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").