The English language press has a long tradition of poor quality reporting when it comes to anything that depends foreign language skills. From the perennial mispronunciation of Beijing, to the cheery reporting of made-up names, to the acceptance of obviously satirical stories as real.
It’s not even limited to exotic Asian languages. I have never heard an anglophone newsreader pronounce Nicholas Sarkozy’s name correctly, and he’s from a country whose language most of them studied at school and which shares a large amount of its vocabulary with English. (Hint: the stress falls on the first and third syllables, not the second.)
It’s not purely an English language phenomenon – journalists everywhere are busy people, after all, and it can be difficult to find a native speaker to check your work when you’re on a deadline. However, in many countries the mistakes will be spotted and widely ridiculed until the error is fixed and/or apologised for.
It seems as though things may be changing, however. A while back Sarah Maslin Nir published an “exposé” in the New York Times about the poor pay and conditions in nail salons, which – coincidentally – are mostly run by Asians.
However, it didn’t stop there. Richard Bernstein, a former NYT journalist, has a Chinese wife who happens to own several salons, and the claims in the articles did not sound believable to her. So Bernstein and some journalists at Reason got to work looking up the original help wanted ads upon which Nir had based a many of her claims.
Lo and behold, it turns out that the ads had been misconstrued or mistranslated. This ad:
Was translated as offering a salary of $40 per day. In fact, as anyone capable of reading traditional Chinese will tell you, it gives the cost of a mani/pedi at the salon in question as $40 (thus implying the availability of high tips).
This ad was quoted as offering a salary of $10 per day:
In fact, it appears to be offering a stipend of $10 per day for trainees wishing to study with qualified nail technicians after school (if you look at the magnified version, it’s not terribly clear but you can just make out “learn on the job” and “3pm onwards”).
Rather outrageously, the NYT then apparently tried to take advantage of the language barrier one more time by editing one of the salon owners’ letters it received protesting against the coverage to make it appear as though he was acknowledging the truth of Nir’s claims.
So while this may seem like another depressing incidence of a wannabe white saviour screwing things up for the people that she was aiming to help, it’s also a positive sign. Until relatively recently it’s unlikely that anyone would have gone back through the original Chinese small ads to check the truth of it. Right now there are at least three different journalists working on it (the third is Elizabeth Nolan Brown, also with Reason).
And if you want to help right these wrongs by becoming proficient in an Asian language, there’s some good news. A friend just emailed me a link to a BL-themed iPhone app for studying Japanese. Because I know I’ve never looked at a Japanese textbook without thinking “This is good, but it needs more gay porn.”