Tag Archives: journalism

Telling real stories in translation


A guest post from Aaron Schachter.

Here’s a dirty little secret of foreign correspondents: We don’t do our own stunts.

Save for the linguistically-talented few — the late, great Anthony Shadid being among the most renowned — most foreign correspondents work in countries where we don’t know the language, let alone local customs, organizations or personalities.

So “fixers” and interpreters, often the same person, are vital to the work we do. Aside from a passing voice on the radio, you’d likely never know they exist.

I spent eight years reporting from the Middle East with the help of fixers. They translated interviews for me from Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish and Turkish. But just as importantly, they guided me through cultures that I couldn’t possibly have understood without their help.

Ayub Nuri (pictured above with Aaron Schachter in 2003) was one of the most memorable — and the most fun.

I can’t remember our first meeting for sure, but it must have been in the bustling lobby of Baghdad’s Sheraton hotel. The towering hotel was trendy in the 1980s, but much less so by the time foreign journalists, US military types, NGO workers and dignitaries rolled in after the 2003 invasion. It turned out the hotel had been disowned by the Sheraton chain soon after the 1991 Gulf War — yet it still sported all the logos, including Sheraton placemats in the lobby cafe.

Ayub Nuri at the remnants of Baghdad Zoo. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)

Ayub Nuri at the remnants of Baghdad Zoo. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)


Ayub looked to be about 20 years old. He was giggly and impish; I wasn’t in the mood for giggly and impish. It was July in Baghdad, meaning the temperature tops 100 degrees in the shade. I was sweating more or less nonstop, even in my supposedly air-conditioned hotel room.

And I was fairly terrified to be in a war zone.

It was not an auspicious way to begin my six weeks in Iraq.

But the thing about being anxious at work is that it helps to work with someone giggly and impish, especially someone like Ayub, who also possesses an incredible command of history and culture — not to mention a duffel bag full of Agatha Christie novels.

Like the soldiers we often covered, a good amount of journalists’ time in Iraq was spent waiting. Or travelling somewhere to wait. It turns out the novels of Agatha Christie are a good antidote to the boredom.

Ayub helped me understand how greetings are done in Iraq; the proper way to conduct myself in a restaurant — grab table, beeline for the bathroom to wash hands, then eat communally; and about a culture traumatized by life under a despotic ruler. When you have to keep your mouth shut and disguise your feelings for decades, it isn’t natural to open up when a foreign reporter shoves a microphone in your face. Coming from a culture of confession like the US — or Israel, where I was living — there was quite a culture shock.

Ayub, fed up with congestion at an especially busy Baghdad intersection, has jumped out of the car to direct traffic. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)

Ayub, fed up with congestion at an especially busy Baghdad intersection, has jumped out of the car to direct traffic. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)

Perhaps the most incredible thing about Ayub was that he could talk himself into or out of any situation in a half dozen languages, including my native tongue. I don’t think we ever faced grave danger together, but I know that he’s worked with others, including our reporters from The World, where the decisions he made literally meant life or death. I was jealous of his ability.

Once, in the Kurdish area of Iraq where Ayub is from, our car was stuck in a traffic jam. Ayub told the driver to race down the opposite side of the street to get around the cars. It worked, but when we got to the next intersection a traffic cop ran up to the window and started screaming at us.

Instead of apologizing, Ayub started screaming right back. The cop got into our car, and when I asked Ayub where we were headed he said, “to the police station.”

“Aha!” I exclaimed to Ayub, triumphant. “Busted. You’ve finally been caught out. The first time.” Ayub just smiled.

When we got to the police station, the officer got out of the car, waved goodbye and wished us a nice day. “What happened?” I asked.

“I told him the reason we had to drive down the wrong side of the road was because instead of doing his job as a traffic cop, he was sitting on his behind, drinking tea and smoking,” Ayub says. “And I said we’d be perfectly happy to go with him to the police station so I could explain to his superior what an awful cop he is.”

Once again, Ayub had saved the day.

Aaron Schachter in front of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, across the street from the Sheraton. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)

Aaron Schachter in front of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, across the street from the Sheraton. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)


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A welcome addition

If you like the kind of reporting I do in the podcast and in this blog, you’re going to love this: a new digital online magazine devoted to in-depth language reporting. It’s the brainchild of Michael Erard, who’s made several pod appearances.

I’m in the Kickstarter video, as is my multilingual soccer T-shirt:


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The BBC and the Language of Responsibility

Here’s a story I did for the Big Show on the troubles engulfing the BBC. There are some specific language issues here. I’ll let the audio file above do the talking.



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Hiroshima, Nagasaki and self-censorship


(Updated) I originally wrote this post around the 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The recent earthquake in Japan seems to echo those incidents in certain ways: a calamitous event, followed by massive destruction and huge loss of life; entire communties wiped out; high levels of radiation in the atmosphere; unpredictability; fear.

Some foreign media organizations have made the comparisons (for example, here and here). Also implicitly making the connection was Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has called the quake and its aftermath Japan’s worst crisis since World War Two. A further sign of the historical significance of the moment, and of the country’s plight: Japanese Emperor Akihito made the first television address of his reign.

That said, there are significant differences between the 1945 bombings and the earthquake. The most obvious is that the 1945 events were military attacks (though the vast majority of victims were civilians). The destruction of two cities and the radiation released was fully intended by Japan’s wartime enemy, the United States. Also, radiation levels today are nowhere near as high as in the aftermath of the bombings. Nor, so far, is the loss of life, as shockingly high as it is.

I checked in with a couple of  Japanese friends (one is a Hiroshima-based journalist; the other, a professor who has interviewed many A-bomb victims.) Their reponses were similar: for whatever reason, the Japanese media and public are not making a strong connection between Japan’s current crisis and the A-bombs. One connection, though,  has made, as reported in the New York Times: the earthquake and tsunami have rekindled memories of conventional World War Two air raids among elderly survivors of those bombing campaigns.

In the podcast I put together for the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic bombs, there are two takes on self-censorship. A child survivor of Hiroshima explains why she kept quiet about her experiences for so long, through the pain and guilt of survival. She was seven when the the bomb fell, killing her parents and siblings but inexplicably sparing her. Late in life, Sueko Hada tells her story, in the presence of her daughter and granddaughters. They’ve heard some of it before, but she includes many new details this time.  I snapped this picture of the family on the day I interviewed Mrs Hada in 2005. My report originally aired on The World as part of a series on the mental health of Atomic Bomb survivors, known in Japan as hibakusha.

Before I met Mrs Hada, I don’t think I fully understood why people with painful pasts remain silent, essentially censoring their own histories. But if you grew up in post-war Japan, surrounded by people who believed that radiation sickness was contagious and hereditary, you too might keep quiet about your past.

The legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is hard to gauge. Japanese children still visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (above). But these days, Tokyo Disneyland is a far more popular destination for school groups.

For many Americans, the use of the bomb remains a hugely sensitive issue.  Views both pro and con seem entrenched, dialogue virtually impossible. The debate — such as it is — hasn’t progressed much since the 1995 controversy over The Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibition.  But there has been new research about some of the earliest news reporting of the bombs. That began in 2005, when several dispatches written by Chicago Daily News reporter George Weller were published first time by the Tokyo newspaper Mainichi Shimbun.  That was followed by publication in English of those and other reports in First into Nagasaki, a book put together by Weller’s son, Anthony.

Weller blamed U.S. military censorship for the previous non-publication of his reports.  But Japanese freelance reporter Atsuko Shigesawa disputes that in a new book. (Japanese links here and here.) At the Library of Congress, she came across a statement from Gilbert Harrison, who was a sergeant in the US Army Air Forces and went to Nagasaki with Weller. Harrison went on to become editor of  the New Republic. In his statement, he describes how he delivered Weller’s reports to a Chicago Daily News employee in Tokyo. As far as he knows, he says, the reports were filed there and then and were not subject to military vetting. He says he “doesn’t know why”  the New York Times and the Arizona Republic reported in 2005 that “our reports were censored and not printed for 60 years.”

Atsuko Shigesawa believes that the true acts of censorship in reporting on the A-bombs were self-imposed, sometimes by reporters, sometimes by their editors. In Weller’s case, she believes his editors at the Chicago Daily News killed many of his stories. And when it came to other reporters filing stories from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Shigesawa found that newspapers routinely cut the segments dealing with radiation sickness and other after-effects of the bombs on the human body.  (The photo above was taken at a hospital in Tokyo. The original caption reads: “The patient’s skin is burned in a pattern corresponding to the dark portions of a kimono worn at the time of the explosion.”) In addition to these editorial cuts, at least one correspondent chose not to report on his hospital visits, believing that they were part of a plot to hoodwink him. William Lawrence of the New York Times wrote that American reporters were being subjected to “a Japanese propaganda campaign calculated to shame Americans for using such a devastating weapon of war”. He continued: “I am convinced that, horrible as the bomb undoubtedly is, the Japanese are exaggerating its effects in an effort to win sympathy for themselves in an attempt to make the American people forget the long record of cold-blooded Japanese bestiality.” For those reasons, Lawrence did not write about his hospital visits and the cases of radiation sickness he witnessed until 1972, in his memoir.

We don’t — and probably never will — have the full story of what influenced those initial reports of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But there’s enough to suggest that self-censorship played a prominent role.

For another take on the meaning of Hiroshima and memory, check out Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s memoir Hiroshima in the Morning. It was a 2010 finalist in the autobiography category of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.

Listen via iTunes or here.

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At the BBC, fewer languages and less influence

Like millions of others, I grew up with the BBC. Today I work for a BBC co-production. I’m not a BBC employee, but I’m close to this story. And, um, that’s not me in the picture. I use a smaller microphone.

The cuts:   five BBC language services will close (Serbian, Albanian, Macedonian, Portuguese for Africa and English for the Caribbean). Seven more language services, including Mandarin Chinese and Hindi, will be cut back from radio to internet only. A further six services will stop transmitting on short wave.

It means an estimated 30 million fewer BBC listeners worldwide. Will people migrate to the web and to English language news, or will the BBC – and its news values – become less influential?

There was a huge amount of coverage of this story. Most people were critical of the cuts with the British government — rather than the BBC —  receiving the blame (here and here for example). But in Britain there is a BBC-despising minority which offered its own spin.

For the pod, I picked some of the best pieces of the BBC’s own coverage: interviews with the director of BBC global news Peter Horrocks,  former World Service director John Tusa, and British foreign minister William Hague. Hague heads the Foreign Office, which has presided over the BBC World Service.

I also interviewed Debbie Ransome, head of the axed Caribbean Service. The Caribbean Service could be seen as some broadcast throwback to the days when the World Service was known as the BBC Empire Service. But Ransome says the service is unique in that it is regional, and so rises above  the interests of any single country. She says the other broadcast media in the region either take political sides, or play a lot of music and not much else.

So which global radio services will move in to replace the BBC?  The pod’s last interview is with journalism professor George Brock. He says that services run by the Chinese and Russian governments are likely to benefit, especially in Africa and Asia. And they don’t have the same news values as the BBC. Where the Beeb is remarkably successful at maintaining its editorial independence, Brock says the Russian and Chinese operations  are mainly mouthpieces of their respective governments.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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