Lost in Translation

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The Internet is a worldwide meeting ground where vast amounts of information are transferred and stored. However, to make sense of it all, information must past through our filters. Cultural, social, linguistic, and even political considerations skew the ways we view information and process what we see. National history and culture form a narrative that is as effective a barrier to comprehension as language. As the Internet allows for more cultural transference, the opportunities for detrimental misinterpretations rise which complicate the chances for mutual understanding between cultures. The matter is exacerbated by the strength of American popular culture that retains significant power around the world, creating an often false sense of universalism.

In preparation for the release of Thor 2: The Dark World in China, a movie theater in Shanghai had a large poster printed with an image found on the Internet. The image the hapless theater chose was not an official image but a fan creation of Thor in an embrace with Loki, much to the amusement of expatriates and a large segment of the Internet community once a photo of the poster went viral. At the core of the issue was the unfamiliarity of the theater operators and employees with the Thor franchise, an inability to filter out a fan image from an official image prevented them from understanding the significance of what the Thor x Loki image meant. The Norse mythology that forms the core of the films is not well known even in the United States: the Marvel character himself was the domain of a small percentage of the American population until only relatively recently and the phenomena of slash fiction remains a niche within overall fandom. A noticeable amount of fan-made creations abound on the Internet, some of it extremely professional in quality and to someone tasked to simply finding an image based on a few bits of information, the mistake is understandable. A second consideration is the nature of the Internet in China itself, where a rampant culture of appropriation gave the theater operators license to take an image from the Internet without consultation, compensation or attribution. The idea of using unlicensed imagery in a business setting is more problematic in the United States or Japan due to established structures of copyright law that are only developing in China. Without the cultural and societal filters to distinguish an official image from a fan construction of a foreign cultural import, the theater made an honest (although admittedly hilarious) error.

The idea of using unlicensed imagery in a business setting is more problematic in the United States or Japan due to established structures of copyright law that are only developing in China.

The Thor 2 case is not an isolated incident. In 2002, the Beijing Daily News reported as fact a story from the satirical website The Onion stating that Congress was threatening to leave Washington unless a larger capitol was built–an obvious parody of the frequent demands of major sports teams. Obvious, that is, to an American observer with the grounding and the filters to understand all the signs pointing to parody. The Beijing Daily News held on to the veracity of the story for several days until finally pinning the blame on The Onion for releasing incorrect information. In 2012 The People’s Daily, a leading Chinese paper and the mouthpiece of the central government, reported on another article from The Onion that ordained Kim Jong Un[1] as the newspaper’s sexist man alive. To add to their coverage of the story, People’s Daily included 55 photos of the North Korean leader. The article was quickly removed after it, too, spread online to the amusement of many Internet users. As with Thor 2, American cultural artifacts are often misidentified by Chinese media. A picture of the Battlestar Galactica was used in an Internet piece on future aircraft carrier design and the Spartan armor from the highly popular Halo franchise was featured in a Central Chinese Television program on American experimental military technology, complete with authoritative commentary from a People’s Liberation Army officer noting (correctly, within the fictional storyline of Halo) that Spartan armor was probably meant for elite troops and not a mass production model. In a more unsettling case, an article run by the Chinese news agency Xinhua purporting to show a Western style execution used images from an adult fetish site instead.

The reverse is also true as Western media and audiences misconstrue news and stories coming from Asia. Major media outlets reported on a 2012 North Korean news release on the discovery of the lair of a mythical Kirin ridden by the founder of one of the ancient Korean states. A Kirin is generally unknown in Western myth and legend, aside from perhaps aficionados of Japanese beer, so the more Western and more familiar term “unicorn” was used. However, the connection to a unicorn skewed the story, as the cultural filters involving unicorns immediately provoked disbelief and amusement from Western audiences. The likeliest reason for the claim was to bolster Pyongyang’s claim as the location of the capital of one of Korea’s ancient kingdoms and through that connection strengthening the legitimacy of Kim Jong Un’s rule.1 In North Korea, as in Japan and China, legendary emperors and dynasties are part of the cultural narrative and form a vital element of national identity. Like Thor 2, the narrative of the Kirin’s lair was written for an audience who would be culturally familiar with the underpinnings of the story, if not the exact details. The claim was extraordinarily baffling to Western audiences who were without the ability to process and filter the information as it was intended. Do the people of North Korea believe in unicorns, or do they believe in respecting a complex national mythology that helps maintain the authority of the ruling regime? For a North Korean citizen to scoff at the official line, no matter how absurd, is a matter of mortal peril. The distinction is lost in a cascade of ridicule and disbelief as photoshopped images of Kim Jong Un on a unicorn made the rounds.1

Do the people of North Korea believe in unicorns, or do they believe in respecting a complex national mythology that helps maintain the authority of the ruling regime?

Even when information is at our disposal, it does not always translate to understanding. Perhaps the best illustration in the United States is the popularity of Chinese characters in body art. With the accessibly of services like Google Translate, anyone can feed in a few phrases and be rewarded with the apparent equivalent in Chinese characters–which can lead to some incredibly unfortunate choices in tattoos. Thinking that language, like information, can be directly processed the same way from culture to culture is stirringly universalist but all too often misguided. Information from other cultures is now a daily element of online life, but all too often Internet users lack the ability to process and filter the information correctly.

What is the result of this inability to filter information? In an increasingly globalized world, instead of information helping forge better understanding and bridge the gap between nations, all too often misunderstandings widen the divide. The primacy of Western culture dilutes the fact that some matters are indeed universal and some remain connected to a sense of place and being that is difficult to express without a significant grounding in a nation’s culture. To make a culturally based reference, like Fox Mulder, we want to believe that commonality is more of the human condition than difference. When the facts do not fit the paradigm, it leads to scorn. The Thor 2 case paints China as a nation unable to comprehend the basics of a simple movie. North Korea’s “unicorn” contributes to an impression of childish state that believes in fantasy. Poor impressions emerge among Internet users, who then use that as a foundation for judging future events. It is not just a problem for individuals: governments play a role as well as having a stake in the interpretation of information. China seeks to limit cultural imports, as the stability and strength of traditional Chinese culture is a cornerstone of the central government’s legitimacy, although the sheer amount of money tied to Western imports has led to a relaxation of the policy. Japan, on the other hand, enjoys a relatively positive image due to a “Cool Japan” based on anime and other cultural exports, an image helped by over sixty years of cultural exchange and a security alliance. For China and North Korea, getting it “wrong” damages the soft power the nations can exercise, especially for China who hopes to export its culture as successfully as Japan and the United States.

The primacy of Western culture dilutes the fact that some matters are indeed universal and some remain connected to a sense of place and being that is difficult to express without a significant grounding in a nation’s culture.

The Internet at its core provides an amazing opportunity to create an inclusive online culture, build new social structures from the ground up and forge relationships between the citizens of different nations. Already the Internet spawns its own dialects, humor, legends and history. The intriguing possibility of a genuine universality exists. For centuries foreign relations have been the domain of the nation-state, yet the Internet provides unprecedented person-to-person contact and the dissemination of culture without borders. Yet as tempting as that massive vision of a utopian future may be, the reality is that information reflects culture. The flow of ideas and information on the Internet will for the foreseeable future remain tidally locked to the ebb and flow of traditional models of national history, culture and language.

 


[1] Editor’s note: Changed from Kim Il Eun to Kim Jong Un

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