Lost in Translation: Telling Afghan Stories to the West

The growth of the media since the fall of the Taliban has been one of Afghanistan's rare undisputed success stories. Before 2001, not a single private broadcaster operated in Afghanistan. Now more than 100 private radio and TV stations and hundreds of newspapers and magazines are registered with the government. Afghan news reporters are increasingly holding their leaders to account, and TV satires and reality shows such as Afghan Star are viewed as key contributors to the development of an authentic Afghan democracy.

An example of this growth is Pajhwok Afghan News, Afghanistan's largest independent news agency, which has reporters in almost every province and produces coverage in Pashto, Dari and English. But in crafting stories that are accessible to both Afghans and the international community, Pajhwok reporters undertake multiple acts of translation, not just from one language to another, but in the very way that stories are told, valued and understood in the cultures they seek to bridge. With a 30 percent literacy rate, Afghanistan remains largely an oral culture. While western-style news coverage places immutable facts and the premise of certainty above nuance and rhetorical style, Afghans tend to speak indirectly, using metaphor and allegory to suggest multiple interpretations.

This project is about what Afghan journalists know about their country that foreign journalists miss. It is about the work of translating Afghan stories for a western audience, and the way that culturally distinct modes of conveying information have contributed to misunderstandings for foreigners shaping and executing policy in Afghanistan. The work of Afghan journalists writing for Afghan and western audiences is a useful frame through which to examine cultural gaps in understanding between Afghans and an international community whose intervention is radically transforming their country.

Updated September 29, 2010.

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