Translating the internet

I don’t know what to make of this report by Reidar visser, which analyses the effect of the internet on separatist Shi’ite politics in Southern Iraq. Much of the report is devoted to translating and commenting on articles from fairly minor websites. I’m delighted that people are taking apart arabic-language Iraqi politics on the internet, and making it available to those poor fools who don’t speak Arabic (i.e. me).

But at the same time, isn’t it a waste of time? At one point, Visser reveals that one article has had only 10-30 readers. Is it worth an expert’s time to translate this stuff?

Arabic discussions about Iraq are so widespread on the internet that no human is going to be able to translate them all. If you want to understand what Iraqis are saying on the web, you’re really going to have to learn Arabic. You’ll get so much more information by skimming though lots of sites than by reading erudite deconstructions of a few articles. Case studies are inevitably misleading: they’re subject to the biases of an academic, and no one piece of writing can explain an entire discusison.

But – there are so many people, myself included, who don’t read Arabic and yet write about Iraq. In an ideal world, we’d all either learn the language or stop talking about Iraq. In my case, either is a possibility: I’m likely either to finally learn to read arabic, or to shift my focus off Iraq and onto the CIS, where I can at least read what’s going on in Russian. But in general, most people won’t know the languages of countries they’re trying to understand.

Given that, I suppose translating and analysing extracts from foreign-language sites is worthwhile. But it still feels as though Visser and others like him are flinging themselves at an impossible task.

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