Translation has the potential to shift the politics of perception. Here Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa share something else in common: They are
already on the losing side of this game. These two regions are the least likely to be covered by the international media and the most likely to be
dismissed as barbaric, obscure or irrelevant by non-specialists.
Political scientist Laura Saey recently wrote about the
problems that plague media coverage of Africa: the paucity of international correspondents, the callous framing of tragic events, the echo chamber of
repeated coverage, the tendency to ignore regional diversity, the casual racism and condescension. These practices mark Central Asian media coverage as
well. "If it takes hundreds of deaths or a revolution to make you report on a country, don't cover its 'humorous' political and economic failures," Matthew Kupfer wrote last
week on Registan, bemoaning the international media mockery of Kyrgyzstan's inability to pay its bills.
Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa share another important similarity: their events are framed through the languages of colonization. Most
international coverage of Central Asia is written by people who speak Russian. Similarly, sub-Saharan Africa is covered by speakers of English, French
and Arabic. This is not the fault of the reporters: when bureaus assign so few people to such large regions, one cannot reasonably expect them to know
all the local languages, and so it makes sense for them to rely on a lingua franca. But there is so much room to do better, particularly with the tools of the Internet.
It is increasingly common for news agencies to cover a country by reprinting claims made online. This is why CNN films Facebook pages and why complex
conflicts get reduced to "Twitter revolutions". Without an ability to translate local languages, reporters rely on whatever material they can
understand -- meaning that, to give one example, Russian-language content is often used to represent what is going on in Uzbek communities. Internet
content created by speakers of languages like Uzbek (often preferred by citizens of Uzbekistan even if they do know Russian) is ignored.
As a result, important insights and debates remain invisible to the outside world. "There is another Internet, a secret Internet, in which meaningful
political conversations take place in Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Turkmen, and Tajik, yet the majority of the world remains none the wiser," I wrote in 2010.This is as true today as it was then.
Google is moving in the right direction: Translation for Kazakh and Kyrgyz is being developed, and Google Africa is soliciting contributions from Africans interested
in expanding the site's capabilities. One hopes that these additions will increase the regional knowledge necessary to write with depth and compassion.
Nothing substitutes for human translation, especially of Central Asian and African websites filled with jokes, idioms and poetry. But Google Translate
can give a sense of what people are concerned about, which may help shift coverage away from the trivialities and biases cited by Saey. Moreover, it
allows citizens who only speak regional languages to access foreign media and translate their own works for a broader audience -- a feat which the
excellent Global Voices has achieved on a more selective scale. For citizens involved in politics or
international affairs, this is an invaluable gift.