Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

My Publius essay on the polyglot internet

For the past several months, the Berkman Center has been involved with an ambitious project, called Publius. On its surface, Publius is a collection of short essays about current issues in the internet and society, written by some of the smartest thinkers in the space. It includes provocative pieces like Clay Shirky on latent communities, Lewis Hyde on the freedom to listen, Ron Deibert on threats to a global communication environment, and Ellen Miller on government transparency. It is, in short, an awfully good place to spend the rest of your Friday afternoon, catching up the conversations, discussions and arguments that animate a place like Berkman, and any other place, physical or otherwise, where people ponder the future of communication and how communication affects society.

John Palfrey’s thinking in launching Publius was to recognize that the emergence of American constitutional democracy didn’t occur in a single moment of crystalline brilliance. It was the product of years of argument, conversation and deliberation, through media like the Federalist papers. Palfrey argues that we’re going through a long, complex constitutional moment as regards the internet, constructing the laws and norms that will govern how we interact with one another through the infrastructure of the internet. As such, Publius is an invitation to post arguments, to ask for the Internet to behave one way or another and make the case for one’s point of view.

I’m late to arrive at this particular party, but recently submitted an essay on a topic I’m deeply concerned about – the emergence of a polyglot internet, and the need for focused efforts to make translation cheaper, easier and far more common to enable global discussions. The essay will be familiar to readers here – indeed, it’s been published on this blog previously, though hidden behind a wall of multilingual text, which has the tendency to encourage readers to immediately press the “back” button. I hope you’ll check it out, and take time to explore the wealth of essays accumulating on the site. I’m deeply honored to be included in the company of such inspiring thinkers.

One of the best things about Publius is that essays often start a spirited debate. I’m looking forward to whatever conversations arise about this brief essay and hope you’ll join in.

One Response to “My Publius essay on the polyglot internet”

  1. Chris says:

    Hi Ethan,

    As you know, I fully agree that the multilingual nature of the Internet is very important and (too) often ignored. One thing that I have been thinking a lot about recently is the crossover of concerns from the translation side (issues such as equivalence , fidelity, liberal vs. free translation) and concerns from the journalism side (impartiality, factual correctness, etc.). Put those two together in the hands of one person and you’re asking a lot: both fact-checking *and* language correspondence, not to mention subject specialization etc.

    I think in fact it’s too much to ask of a single individual (blogger/journalist or translator), or even of a small loosely-knit group. I also think that while MT is touted as a solution, when you’re talking about news stories where every word counts, MT is at best an aid, at worst an invitation for misrepresentation and confusion.

    The essence of question as I see it is this: how can people organize online around important stories in efficient ways, so as to convey the facts of the news as well as the subtleties of the language in which the news is expressed?

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