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A better translation

Lebanon, April 22, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Greg Tuke/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Last month, our first Global Citizen Corps International Youth Festival brought together 16 young leaders from Jordan, Lebanon, the U.S. and the UK together in Edinburgh for work on peace and conflict resolution, social justice and diversity. Photo: Greg Tuke/Mercy Corps

Lebanese men pass their citizenship on to their children. Lebanese women, by law in Lebanon, cannot — unless they are married to a Lebanese man.

I recently learned of this disturbing law. And I immediately wondered how can this be in this day and age? How did it become law in Lebanon some 85 years ago and still hold till this day? What does the man or woman in the street in Lebanon think of this?

Until recently, it was nearly impossible to find out directly the answer to such a question from a Lebanese native, unless they spoke English. Or unless I learned some Arabic real quick.

Sure, there are automatic translations that Google and others can do, but they're pretty lame. It’s like when I travel with my basic Spanish and go to a Guatemala: I can ask directions, find a place to eat and say "hello" just fine, but don’t ask me to explain why I don’t believe in capital punishment to a local. Things really get lost in the translation.

But today, thanks to a new website called Meedan, all that has changed. Whether you write in English or Arabic, what you say gets translated into the other language automatically, a human translator reviews it and refines it, and posts the new and improved translation.

As a result, I found out that lots of people care about this Lebanese nationality law, and in fact pressure has been applied to Parliament recently by many young people there. And now it may be on the verge of changing.

I also found out that the reason for the law is far more than simple discrimination. It relates to past wars — specifically, who lives in the country now and who lives elsewhere as a result. It relates to ethnic and religious reasons.

It is, in a word, complex. Still unfair, I concluded, but now after having written and discussed the issue with numerous Arab-language young people, I understand much better the dynamics of the law. And young people in Lebanon, as a result of the on-line conversations with others around the world, now understand strategies and tactics used elsewhere to change similar kinds of laws.

It would be a human tragedy if we all just spoke one language. Just as it would be a tragedy if our forests only grew one kind of plant. But by being able to communicate accurately across our various languages is a huge step, as noted in a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor.

Nothing will ever surpass the power of meeting face to face to cultivate understanding across cultures. And if our language is different, nothing beats having someone right there who can translate what we are saying to each other. Last month, we did just that when we brought young leaders from Jordan, Lebanon, the U.S. and the UK together in Edinburgh for our first Global Citizen Corps International Youth Festival.

It was great, but it was just 16 youth. How do we do this in a way that affects thousands, even millions? This creates one of the key paths.