.”

How to respond:
Option A) Explain that China has mostly been an aggravation to its neighbors, and its economic ties to the US make future conflict between the two very unlikely. In discussing US-China relations, it is important to note that diplomacy is not a zero sum game, and in the future, there will be more that the US and China can accomplish together, rather than apart. For your McCarthy family members, it can be appeasing to note that the US still remains in a very integral and relevant role in the international community. Our soft power – encompassing our values, culture, and convening abilities – continues to outpace China. The US capacity for foreign aid is still the largest in the world, and it continues to be the largest donor to international, multilateral efforts.
Option B) Stare are your family as they eat Chinese food and complain about immigrants and just. say. nothing. 
Option C) Pick this to be the perfect moment to announce that you’ve recently acquired a Chinese girlfriend/boyfriend. If you want, say that things are getting really serious, so your parents should get ready to not only accept your new partner, but potentially half-Asian grandbabies!

THE UNITED NATIONS’ RELEVANCE
What’s going on:
Despite a recent bi-partiasan Gallup poll demonstrating that most Americans have a positive view of the UN, it’s certainly not uncommon to hear people screaming about how the UN is undermining U.S. sovereignty.  In 2012, Texas voters and voter fraud groups criticized the deployment of UN-backed election monitors for the 2012 Presidential Election.  There are a million and a half examples of how citizens, Members of Congress, and conspiracy theorists think the UN is destroying America and the rest of the world, but we don’t have time to get into all of them.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“Why don’t they just use bombs?”
“The UN is destroying America!  All that good for nothing organization does is support terrorists trying to destroy this country/take our money/undermine our ability to do what we want!”

How to respond:
Option A) Acknowledge that yes, we all know the UN has a less than perfect record (ok, a downright awful record) when it comes to peacekeeping, addressing climate change, Syria, and a whole host of other issues.  However, the UN isn’t a crazy, independent organization run by aliens, it’s run by Member States (plot twist: The UN is the U.S. brain-child, created after the failure of the League of Nations), and if the world wanted the UN to work, it would.  If Members wanted to address climate change, they would.  If they wanted peacekeeping operations to work, they would.  You’ll recall the UN said no to George W. Bush when he wanted to invade Iraq; it didn’t seem to stop him when the UN said no.
Option B) Ignore the comment and pour more wine.

CUTTING U.S. FOREIGN AID TO FIX THE BUDGET
What’s going on with this:
American opinion towards foreign assistance has been polled since 1995. And the result? Americans have consistently overestimated the percentage of federal funding allocated to international aid. The overall median estimate is that the government spends 20% of its budget on assistance. Some more recent polls, perhaps reflecting our engagements in the Middle East, show that figure rising to 25%.

The same individuals were also asked to state what they believe a more appropriate level of funding is. Their response? 10% of our budget, which is 10 times greater than actual spending. Secretary Kerry would leap for joy if his funding could reach the levels that Americans believe to be appropriate (and for the sake of job security, we’d love it too). Though public estimates grow in accuracy with education level, those who have completed a college education or higher still estimate spending to be around 15%. It is extraordinary that these levels of overestimation are so persistent, though perhaps it is because there are no strong domestic constituencies calling for their Congressmen to send money abroad. But in this increasingly globalized world, what happens elsewhere impacts the factories and farmlands of America. And the Department of State and USAID contribute to the health and security of individual Americans, and their local economies, all while having less staff than all the members of military bands combined. So this holiday season, do your part to educate your loved ones, and spread some foreign policy cheer for the growth of American soft power abroad.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“These morons in Washington, all they do is spend, spend, spend!  We’ve got $17 trillion in debt, and we’re still giving money to countries that hate us?  I know how to solve the debt crisis – just stop giving terrorists like Pakistan money!”

How to respond:
This one is rather simple.  Politely point out that, give or take, 1% of the total U.S. budget is spent on Official Development Assistance (ODA), and wouldn’t have much of an effect on the U.S. budget.  If you’re feeling bold, you can always point out that in 2011, the U.S. spent 20% of its federal budget on the military and steer the conversation towards reducing military spending (which is currently happening).  However, if you’ve got a few Hawks in your family, this could be problematic.

Also, on a related note, please feel free to spread this graph, which shows that Obama has been keeping his pursestrings tighter than any of his recent predecessors, including both Bushes and Reagan.

DOMESTIC POLITICS

Ron-Swanson-Re-Think-That-Move-Son-Parks-and-Recreation

On the whole, Americans know more about domestic affairs than foreign affairs (or they at least think they do). Most people are more likely to care or know about the things that are impacting themselves and their family: education, the economy—things like that. It’s much more personal than talking about what’s going on “over there.” There’s a lot that could come up here, but regardless of the partisan stripes found at your family’s table, misinformation is bound to rear its head.

What could potentially come up:
Immigration reform, the recent government shutdown, the debt ceiling, filibuster reform, the Tea Party, the American Care Act (ACA) aka “Obamacare,” the miserable ACA website rollout, new Common Core curriculum, weird conspiracy theories involving the Kenyan government, Ted Cruz, America is “morally corrupt” (please, someone, tell me what that even means!), Sarah Palin, gun control, abortion, the JFK assassination, Area 51…the list is almost endless.

How to respond:

Option A) Don’t walk—RUN. Remember that part where these issues are really personal to all the people sitting at your table? Remember how no one can even agree on how to roast the turkey? Yeah. Unless you have one of those families who miraculously agrees on all political issues, or who can—perhaps more miraculously—calmly and rationally discuss their differences, stay far, far away from discussing things like healthcare, the Government Shutdown, abortion, gun control, or comparisons of Obama or Ted Cruz to Hitler.  It will only end in head-banging frustration as one or more of your relatives angrily flips over a table full of poultry and stuffing.
Option B) Go for it. Either you’re from one of those miracle families, you’re very brave and on a “but I can teach them” kick, or you’ve got some metaphorical kerosene and match ready to burn up those familial bridges. We’ll leave it up to you to represent the point of view you find most pertinent on the issues of the day. Just try to remember that you’re probably going to have to see all of these people again.
Option C) Enjoy yourself, and devil’s advocate the heck out of everyone. “Troll” your family, as the kids say. If you make everyone’s politics into a big laugh fest, maybe you’ll steer the conversation back to something more tame and make it through dessert with everyone still on good terms.

You are now ready for a battle royale with your family.  We hope that we were able to help prepare you for your upcoming holiday obligations.  Eat, drink, passionately argue, and be merry!

Taylor Gibson worked as lead author on this post, with input from several TKR staff: Alexander Bowe, Morgan Day, Maryam Kar, Alison Lowe, and Xian Zhang, with input from guest writer Michael Briggs.

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The Korbel Report’s Weekly Link Roundup

Happy Monday! The staff of The Korbel Report spends its fair share of time on the internet staying up-to-date on a wide range of international news and trends. Here’s a list of the articles, blog posts, and resources we found interesting, enlightening, or infuriating from November 19-25:

  • “Chinese Doctors Given Kung Fu Training to Block Patient Attacks” by Lu Chen at Epoch Times
    Following Alexander Bowe’s article on the troubles facing the Chinese healthcare system, this article covers Shanghai hospitals’ solution to the patient-on-doctor violence seen throughout China–kung fu training.
  • “Erik Prince: Blackwater Founder on the ‘Business of War'” by Kai Ryssdal at Marketplace
    A fascinating interview with the founder of private security corporation Blackwater, now known as ACADEMI, as he releases a new .
  • “Gerda Taro: Inventing Robert Capa by Jane Rogoyska — Review” by Sean O’Hagan at The Guardian
    Gerda Taro was the first female photojournalist to die in battle. This review of the new biography by Jane Rogovska give insight into her life, with a specific emphasis on her professional and romantic relationship with Robert Capa.
  • “Lenku Now Orders All Refugee Camps Closed” by Zadock Angira at Daily Nation
    “In a tripartite agreement signed between the governments of Kenya and Somalia and the UN refugee agencies two weeks ago, it was agreed that the return of the refugees would be on a voluntary basis.” 
    Now the Kenyan government appears to be changing its tune on how to deal with the estimated 500,000 Somali refugees currently in Kenyan refugee camps, and doesn’t take into account that many of the refugees in those camps are not Somali.
  • “Nuclear Accord with Iran Opens Diplomatic Doors in the Mideast” by Mark Landler at The New York Times
    “…the mere fact that after 34 years of estrangement, the United States and Iran have signed a diplomatic accord — even if it is a tactical, transitory one — opens the door to a range of geopolitical possibilities available to no American leader since Jimmy Carter.”

Did we miss your favorite link from this week?  Let us know in the comments, on our Facebook page, or Twitter @korbelreport

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The Korbel Report’s Weekly Link Roundup

Happy Monday! The staff of The Korbel Report spends its fair share of time on the internet staying up-to-date on a wide range of international news and trends. Here’s a list of the articles, blog posts, and resources we found interesting, enlightening, or infuriating from last week:

Did we miss your favorite link from this week?  Let us know in the comments, on our Facebook page, or Twitter @korbelreport

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Postcard: Wilson Center

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Greetings from the Director’s Office, here in the Wilson Center! Located in the same building as USAID and snuggled next to the Dept of Commerce, IRS, EPA, and the White House, the WC is a bipartisan research and policy center that is also the official living memorial for our 28th president. The Wilson Center provides a strictly nonpartisan space for the worlds of policy-making and scholarship to interact.  By hosting experts and scholars from around the world, releasing critical reports, and hosting events, the Center convenes policy-makers into a dialogue about the challenges facing the US and the world today. My impression so far is of a collegial environment, where colleagues interact in a very egalitarian and genial way. The institutes and programs are run hyper-efficiently, with little bureaucracy in sight.

Our boss, Jane Harman, has been serving in her current role since 2011, and is the Center’s first female Director, President and CEO. As a former Congresswoman, she served on all major security committees, and is recognized as a national expert on the nexus of security and public policy. She has received the Defense Department Medal for Distinguished Service, the CIA Seal Medal, the CIA Director’s Award, and the National Intelligence Distinguished Public Service Medal. Nowadays, in addition to running the Center, she serves on the policy boards for the Dept of State, Defense, Homeland Security, Director of National Intelligence and the CIA. As queen of networking, she maintains close contacts with people as diverse as Secretary Hagel to Wolf Blitzer to ambassadors to supreme court justices. She appears often on CNN and Fox News, and travels regularly to attend events both domestically and internationally. The energy and passion she demonstrates in her work is incredible.

As her interns, our main role is to stay on top of news and current research. For example, we recently received the Presidents of Somalia and Burkina Faso. When these events were upcoming, we kept busy monitoring and synthesizing information from the relevant regions, and processed it into internal memos for her situational awareness and public talking points. I guess if you boil it down, our role is to make sure she always looks good. It’s been such an engaging experience, as I’ve gained more institutional knowledge into areas such as cybersecurity, the NSA, and the ME/NA region. So much of foreign policy is simply staying on top of the news and commentary surrounding critical issues. In between large tasks, my fellow intern and I keep our eyes out for free food from Wilson Center events, and are always busy with random assignments. I’ve called an Italian hotel long-distance. We took a call from Secretary Kerry’s office. For high-level visits, I went to IKEA to pick up a new tea cart, which I’ve never been in the market for. When picking up a delegation of Egyptian politicians from their hotel, I memorized how to say “Good morning” in Arabic, and loved that the men could walk arm in arm.

Every morning, I walk past President Wilson’s bronze cast in our lobby, and always appreciate the impact he had on US foreign policy. I’ll leave you with some of his words, for all you practioners of international affairs and rights and security:

You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.

Now if only Congress could get their act together, we can finally move forward in that errand together.

Be well,
Xian Zhang

This post reflects the author’s opinion only, not the official views of the Wilson Center. All photos are credited to the Wilson Center. 

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The Korbel Report’s Weekly Link Roundup

Happy Monday! The staff of The Korbel Report spends its fair share of time on the internet staying up-to-date on a wide-range of international news and trends. Here’s a list of the articles, blog posts, and resources we found interesting, enlightening, or infuriating over the past week:

Did we miss your favorite link from this week?  Let us know in the comments, on our Facebook page, or Twitter @korbelreport.

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The Korbel Report’s Weekly Link Roundup

The staff of The Korbel Report spends its fair share of time on the internet staying up-to-date on a wide-range of international news and trends.  Here’s a list of the articles, blog posts, and resources we found interesting, enlightening, or infuriating this week:

Did we miss your favorite link from this week?  Let us know in the comments, on our Facebook page, or Twitter @korbelreport.

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The Question of the Day

Win McNamee/Getty Images

General Martin Dempsey, Secretary John Kerry and Secretary Chuck Hagel testify in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

XIAN ZHANG

As a complicated issue of how to uphold an international chemical weapons convention, without becoming entrenched in a foreign country’s civil war, Syria is a fine balance between doing too little and doing too much. Toss in broad uncertainty towards the parameters of a limited kinetic mission, and it is unsurprising that it has managed to unite bipartisan support, both for and against US intervention.

Opponents of the resolution question whether US strategic interests are truly at risk, what the limited military response would accomplish, and why more states have not pledged their participation when this is not only President Barack Obama’s red line, but “the world’s red line, humanity’s red line,” according to Secretary of State John Kerry. They also question the timing, and what precedent this sets for American intervention in the future. Some Congressional members are skeptical of whether either side is worth supporting, perceiving a dictatorial regime on one hand, and rising radicalism among the rebel groups on the other.

Sec. Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel responded that the focus is not upon choosing a side, but upon what the US should do in direct response to the breaking of an international agreement. Their main strategic goal for this limited military strike is to detract from President Assad’s ability to utilize chemical weapons in the future. It is clear the Obama administration would like to avoid involvement in a civil war that is in desperate need of a political solution. Sec. Kerry and Hagel also repeatedly asserted that it is in our best interests to enforce an international standard that protects American soldiers and allies in the region. Iran and North Korea were evoked, as cheerleaders of US inaction. Sec. Kerry goes on to assure representatives that, based upon current intelligence, he is 100% confident President Bashar al-Assad will continue to utilize these weapons routinely, if the US remains idle.

The global response has been lukewarm. The UK voted down military action, Russia continues to question who utilized the weapons in the first place, and Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq have petitioned for greater international action against President Assad. As neighbors of Syria, they hope to avoid an increased volume of refugees and are one “stiff breeze” away from future chemical attacks. Members of the Arab League have pledged “significant” funding for US action, with France, Canada, and Australia pledging public support as well. As heads of state convene upon St. Petersburg, the intervention issue is sure to overshadow economic discussions at the launch of the G-20 summit today.

So, what do you think? It seems the flight of a few cruise missiles is nearly inevitable, but do you believe it should happen? Is this an issue of the US being led by emotion – having to prove its credibility, or are we discussing the larger issue of reinforcing international conventions? Unpredictability and risk abound, but there is one thing we do know for certain: the US will be criticized regardless of what it decides, so will we be paralyzed by the no-win scenario or will we show a higher caliber in the American decision-making process?

It is also important to note, in such a simplified poll, that two people who have the same answer may have wildly divergent reasons for those responses. As noted above, Syria’s ongoing civil conflict remains a complex issue with many moving parts, and strong regional, international, short- and long-term ramifications, so it is not surprising that individual American responses to our upcoming actions in the country will be equally mosaic.

To see how your responses compare to a national survey, here is what the Pew Research Center found among American adults between August 29th – September 1st. 

For live updates on this dynamic issue, the New York Times maintains highlights and breaking news on its dashboard, “Crisis in Syria.”

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