Last fall, as the United States began its military assault against targets in Afghanistan, it also sought to help some of that country's starving people by dropping hundreds of tons of food in the form of yellow-plastic packages known as HDRs, or "humanitarian daily rations." The packages bore a big image of an American flag and a small image of a man with a spoon. Further explanation was provided in English, Spanish, and French, but not in any of the Afghan languages, and some critics therefore derided the effort. My own inclination was to cut the military some slack. The contents of an HDR may be easy enough to explain to Americans, who have experienced firsthand the long evolution from canned soup to space ice cream. For Afghans, a translation of "ready-to-eat thermostabilized entrees" into Pashtu or Dari might not have proved all that helpful.
The modern world, in which cultures advance and mutate at varying rates, even as populations mix more readily than ever, has made matters relating to translation increasingly problematic. Sacagawea (who spoke only Hidatsa and Shoshone), together with sign language, took Lewis and Clark across half of North America and through numerous tribal systems. Today perhaps forty languages are spoken in central Ohio alone; police officers in Columbus carry "language identifier booklets" to figure out which one they are dealing with. The United Nations employs some of the world's most accomplished translators, but differences in conceptual hard-wiring often make translation nearly impossible. A few years ago, at a UN conference in Cairo, delegates faced the issue of how to translate "women's empowerment"—a mushy term in English, hinting at everything and promising nothing, which raises alarming cultural issues when imported into Arabic, Russian, or Chinese. Last spring, when the fate of an American plane and its crew held in China became the Bush Administration's first foreign-policy test, diplomats spent a week working out the precise calibration of consternation to be used in English and Chinese to express official American feelings. Would it be dao qian, which means "really, really sorry"; or bao qian, which carries a more neutral sense of "regret"; or yihan, which means, in essence, "wish it hadn't happened"? The United States eventually sent a letter using the English words "very sorry," which the Chinese translated as shenbiao qianyi ("a deep expression of apology or regret").
If this sort of thing is already difficult, imagine the challenge a millennium hence, when paleolinguists try to ken the subtleties of languages that will have become unrecognizable. To help them out, a group in San Francisco called the Long Now Foundation has begun creating what it calls the Rosetta Disk. The disk will contain the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis in a thousand languages, in tiny letters etched by ion beams on a small nickel plate. People of the future will need only a microscope in order to read it. Some things, of course, the Rosetta Disk will be unable to explain—such as why, in the French version of the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, a character says "Leonardo DiCaprio" instead of the original "Jared Leto."
The need for some sort of equivalence across cultures goes far beyond language. International trade became possible only when merchants came up with the idea of exchange rates. A Mesopotamian text from around 1800 B.C. states, "They had given to us 5,5322/3 minas of copper according to the standard of Dilmun. Its weight is in total 611 talents 62/3 minas according to the standard of Ur." A recent study in the journal Nature reveals that rules of thumb for translating one system of economic value into another were well established as early as the Bronze Age in a broad swath from North Africa to India. It's a lot easier, of course, if everyone simply uses the same system. Most currencies used to be pegged to the price of gold; the United States abandoned the last remnants of the gold standard in 1971. This month, after a complicated deployment involving thousands of armored cars, bank notes denominated in euros will become the official currency in twelve European countries. By the end of February the old money in those twelve countries will be worthless in stores.
Although obsolete in economics, the idea of a gold standard in other areas remains powerfully seductive—the Holy Grail of equivalence. Grade inflation is occurring everywhere, but at variable rates; grade comparisons are difficult. A student's class rank is often a more useful measure of relative achievement, but not all schools provide it. The Law School Admissions Council (the organization that administers the LSAT) has devised one way around the problem. Recognizing that absolute grade-point averages differ in value, it has plotted the historical distribution of GPAs for all students from a particular school who take the LSAT; it can then determine where the GPA of any given applicant would fall within this distribution, thus yielding an approximation of class rank. Presumably, it ought to be possible to go even further, by correlating the grade-point averages of applicants from particular colleges or universities with the average law-board scores of applicants from those institutions. Students with A averages from one college might have an average LSAT score of 160, say, whereas that same score might be typical of B students from some other college. In effect, the LSAT determines the exchange rate for many local currencies.
The quest for a gold standard leads in many directions. Some years ago a social scientist named Ralph G.H. Siu introduced the concept of the "dukkha," from the Pali word for "suffering," as the basic unit of discomfort, much as the calorie is the basic unit of heat. The columnist Michael M. Thomas has proposed the concept of a "gergen"—for the commentator David Gergen—as the basic unit of political-talk-show blather. For Americans, the basic unit of comparative world geography seems to be "New Jersey"; thus Swaziland is "about the size of New Jersey" (The New York Times) and the Netherlands is "about twice the size of New Jersey" (The Washington Post). Teams at MIT and Caltech, I'm told, are closing in on the basic units of boredom, fanaticism, hypocrisy, and fame.
Besides the practical reasons for seeking equivalence, there's a psychic need to establish a frame of reference. Almost everyone, upon hearing the age of a dog, mentally translates the dog's age into "dog years." After the publication of The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe was hailed as the American Zola. Stanford University is sometimes called "the Harvard of the West." (In Ann Arbor you can buy T-shirts that say HARVARD: THE MICHIGAN OF THE EAST.) Stockholm, with its canals, is said to be "the Venice of the North." In Dublin, I used to watch a talk-show host named Gay Byrne, "the Johnny Carson of Ireland." A literary scholar from the Baltic region once told me about a writer he regarded as "the Estonian Mark Twain." Is there an Uzbek Jay McInerney? A Zambian Donny Osmond? A Libyan Norman Rockwell? I hope so.
Of course, not everyone agrees on what is equivalent to what. In conducting the 2000 census the government decided that for the purposes of "ancestry code" it would consider Assyrians to be equivalent to Chaldeans. Whoops! Members of both groups were upset, and the Assyrians smote the Census Bureau with a lawsuit. Opinion becomes even more diffuse when the equivalence under discussion is of the moral kind. William James coined the phrase "the moral equivalent of war" in a famous lecture (at the Harvard of the West) in 1906, urging Americans to pursue national service instead of militarism. Last summer the Los Angeles Times characterized a proposed Pentagon fight against waste in the armed services as itself constituting a "moral equivalent of war." Ronald Reagan, welcoming Afghan mujahideen to the White House in 1985, referred to his guests as "the moral equivalent of America's Founding Fathers."
So, yes, the quest for equivalence can go awry. But in its most ordinary form it touches some piece of truth, and recognizes some piece of common ground. Not long ago my wife needed certain repairs made to her office, so she brought in a couple of carpenters. Hanging on her wall is an old photograph of Rome, dominated by the dome of St. Peter's. As she left the office, she saw one of the carpenters point to the dome. He said to his partner, "Michelangelo was the general contractor on that project."