The trouble with translating culture

I’m now in the process of writing a rough draft and having trouble translating language and culture for American readers.

Not only does my story have a severe lack of quotes because I had to work through a translator, but I find myself needing to explain a lot more than I thought would be needed. Seeing things firsthand makes it easier to grasp a culture. Writing about them is a beast. I got stuck explaining pilafs today–a mere detail in my story.

As mentioned in my previous post, the global sphere of information means the need to translate ideas to other cultures. It seems that the translation problems are going both ways. I’m not the only one struggling.

Luckily, much of my information is on video tape, thanks to documentary maker Isaac Brown who worked alongside me in the field. Unfortunately, my rough draft deadline for class occurs before the tapes will arrive. Even then, I now realize that the translation of ideas is often more tricky than translation itself.

I’ve never wished more than now that I’d taken five years of Spanish instead of Latin. Then I might even have a good job lined up.

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The difference between NGOs and journalists

The balance between a journalist and a NGO is tricky. A journalist must always strive to be objective (though this is often not entirely possible) and definitely independent.

We had this discussion in class last night reflecting on our time spent with Hope of Life in Guatemala. In staying with the organization, many of the townspeople thought our journalism group was missionaries too. That doesn’t seem very independent.

American readers know (most likely) nothing about the organization. What they will know is what we choose to put in our stories. And our stories (should be) from a third party point of view, like a good journalistic story should be.

Some NGOs are choosing to eliminate the middle man (journalist) and do the reporting on their own. Charlie Beckett, who often writes that journalism should involve the public more, noted in his blog that charities want people to see these international places in the same way that they do. I think it’s great that they want to get the word out.

But this isn’t journalism. Beckett questions this practice:

“This is bad for the media and the NGOs as in the long-term both will lose credibility. The news media needs to learn how to use public participation without cheating, while the charities need to learn some media literacy and ethics.”

In class, we came to the conclusion that while Hope of Life wanted us to report in the way they saw it, we wanted to do the stories that we found. Hope of Life is a wonderful organization that does great work, but many organizations do great work. I’m documenting what I saw–not what I want people to think.

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On top of the world: international journalism

In this time of global communication, it’s important for journalists to be able to work abroad.

I think that notion really struck me when I interviewed for a position at the journalism college’s job fair last week. One employer basically told me that the summer INTERNSHIP position would be open to me based on how my story for the FlyIns turns out.

The newspaper isn’t in a very large city, so I started to wonder why he would be so concerned with this work. Many papers now have an international section. With the Internet being a main provider of news, location isn’t an issue to what news is available. Also, our world is becoming so globalized that news from the other side of the planet could actually affect what’s happening at my doorstep.

I saw that the Suffolk University paper decided recently to add an international section, especially highlighting the work of students abroad. Do the students care more about this news than what happens on the quad? Maybe not, but the availability of the information should make a more informed student body.

Though I’m a little shaken up after my blog blunder, I still believe that my work on this story will be important for people to read. There are some great articles about the Latin American water crisis, but none that take that next step into a news feature that tells a more intimate story.

Employers want this news, journalists want to get it and, I would hope, people want to know what’s going on in this smaller, globalized world. Thus, my job is contingent on my ability to get it right.

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Quetzals for sale–at the price of social equality

Yesterday, I met with Carmen Diana Deere of UF’s Center for Latin American Studies to clear up the economic questions that I had about Guatemala.
One thing she said really resonated with my nature to fight social injustice: The dollar goes farther simply because their wages and standard of living are so much lower.
I talked to a woman who said her husband sold ice cream in the city every day for 12 hours and came home with an average of about 10 quetzals. That’s around $1.50 day. I make $7.75 an hour plus tips to sell ice cream at the most pretentious of all American ice cream stores–Cold Stone Creamery.
The lower wages aren’t a device to keep the poor man down, though. They’re the root of the government control of trade, value of currency and (sadly often) corruption.
Deere drew me the basic supply and demand graph to illustrate how a government can control the value of their currency.
At the intersection is the natural market value of currency, Guatemala, however, sometimes overvalues the currency so fewer quetzals can purchase the dollar–the currency that controls the value of trades. This makes imports cheaper for a nation that needs them, but it also makes it so local sellers can’t compare to the great American imports, even for staples like corn!

So a little crash course in economics made me realize why the Guatemalan Gringo’s statement bothered me (see last post). It’s definitely all true, but at the cost of social inequality for everyone. As a side note–he linked to GDP statistics yesterday and I linked to HDI (Human Development Index) statistics.

UPDATE: I apparently mistook the information I was given about Latin America and applied it to Guatemala. It’s been brought to my attention that Guatemala often has to do the opposite–undervalue the currency to control the number of remittances

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Filed under Guatemalan Political Issue

Exchange for more change

I got these Chiky cookies from a gas station in Guatemala for 5 quetzales, which is about 60 cents for 25 cookies.

Delicious!

Delicious!

Point being: stuff in Guatemala is cheap to Americans. Yet most of the people in Guatemala are poor, so Americans who march in often have a ton of cash.

The Guatemalan Gringo wrote this week about the value of the American dollar as a way to escape the current American recession.

The inequality of the Gringo’s sad-but-true statement bothered me. In many of the places I visited in Guatemala, my income working part-time at ColdStone Creamery was double or triple the amount many of the locals made.

So how did the Guatemalan economy get to this state? I’m by no means an expert in economics. I do know (with a little help from a friend) that many Latin American countries tried to keep their currency at the same rate as the dollar (fixed exchange rate) for a long time even though their GDP couldn’t match that of the U.S., which caused the value of the quetzal to fall dramatically in comparison to the dollar.

Guatemala has a number of other problems contributing to figures as high as 75 percent living in poverty and the poor value of the quetzal including government corruption and drug trafficking.

I’m going to get to the bottom of this later this week. I’m meeting with a woman from UF’s Latin American department so she can explain this complex issue.

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Cash flow and flowing water

So the story is about water.

There’s so much that could be said. My job as a journalist is to take everything I know and narrow it down to about 2,000 concise words that describe what I’ve seen and what I’ve learned.

So the writing process begins.

I want to portray that access to clean water (or water at all) for Guatemalans is largely determined by class. And I don’t think this will change much. I found a 1998 case study that summed up a good portion of what I thought.

But this case study doesn’t move anybody. I want people to read my article and see the injustice that I saw.

This water jug in El Modelo hadn't been filled with purified water for months.

This water jug in El Modelo hadn't been filled with purified water in months.

People in El Modelo are stuck in a sort of “hybrid society” (phrase courtesy of filmmaker Isaac Brown, who is working on a similar story). Basically, they have adapted city life but revert to ancient ways when they can’t afford it. Most people buy water off the water truck, but some are forced to drink rain water.

The rural village of La Puerta relies solely on rain and creek water. The middle class city of Estanzuela drinks from the tap, but only between the hours of 5 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Drinking water is readily abundant to the public in America from fountains. Can you even imagine your wealth determining access to water?

I’ve never written an article of this length (or importance). I want it to be just right. We have about a month before the final version is due in class.

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Back to this life

I’m back in the states. It’s nice to be able to understand people again.

Right before we left, Boaz Dvir (our trip leader) was doing an interview with me for his film about our class. He asked how the adjustment back to American life would be. I thought for a long time before realizing that my time in Guatemala seems like a totally different life. I put up the photos of that life today.

In my American life: Toilet paper goes in the toilet and not the trash. I have a toilet. There are rules on the highway. My Honda Civic is not the nicest car on the road. When I turn on the faucet, I will always have water. My roof doesn’t leak, and the bugs stay outside.

This may seem sappy or cliche, but it’s so true. It’s hard to realized how blessed we are until we live another life.

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