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Extra, extra! Foreign press, translated

Website lets Americans see what the world's non-English publications say about US policy

By Susan Llewelyn LeachStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 14, 2005



The headline reads, "Columbus' Discovery of America: History's 'Biggest Mistake.' " That might sound harsh to an American audience, but it's less likely to ruffle Iraqis reading it in Arabic. Another zinger, this one from Tunisia, bluntly states, "The United States: a Country Beyond the Law." A Mexican headline declares: "Time Near for Bush to Pay the Piper."

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The stories offer a glimpse of how foreigners feel about the only superpower. And they were all available recently on www.WatchingAmerica.com, a website launched earlier this year that simply culls, without comment, the foreign online press for commentary about America.

Each article, posted within a day, has an English translation and a link to the original, for those fluent in foreign tongues.

Robin Koerner, cofounder of the site, sees its value as one of opening minds.

"If I want to conduct any kind of relationship, even a personal relationship, I need to know how what I say and do affects the person on the receiving end," he explains. To emphasize the point, he quotes the English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill: "He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that."

Extend the relationship analogy to international affairs, Mr. Koerner says, and you find that knowing how the people you interact with feel about the things you do to them enables you to make better choices. "I think what we're doing is giving Americans a bit of the road map ahead."

The view from abroad is largely unflattering. Koerner estimates that roughly 5 percent of the news is positive, which doesn't mean 95 percent is overtly negative. About half is simply neutral, he says.

"There certainly isn't any American flag-waving going on [on the site]," agrees Al Tompkins, a journalism teacher at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. He says it's important for citizens to stay informed and to listen to many points of view, even if they don't like them or agree with them.

While the Internet has made access to foreign media only a click away, what makes WatchingAmerica.com especially powerful is its translations of foreign-language news into English. (The Middle East Media Research Institute - www.memri.org - also offers translations of Arabic, Farsi, and some Hebrew media reports.)

The distinction may seem subtle. But news organizations such as Al Jazeera put out different material for an English-speaking audience than for an Arabic-speaking audience. With this website, "you're getting to see what, in some cases, your enemies are saying to each other in their own languages about you," Koerner says. "That gives you insights which you cannot get from what they offer in English."

One such broadside is from the Iraqi paper Azzaman, whose story about "History's Biggest Mistake" goes on to say, "If Columbus was alive today and witnessed the scandals of abuse and torture inside the US detention centers of Abu Ghraib, Umm Qasr, Guantánamo, and Afghanistan, he would have discovered the magnitude of his error and headed back to Spain ... to apologize to the world for the wars, disasters, and calamities that he had brought forth."

WatchingAmerica.com has no paid staff, and Koerner launched it from his own pocket. The entrepreneurial Brit, who has business consulting and writing experience, paired upwith American Will Kern, a former copy editor for the International Herald Tribune, to get the idea off the ground. And computer-savvy friends "wired" up the technology.

The translations are all done using software and then smoothed out by Koerner and volunteers - often native speakers of the relevant languages. As the site's profile rises, Koerner says, more such volunteers are offering their assistance.

To become self-supporting through advertising, however, the site would need 100,000 hits a day. Right now it gets about 6,000, Koerner says. That small number represents an interesting "intellectual elite" from think tanks and mainstream media, as well as regular check-ins from the US State Department and CIA, "because we're doing some of their work for them," Koerner says dryly.

To reach a broader audience is the goal. But are Americans ready for a site like this? Mr. Tompkins of the Poynter Institute thinks not. "Americans are not incredibly open-minded about others who says critical things about America." Koerner, however, thinks that since 9/11, more Americans are ready for introspection.

What they may not recognize yet, he adds, is that people outside the US are often more affected by American policy than Americans themselves.

Last January, when WatchingAmerica.com started to link to foreign articles and translate them, the founders had no idea how the foreign media would react. But all the news organizations that have been in touch about their content appearing on the site have been "totally delighted," Koerner says, and have begun alerting him to other stories in their publications.

You've got to give some understanding to get some, he suggests. "You are breaking down the final barrier among people from around the world - the language barrier."

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