Site Translates Foreign Coverage into English
JACKI LYDEN, host:
Most of us can't read the world press each day to find out what the rest of the world is saying about the United States. Now in one new Web site, you can. WatchingAmerica.com pulls articles and commentary about the US from a number of the world's online newspapers. The articles are translated into English and posted on the site. Whether one finds the content reassuring or alarming, they're as close to the man on the street or a foreign editorial writer as most Americans are likely to get. Founder Robin Koerner says that his goal is to open minds. Mr. Koerner joins us now from NPR's New York bureau.
And welcome to the show.
Mr. ROBIN KOERNER (Founder, WatchingAmerica.com): Thank you.
LYDEN: Robin Koerner, tells us just a little bit about WatchingAmerica.com. What was its genesis?
Mr. KOERNER: Originally I thought, `Well, perhaps I could write some kind of column, an outside-in look at the US.' But, you know, I'm no genius as a writer, and, of course, the world has many great columnists and writers. And so I thought, `How about we just bring what is already there to the American people?' So when you go to WatchingAmerica.com, what you read is English translations of French, Spanish, Arabic, various languages...
Mr. KOERNER: ...articles about the US.
LYDEN: You are using software to do this translation as opposed to human being translators?
Mr. KOERNER: We actually use both. Language-translation technology, unbeknownst to most people, is now so sophisticated that you can get very good accuracy. You get very poor English out, but the meaning accuracy is quite high. What we also do is we have native speakers in various languages sample the translations.
LYDEN: OK. Well, we spoke with Dr. Shibley Telhami about WatchingAmerica.com because he's a senior research fellow at The Brookings Institution and professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland and has been a commentator on many NPR programs. And he follows the Arabic press since he's a native Arabic speaker. And we asked him if he'd mind taking a look at your site, and this is what he had to say about it.
Dr. SHIBLEY TELHAMI (The Brookings Institution): I think that there is a need for Americans to see how the world not only sees America but sees the issues that are now of concern to America. My concern is the inability to put it in a broader perspective. There is tons of material coming out of every region. What you can't tell is how widely read they are, what's the distribution. And, therefore, if you don't have a way of telling which one is more important, how much influence it has, you might get a distorted perspective.
LYDEN: How can you tell what the context of a given article is? How can you tell how large a newspaper's circulation is or how extreme the views of a given editorial may be or whether or not those represent the people on the street?
Mr. KOERNER: Well, one of the best ways to actually answer that is to just visit regularly because if you read copy from a certain newspaper time and time again, you start to get a feel for the positioning of that paper and the kind of audience that it's speaking to. With regard to specific figures, actually, we're collating information at the moment about the circulation and the stated political leanings of some of the publications that we put up there. We've got a long way to go to do that, and we're very resource-limited at the moment; we're growing. But that's something that's come up before, and it's something I'd love to be able to do.
LYDEN: Do you know whether any American intelligence agencies are using this site?
Mr. KOERNER: We're regularly visited by the CIA. The Defense Department know about us; I have a letter from them on my desk. And so does Bill Clinton, actually. I have a lovely letter from him that I just got a couple of days ago.
LYDEN: Is America as unpopular in the world as many of us have been told that it is or suspect that it is?
Mr. KOERNER: The short answer is at the moment yes, but it's kind of more complex than that. People don't just let off in decent newspapers about the US; they have something to say about something specific. And what they have to say often tells you more about them than it tells you about yourself.
LYDEN: Well, I think the comment has often come that Americans don't necessarily feel the impact of American foreign policy as directly as people living outside the United States do.
Mr. KOERNER: Absolutely, and that's something I've been saying in almost those words. It's valuable, I think, for Americans to be able to see what kind of responses that is causing because you will learn some surprising things about what you're doing as a country. And I don't just mean you, America; I mean, us, the West. Britain, too.
LYDEN: So it's a dialogue.
Mr. KOERNER: Well, we are certainly facilitating a dialogue. And if you're engaged with anyone in any way, even in a personal relationship, it serves you to understand where the other person is coming from and how they're going to respond to the things that you do. So I would hope that what we're offering is actually of real, tangible value because you can use it to make better choices.
LYDEN: Well, Robin Koerner is the founder of WatchingAmerica.com, and he joined us from our bureau in New York.
Robin Koerner, thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. KOERNER: Thank you very much for having me.
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