Lost In Translation, A Strange State Of Grace

And apps could kill it forever ...

Instant translation, lost magic
Instant translation, lost magic
Jonas Pulver


TOKYO — When I decided to move to Tokyo, I didn't truly understand what learning Japanese meant. Three alphabets, thousands of ideograms, and a way to omit the verb's subject (known as the null-subject rule) that often left me frozen with that polite-but-crooked smile of a dinner guest who can't grasp what the conversation is about.

Some very painful memories remain from that experience. Like trying to use just my hands to explain to a tax office employee (a very nice one, by the way) the logic of my income deductions. Or calling my bank's telephone service and being eternally stuck in "press 2" limbo.

A year-and-a-half later, I can read, with much effort, lifestyle articles in the newspaper and congratulate myself when I can chat without any major faux pas for 45 minutes at the barber. And of course I'm hardly the first person to have observed the gigantic gap between European languages and Japanese.

With an eye to 2020 and the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan is striving to improve a general level of English that has largely stagnated in recent years. The goal is of course to improve individual language skills, but also to increase both public and private investment in simultaneous translation technology.

For example, the VoiceTra app, developed by a Japanese state-owned institute, allows users to speak into their smartphones in English and then get the Japanese equivalent from a synthetic voice. I tested it and its rival Jspeak from private company Docomo. As long as you limit yourself to short sentences, it works surprisingly well to ask your way around or book a plane ticket.

It can also provide you with a good laugh if you utter such colloquial phrases as "when pigs fly." Of course, these apps are bound to improve on the idiomatic front, even before pigs fly. I can already imagine how the way we experience being abroad could change if this technology is adapted to smart glasses or watches.

Does this prospect make me happy? Yes and no. I often think back to my first few months in Tokyo, of the sounds my tongue wouldn't allow me to make, and the strange but pleasurable sensation that somehow results from it. When the words abandon you and signs become too abstract, other means of observation and communication come to the fore: the theater of bodies, the eloquence of the eyes, a choreography of manners and postures, the music of conversations and mosaic of clothes, that odd beauty hidden in advertisements and road signs.

There's much to be gained from being lost in translation. It'd be a shame to see it go.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!