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A Wall Street Journal article derisively titled “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” has been making rounds of the blogosphere lately, with its premise that, based on a 2008 survey of economic knowledge, the left wing would flunk Economics 101. Supposedly, the left fumbles the most basic economic concepts.

Well, I am a Chomsky-reading, bleeding-heart leftist, and an economics major. I’ve never received a grade lower than an A in any economics course. So I feel I’m in a unique position to offer criticism from the left.

Firstly–and this is a criticism I have for economics in general–I disagree with the notion of breaking complex political issues down to simple cost-benefit calculations. Any policy assessment should be considered in the context of our values as a society. For example: it’s true that taxation is distortionary and may create disincentives toward work. For Chicago school economists, this in itself is a crime. However, in a broader social context, our society has chosen to value a more even wealth distribution and greater social services. We have made a trade-off, valuing social equality slightly more than economic efficiency.

So, it upsets me when survey respondents are deemed “unenlightened” for not playing along with the cost-benefit analysis of complex issues presented in a single sentence. The answer format of “strongly agree/agree/unsure/disagree/strongly disagree” is extremely shallow for those that see a more human element in those issues, who would prefer to answer, “Yes, but…” In other words, the bleeding-heart liberals.

Daniel Klein kindly supplies all eight of the questions that were asked in his survey and his idea of what constitutes an “unenlightened” answer; all the better to provide all the “Yes, but…” responses that I, if I had been a participant, would have liked to respond with.

1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable. (unenlightened answer: disagree)

It’s true. If urban areas aren’t allowed to sprawl forever, housing will be more scarce and thus more expensive. This concept is extremely well understood in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada, where height and sprawl limits have made Vancouver the most “severely unaffordable” housing market in Anglophone countries, according to a recent study by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg.

However, Vancouver is also a darling of international urban design circles for its sustainable and varied infrastructure. It is consistently ranked among the top five most liveable cities in the world, partly for its preservation of green spaces in the city at the expense of housing development. The survey statement is a very loaded question. The answer is yes, restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable, but I feel that it’s unfair to leave it at that.

Yes, but, restrictions on housing development have consequences beyond housing prices, like the nurturing of a more pleasant and sustainable urban infrastructure and a greater quality of life for a city’s residents. To end simply with the assertion that it makes housing less affordable is to leave out the real story.

2. Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services. (unenlightened answer: disagree)

Yes, it does. But it also increases the quality and reliability of professional services, and any good economist should know that a good and reliable service is more valuable than a mediocre or uncertain level of service. One can receive a lower quality service at a lower price, or a higher quality service at a higher price; they move together. Furthermore, it is well-established in economics that consumers prefer certainty over uncertainty, and that customers will pay a premium to make an uncertain situation less risky; this is the basis for the insurance industry. By forcing professionals to obtain licenses, it reduces the risk to consumers of hiring someone substandard.

This question is misleading and poorly phrased from an economic point of view. Consumers are not paying higher prices for the same services; consumers are paying higher prices for higher-quality services with an increased assurance of hiring someone competent. It is not the same product.

3. Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago. (unenlightened answer: disagree)

This one I will give to the authors; in general, standards of living around the world have risen in the last 30 years. There are a few arguments to the contrary with some countries (Chad, Sudan, etc) facing deep civil war and others that have been particularly exploited, but overall it’s hard to deny that living standards have risen.

4. Rent control leads to housing shortages (unenlightened answer: disagree).

Yes. Every economics textbook and its mother points to rent control in New York City to demonstrate the effects of a price ceiling on supply. The argument is that at a lower-than-market price, more units of housing will be demanded than supplied, mutually-beneficial transactions will be prevented, and there will be a housing shortage. People who want housing will not be able to find it.

While the above is true, I think that it understates the alternative: the equilibrium rental rate pricing many potential consumers out of the market entirely. This is another serious problem facing my local housing market here in Vancouver, where the market price leaves many on the streets. Rent control or not, many people will find themselves outside the housing market. The question is whether we would prefer to cheap but high-in-demand housing, inefficient by economic standards, or expensive and efficient housing. Either way, some potential consumers are left out.

5. A company with the largest market share is a monopoly. (unenlightened answer: agree)

This question is very fuzzy in terms of its accuracy; either answer has legitimate justifications. A monopoly is usually thought of as a firm that occupies an entire market–in other words, they are the only producer supplying a particular good. The strictest economic definition characterizes it as such. In practice, what we refer to as “monopolies” in the real world are very rarely absolute. More liberal (pun intended) and just as legitimate definitions within economics characterize a monopoly market as a market in which one particular firm holds significant market power to set higher prices, arising in markets with little substantial competition. In economic theory, only a company that is the sole supplier of a good can be a monopoly; in practice, one particular firm with substantial market power can form an effective monopoly.

6. Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited. (unenlightened answer: agree)

I’m not sure what definition of “exploited” the survey authors are using, but I find this assertion just shocking in its lack of empathy. Supporters of sweatshops argue that child labour is unavoidable in countries with populations so poor that children must work or their families will starve; that they are popular in poor communities because they offer higher wages than other options; that we can’t expect the labour standards of industrialized countries to apply to poorer countries quite yet.

I have many concerns about the ethics of paying a child $0.15 cents an hour to produce t-shirts that sell for $30 in developed countries. Surely there is room for a higher wage in that mark-up, at least enough to reduce a working day from 12 to 6 or 8 hours, or for investment in humanitarian aid and social programs that help families avoid depending on their childrens’ wages.

How is it not exploitation to not only expect long hours at low pay, but without the freedom to form unions, in ill-ventilated factories, and without access to clean water at work? Or with chained fire exits that have already led to several deaths? Or workers that are physically abused by their superiors? Or being forced to work mandatory 19-hour shifts?

Anyone who seriously argues that overseas workers for American factories are not being exploited is either ignorant or in denial, or has a serious flaw in their definition of exploitation.

7. Free trade leads to unemployment. (unenlightened answer: agree)

Economists will argue to death that free trade will lead to the loss of jobs that weren’t efficient anyway and will be more than redeemed by the creation of newer, better (more efficient) jobs in other industries. I am extremely skeptical.

NAFTA, for instance, has been devastating for poor Mexican farmers, who find their products priced out of the market by a flood of cheap imports from the heavily subsidized agricultural industry in the United States. Furthermore, many of the jobs in heavy industry created to balance the loss in agriculture have since been lost to China, where wages and production costs are even lower. Furthermore, some evidence points to a lowering of real wages and greater income inequality in Mexico since NAFTA. Overall, job creation estimates were exaggerated and job loss estimates were understated.

8. Minimum wage laws raise unemployment. (unenlightened answer: disagree)

Yes. In contrast to the issue of rent control, which forms a price ceiling, economists argue that the minimum wage forms a price floor, at which there will be a surplus of labour. More people will want to work at minimum wage than employers are willing to hire, and as the cost of hiring a worker increases (minimum wage goes up), employers will hire even less. It sounds very reasonable in theory.

Real-world measurements of this effect are split. Some studies show a minor effect of a decrease in employment with an increase in the minimum wage. Others argue that the overall effect of a substantial increase in the minimum wage forms a net force that is overwhelmingly positive. Recently, there has been strong consensus by many economists that a higher minimum wage does more good than harm for lower-income workers.

-

If I had been given this survey, I don’t know what I would have scored. I am familiar with the economic concepts behind all of these questions and how they work; working from what is technically correct at the conceptual level, I suspect that I would have correctly answered every question except numbers six and seven, on which I refuse to relent.

Yes, it’s true, most of the answers that the author gives to those questions are “correct” in the economic sense. But I, like many on the left, have difficulty circling “Agree” to an assertion that housing restrictions raise prices and leaving it at that. We are too busy thinking about everything else: “I agree that the statement is technically accurate, but I feel that it misrepresents the issue by reducing it to efficiency and there is so much more to the case at hand.” As an economics major and a leftist, I understand these concepts and how they work, and I have made a value judgement, a trade-off–that social equality means more to me than efficiency.

Is that unenlightened?

Change

Let’s talk change, folks.

When I say change, I don’t mean the forces in our own lives – I mean the political buzzword that’s been adopted by supposed progressives nowadays. How about some word association? Be honest: what was the first thing that popped into your head when you saw the title of my post?

Was it Obama?

I admitted to liking Obama before, but when I looked over that post of mine for a refresher, I felt a bit uneasy about some of my claims, being that my politics have evolved in the year since that was written. Although my blog as been silent, I’ve always been reading news feeds from several different sources, and my skepticism continues to grow.

This morning, Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing brought up an excellent article from the New York Times , published in 1999, about the original legislation that deregulated the banking system. Please read it. It’s both hilarious and sobering in hindsight.

“The measure, considered by many the most important banking legislation in 66 years, was approved in the Senate by a vote of 90 to 8 and in the House tonight by 362 to 57. The bill will now be sent to the president, who is expected to sign it, aides said. It would become one of the most significant achievements this year by the White House and the Republicans leading the 106th Congress.”

“The decision to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 provoked dire warnings from a handful of dissenters that the deregulation of Wall Street would someday wreak havoc on the nation’s financial system.”

”I think we will look back in 10 years’ time and say we should not have done this but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past, and that that which is true in the 1930’s is true in 2010,” said Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota.

The concerns that we will have a meltdown like 1929 are dramatically overblown,” said Senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska.
Ridiculous, isn’t it?  We can have a laugh at the “expert opinion” in 1999; perhaps some of us will look at this in a mindful light and take what passes for an “expert opinion” nowadays, too, with a grain of salt.

That’s all OK, but it’s not what I’m trying to point out (well, maybe a little bit).

This is the third paragraph of that article, if you haven’t already had a look at it:

”Today Congress voted to update the rules that have governed financial services since the Great Depression and replace them with a system for the 21st century,” Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers said. ”This historic legislation will better enable American companies to compete in the new economy.”

Lawrence H. Summers?

Larry Summers ?

As in, currently the appointed Director of Obama’s National Economic Council, that Larry Summers?  Yes!  The very same!

Wondering what else I could find out about him (aside from his infamous remarks as Harvard’s President that women may possibly have a lower aptitude than men for math and science), I did some research.

To quote :

“During the California energy crisis of 2000, then-Treasury Secretary Summers teamed with Alan Greenspan and Enron executive Kenneth Lay to lecture California Governor Gray Davis on the causes of the crisis, explaining that the problem was excessive government regulation. Under the advice of Kenneth Lay, Summers urged Davis to relax California’s environmental standards in order to reassure the markets.

Doesn’t that fill you with confidence?

Aren’t you glad things have changed since Clinton and Bush and all those crazies were in the White House?  Aren’t you glad new people with new ideas are running the country?

I know I am.

Disaster Movies

As a captive to the vision of the director, you, the audience of a disaster movie, are presented with a character or set of characters with which to sympathize.  Of course, they are likable, or at least have some redeeming trait to connect them emotionally with the audience; having small children, or something like that.  You, the audience, are tuned into their circumstances.

After an EMP emitted by the invading alien tripods disables all electrical systems in the 2005 remake of The War of the Worlds, the main character steals the only working car in the entire city, intending to drive himself and his two children to safety in Boston.  He drives along deserted backroads and in the middle of nowhere, safe from city mobs, warns his kids that somebody might want to try and take their car – to evacuate themselves and their own families.

Their car being later taken from them as predicted, the characters try to get on a ferry to cross the river and escape the aliens. As the ferry attempts to cast off (without our characters on board), the military sets up a blockade to stop panicked evacuatees left on the shore from rushing onto the boat.  The situation is tense, but ultimately, you, the theatre-goer, hope that the characters the writer chose for you will disobey the blockade; that they will shove others away the hardest and push their way through.

After our characters had hijacked someone else’s car (the only working one in the city), hidden away with it, and passed children slowly walking alone down the street, a stranger graciously offers the father and daughter (the son having been separated from them earlier) shelter in his basement. He tells them that he has enough food and water to last for weeks, and he says they may stay as long as they like.  When the aliens discover them, however, the man expresses interest in fighting back, and will not be quiet when the aliens are above them.  Our character, the father, fears that this man will compromise their survival, and subsequently takes him into the other room and kills him with his bare hands.

In a disaster movie, we want our characters to survive despite all the odds. But our characters are only a few of thousands fleeing the same fate. There is nothing about our characters that makes them more deserving of survival than all people they pushed out of the way to get to the ferry, or denied a ride in their car. We cheer when our character steals the only working car to escape the aliens. Possibly, we are also expected to cheer him on when he kills his generous host, who may compromise the survival of himself and his daughter (I did not cheer).  We hope that our character loots that last package of food, at the expense of others equally deserving.

Disaster movies give us one cast to sympathize with, and they are held by us, at least temporarily, to have more importance than any other human being that might impede their survival.

This is simply feeding our base instinct.  As a humanist, I have to believe that there is potential to surpass that.  Not only potential, but obligation. We mature as a species and as individual people when we force ourselves to overcome selfish urges and reach for something beyond the feral. Disaster movies should not be about the characters that shove the hardest or kill their hosts to survive, although I’m sure they would lose a lot of revenue with that suggestion. A disaster movie for a century of reasonable human beings should be about the characters that cooperate with total strangers, that are willing to take risks and make sacrifices to help others, even strangers, survive.

But I guess that doesn’t sell movies, now does it?

You may have heard about it recently in the news, depending on where you live.

On February 10, 2008, the birthday of death-by-Scientology victim Lisa McPherson, the internet group “Anonymous” organized – without a notable leader or leaders – mass worldwide protests of the Church of Scientology. More than 7,000 people in nearly 100 cities protested outside Scientology churches, sporting inside-joke Guy Fawkes masks.

Today, on March 15, 2008, the first Saturday after the birthday of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the same thing, under the code name “Operation Party Hard”. In parody of LRH’s birthday, Anonymous this time wore party hats and passed out party favors to fellow Anons. Cake was served. Along with chants of “CULT!” and “SCIENTOLOGY KILLS!” were hearty, mocking choruses of the Happy Birthday song.

Welcome to the internet culture of Anonymous.

Since Anonymous was first established, it has abided by its own “Rules of the Internet”. There is a list somewhere of 48 of them but only 3 “real” rules: 1, 2, and 34.

The first two are in the spirit of the Fight Club:

Rule 1 of the internet is “Do not talk about Anonymous.”
Rule 2 of the internet is “Do NOT talk about Anonymous.”

There have always been plenty of Anons who, feeling superior in being part of a group so cool that it can’t be mentioned to outsiders, have gone and shamed their fellow Anonymous by bragging about it to their friends and coworkers. (But most Anons have done this at least once.) In general, though, Anon kept it within Anon.

Through 2007, rules 1 and 2 kept weakening within Anon. Guy Fawkes masks (yes, an inside joke) started to show up at anime and gaming conventions around the globe. Anonymous’s flamboyance in the real world continued to increase until it declared war against Scientology, after which it did away with rules 1 and 2 for good. A couple of years ago, people arranging local meet-ups of Anonymous would be mocked for it. Now, Anonymous meets IRL with pride.

As long as there’s no longer a stigma associated with it, I may as well admit that I’ve been a “member” of Anonymous for over a year now.

Trust me, it’s not an elite hacker group at all, and Anonymous isn’t nearly as cool as it thinks it is. But to its credit, Anonymous is probably the most massive, effective, and fascinating destructive force for “justice” on the internet. Its culture is fascinating. Its methods, though disagreeable at times, are both hilarious and effective. Anonymous has its own subsects, its own politics, and its own justice system. I can’t tell you how wonderful it has been, as a person so intrigued by sociology, to watch this culture develop over the last year.

Anonymous would not be pleased, but I really feel like I need to share some of my more intriguing observations about the culture of Anonymous. Look forward to some fascinating posts about the other side of internet culture showing up in the next little while. If my readers feel that it interferes too much with the regular content of my blog, I’ll start putting them on seperate WordPress pages rather than the blog itself. I just need to share these observations somehow.

This isn’t so much a post as it is a short rant.  About – what else? – the 2008 presidential race.

I understand that after the last eight years, we’re all starving for change.  Us Web 2.0 people probably feel that more than most, because we see how fast the world is changing every single day, and we’ve had a chance to experience that and be a part of it ourselves.

I like Obama.  I really do.  I appreciate what he stands for and what he does.

But why, internet folks, is this spilling over into hatred of Hillary Clinton?

Out of the first ten results I get by searching “Clinton” in Facebook Groups, six are ANTI-Clinton groups, including the first three.  The most disgusting of them all is the third, “Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich,” with 33,731 members at this time of posting.  Its description: “Dedicated to keeping Hillary Clinton out of the Oval Office and in the kitchen.”

Do you know how sick I feel when I look at that, as a girl with high aspirations?  What kind of a world can I look forward to when I graduate, where a woman campaigning for the highest office in America is mocked for it and told to get back in her kitchen?

I could shrug it off more easily if it weren’t one of the top three groups to come up when I search her name on Facebook.  The top result, “Stop Hillary Clinton,” has 788,487 members, and gives no reason on the group’s page for hating her.

It’s not just the conservatives that join these kinds of groups.  “Stop Hillary Clinton” claims to be bi-partisan on the front page.  Digg, which is from my experience mostly liberal, has not dugg one pro-Clinton item to the front page in the last month.  I see at least half a dozen anti-Clinton items come in every day, while the top ten list is always filled with praises for Obama.  In the comments on the anti-Clinton items, anyone that makes a positive comment on her behalf is dugg down into the negative hundreds.  Digg, and similar online communities, have such a staunch pro-Obama/anti-Clinton stance that it’s dangerous for your reputation on those sites to dare support or even defend Hillary Clinton.  Most disturbing, misogynistic comments are the norm.

I like Obama, really.  If he became president I couldn’t complain, and if he follows through with what he’s promised it could be an inspiring four – or eight – years.

But the anti-Clinton bent that some of Obama’s supporters have been taking online, especially the misogynistic anti-Clinton bent, and especially on Digg, is frankly disturbing.  Not to mention distressing, to me at least, who has to see good, liberal-minded people taking to bashing a female candidate simply because she’s female, and not Obama.

I feel the same way about Obama as I do about Jesus.  Great guy, good message, but his more extreme followers are freaking me out.  If you support Obama, good for you.  Myself – he’s not my cup of tea.  I have my own reasons for it that I’ve devoted a lot of time and thought to.  If he’s elected and does a great job in office, I’ll be the first to change my mind.

So please support Obama (or McCain) as much as you want, but keep it clean, and not misogynistic.  Digg and Facebook seem to have a problem with that.

Web 2.0 Compatible

I had a really interesting slip-up in my speech this afternoon. My friend and I were doing a crossword puzzle in our History class, as is our new routine (we only recently got into them, but we rock at them unashamedly). We were stuck on the name of a river in Venezuela. So without thinking, I told her, “When we’re done taking notes, I’ll just google it on the map.”

What I meant was that I would look it up on the wall map, of course (it’s a history classroom, it has more maps than students), but somewhere in my mind the verb ‘look up’ just slipped out as ‘google’. I didn’t even notice what I had said until she pointed it out with a joke that I had been spending too much time on the internet.

It’s fascinating to see the impact that Google has had on people’s everyday lives.

In my world, I see Web 2.0 fully entwined with our normal lives. I do suffer a significant population bias; mine is the world of Echo-Boomer teenagers and the IB program. The collective geekiness levels are enough to maim a small child, I’m sure, but the experiences I have IRL are sometimes so indistinguishable from my online life that it can feel sometimes that logging in to MSN, Facebook, or my usual forum haunts after school is like walking back into class, but without a teacher scolding us for talking too loud and being off-task.

My lab partner and I in Chemistry once came up with a funny monologue. The first classmate we showed it to advised us to act it out together on Youtube. We insisted that it was just a writing thing, and that if we ever posted it anywhere at all, it would be a short written piece. It wasn’t the stuff of Youtube videos. “But it has to be on youtube,” he insisted. “A monologue isn’t funny if it’s not on youtube.”

Even earlier in the year, one of our Chinese projects was a cooking show that had to be filmed and presented to the class, no exceptions. The group commonly known as the class clowns (as close to class clowns as we get in the IB program, which is not very by normal standards) created the most amazing student video that we had ever seen that left us rolling in laughter. Someone on the other side of the class shouted, “That had better be on youtube tonight!” The same gang, doing an exaggerated dance to a romantic Mandarin song, was filmed on somebody’s cell phone with the promise/threat that “this is going on youtube!”.

The guys my lab partner and I team up with for dissections in Biology are “feminists”. This is the technical term they use to make themselves feel better about standing off to the side and looking sick while my partner and I (both female) cut open whatever slimy thing is on our dissecting tray. Our latest escapade was the dissection of a gigantic earthworm, which looked so cool when opened up that the guys forgot their queasiness and all four of us instinctively pulled out our cell phones to snap pictures of it.

Powerpoint presentations are the most commonly used medium for projects in all of our classes, especially History. More than half of the presentations I’ve seen link to a youtube video for a video clip or mini-documentary relating to the material, and this is completely accepted by all the teachers we’ve had so far.

I won’t even mention facebook. “Tell me on facebook,” “We’ll chat on facebook,” “Those had better be up on facebook tonight!” are phrases we hear many times a day. Any photos taken during school (a large percentage of us bring our digital cameras) will be on facebook within the next two days. And everyone has a facebook. Everyone. At the time of this posting, our school network has 1,444 people. I don’t know how many students are in our school, but I think that’s almost all of them.

Our more tech-literate teachers stalk MSN late on the nights before major projects are due and laugh about who was up at 3am in class. Little do they know that most of us are on facebook, checking our ‘friends online’ lists to see who shares that class with us so we can complain about the project, discuss our approaches, whine about what’s going wrong, and panic over the vaguely-defined criteria.

It should sound crazy, but it doesn’t. This generation – at least, my geeky IB circle of it – is totally Web 2.0 compatible.

As I mentioned in my earlier post Adventures in Russian Translation, I read a lot of foreign books. Nowadays, I estimate that I read more books that have been translated from foreign languages than originated in my own. I’ve even bought foreign books in their original language just so I can chip away at them slowly (I’m looking at you, Koji Suzuki). And I always make an effort to learn at least the fundamentals of any language that I read a translation of. It may sound crazy, but my father became fluent in ancient Greek just so he could read the original text of the Bible. So in comparison, I may be overenthusiastic, but I’m not that overenthusiastic.

What I mean is that I have a lot of experience in reading translations from foreign works, and I know what I’m talking about when I recommend one translation over another. I once sat on the floor of the bookstore with five different versions of Anna Karenina open in front of me, just comparing passages for twenty minutes before deciding on one. Of course I can’t suggest this for everyone, because most people won’t care enough to spend the time. But, for anyone looking to buy a foreign book of which multiple translations exist, I can help simplify the process with a few key points to look for that, in my own experience, tend to mark a high-quality translation. For some quick-and-dirty “cheats” that only take a few seconds each to find all these things in a text, scroll to the bottom.

1. A good translation is the truest to the language and culture.
First and foremost, something truer to the original language is always preferable over a version that has been Americanized or “smoothed over” to make it an easier read. Some translations of Tolstoy’s (non-War and Peace) work play down the Russian culture and time period so much that you might think it was all going on in your own backyard. What the hell is the point of that? If you’re going to read a classical foreign novel, for God’s sakes, read it right. Things like original names and slang of the time/place are a must. But more about that later. Bottom line: pick the translation closer to the original language. There are extremely rare exceptions; chances are yours is not one of them.

2. A good translation uses original character names, including prefixes, suffixes, nicknames, and traditional formats.
This is very important, especially in languages like Japanese or Russian where nicknames and suffixes are crucial parts of character relationships.

Example: You cannot properly read a Japanese novel or manga or whatever without honorific suffixes. You just can’t. All those -sans, -chans, and -kuns are absolutely crucial; it’s not just a way of saying “Mr” or “Miss”. In Japanese, suffixes are almost always used for any relationship. Only some family members and good friends are allowed to drop suffixes, and even then, they are still occasionally used.

Suffixes hint at social hierarchy and the closeness of relationships. Girls and small children are often given the suffix -chan (as in, Ayumi-chan), which means small, and it can be used to indicate cuteness or perceived cuteness. It can be added on to last names or first names. The suffix -sama is given to those above one’s own position, or whom one respects (as in, Yamaguchi-sama). There are others: -kun indicates a friend or someone one is familiar with (usually male); -dono is an archaic term for ‘Lord’ or ‘Lady’ or someone to be greatly respected, and is essential to be retained in classical Japanese literature; -senpai is used in high school dramas to indicate an upperclassman. These suffixes hint at the nature of relationships between the characters, and it can be a big deal in a story when a suffix is dropped or an honorific is changed from -chan to -san, or from -senpai to -kun. They represent growing relationships between the characters.

Similarly, classical Russian literature has characters referring to others by nicknames that can reveal the nature of their relationship. In The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, almost everyone in the book refers to the character Aleksey Fyodorovich Karamazov by his nickname ‘Alyosha’. his indicates that he is well-liked and on informal terms with everyone he knows. On the other hand, he mostly refers to other characters by their given names, being more polite. His brother, Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov, is by contrast very serious and morose; he calls everyone except Alyosha by their formal names and no one, not even his brothers, call Ivan by any nickname. This suggests rightly that none of the characters are close to Ivan. Their father, Fyodor, constantly refers to his son by extremely “cute” names (Alyoshechka/Alekseychick, Vanechka, Mitenka) while drunk; the drunker he gets, the “cuter” and more elaborate his nicknames for them become.

The only exception to this rule is when an extremely literal phonetic rendering of a name spoils the intended meaning. For instance, the Japanese manga/anime Death Note has a main character named Light (actually written in Japanese to sound like the English word, not the Japanese word for light). Some translations give the the character’s name in English as “Raito”, which is how it is written with the Japanese alphabet; however, it is written to be pronounced as close to “Light” in their language as possible, because there isn’t an “L”- or terminal “T”-sound in Japanese. “Raito” is just an extremely literal rendering of “Light”, but English audiences that don’t know anything about Japanese would never pick that up, and besides, it ruins the author’s original intentions for that name. Translations that do this sort of thing are just silly. My name written with the Japanese alphabet spells “Kurisuteiin”, but would I ever want it translated back into English as that mess of letters instead of “Kristine”? No. That’s just stupid. That kind of phonetic rendering has no meaning outside of its home language and shouldn’t be translated literally anywhere.

3. A good translation retains language-specific words that cannot be directly translated.
Words that do not have any direct translation, such as a kind of food or clothing, should not be omitted from a translation. They are much more descriptive than another language’s attempt to work around them. A footnote and explanation is always, always superior to a smoothing over of the text. There aren’t any exceptions to this one. Aside from cultural things like food and clothing, some languages have words for things that others do not, and they should be properly explained in a footnote rather than indirectly translated.

For example, the English version of the popular anime series Inuyasha translated the Japanese concept of youkai to “demon”, which is not culturally correct. In Japanese folklore, a youkai is kind of a supernatural creature or spirit that typically has both human and animal body parts. Depending on the subtype, their behavior ranges from melancholy to mischievous, to neutral or destructive. In our language, a demon is something evil and associated with religion and Satanism – very far from the concept of Japanese youkai. Introducing the creature called “youkai” to western audiences would have been preferable to associating it with Satanism.

4. A good translation retains original puns and references to something about the language.
It’s better left intact and explained with a footnote than worked around or ignored altogether. Would Shakespeare’s plays with puns upon puns be as effective in French or Japanese? Of course not. References to aspects of the language are just as important.

For instance, this scene from The Brothers Karamazov makes a reference to an aspect of the French language, which both of these Russian characters are aware of: the use of the informal tu over the formal vous to mean “you”. In this scene, the character Ivan is having a hallucination, and he is aware that the person he is speaking with only exists in his head and is an extension of himself.

“I am pleased that you and I have passed straight to addressing each other as ‘tu‘,” the guest began.
“Fool,” Ivan laughed, “do you suppose I would address you as ‘
vous‘?”

This is important, because in context, it shows us that even while Ivan is hallucinating, he is aware of it, and is able to understand that the person he is talking to is just himself – he is commenting on how strange it would be to refer to “himself” by the formal vous. The hallucination’s goal in the conversation is to convince Ivan that he is real, and not just a figment of Ivan’s imagination; addressing his hallucination as tu over vous shows that Ivan is resisting and remains firmly convinced that his hallucination is his own mind playing tricks on him. In comparison, this is the original and more popular translation (it was the first on the market) of the same passage by Constance Garnett:

“I am glad you treat me so familiarly,” the visitor began.
“Fool,” laughed Ivan, “do you suppose I should stand on ceremony with you?”

In this translation, you don’t see the same amount of detail that you do in the previous one. The concept of tu and vous is ignored altogether, and while it does still indicate that Ivan realizes his hallucination for what it is and refers to it informally, it’s not as obvious. It could just as well mean that Ivan doesn’t feel like wasting formality on this guest he does not want. The superficial meaning of his words is retained, but the deeper meaning is lost.

5. A good translation is true to the writing style and “voice” of the original author.
This can be the rare exception to #1 that I mentioned above: a translation that retains many aspects of the original language is nothing unless it can imitate the voice of the original writer. This isn’t easy to spot, because if you’re looking for a translation, theoretically you don’t know the original language and can’t judge the original voice of the author. Try anyway. A linguistically correct translation of Voltaire is worth nothing if it doesn’t read easily like the original French, or if it downplays his casual and witty way of writing. Translators of authors with a very unique writing style sometimes have to omit technical correctness in favor of style, and that’s fine. Optimally, though, you should be able to find a translation that preserves both the original voice and is true to the original language. As a warning, this is particularly hard to do for Asian languages (which really don’t translate well into English, especially Chinese!). However, there are many, many good translators who recognize this and try to compensate it as best they can. If their translated work shows many of the qualities of the above, chances are they’ll be respectful to the voice of the author as well.

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So how do you actually pick a good translation without meticulously going through every point above?

Well, I’ll share a secret with you about that: there are seven quick-and-dirty ways that I’ve found to cheat on determining all of the above. Each of them only takes a couple of minutes tops. When you want to determine the quality of a translation in a few minutes or less, here are some very quick things to look for that can signal high-quality right away.

QUICK AND DIRTY “CHEATS” TO FINDING A QUALITY TRANSLATION:

a. Footnotes.
Are there any? Look both at the bottom of the pages and the back of the book. A version with plenty footnotes is almost always preferable to a version with little or none. What kind of footnotes are they? Do they explain foreign phrases, puns, cultural aspects, historical background, relevance to the author’s personality or experience, the author’s original intent? Are there any footnotes where the translator explains a passage that could be translated ambiguously? (‘Yes’ answers are all desirable here.)

b. A long and thorough preface or introduction by the translator.
You don’t have to read it, just see if it’s there. This can replace footnotes if they’re not present (though they should be). Take a quick look at what it includes. Does it explain anything about historical background? The author’s life and views? Translation notes? Themes to look for while reading? Again, you don’t have to read the whole thing, but a good, thorough introduction is often a sign of a dedicated translator.

c. Use of foreign words and phrases when appropriate.
If a word cannot be accurately translated into English (see above), it is usually italicized and possibly footnoted. Flip through the book and look for italicized words. Even if they’re not explained on that page or footnoted, it might mean that they’ve already been used once or twice and explained then. Looking for italicized words is a quick and dirty way to judge the translator’s attention to accuracy.

d. Rendering of names, if appropriate.
If you know anything about the original language, flip through the body of the book and see if you can pick up anything about the character’s names, especially when spoken by another character. If the language attaches any suffixes or prefixes to names or otherwise renders them in a different way from English (eg, Russian), then it should be apparent in the text.

e. Obvious “fudges”.
This one is hard to explain, but just use common sense. Skim a couple of pages and use what you know. If you know that the book is supposed to take place in 19th century Russia and all the main characters’ names are in English throughout the book, that should be a red flag going up in your head. Or if the book takes place in medieval China but the main character’s name is Fred for some reason. Just use your common sense to look for obvious fudges.

f. Consistencies between translations.
This one requires a bit of comparison, if you have the time, but it’s very simple. If the accepted, translated title of a book is The Brothers Karamazov and is titled thus by a dozen different versions, a lone translation that calls it The Karamazov Brothers may not be as “standard” as the others, which may cause confusion if you try to discuss a particular passage with someone. This is particularly for classical literature. (However, it’s not always accurate; most translations of TBK call the main character “Alexei”, whereas my personal favourite calls him “Aleksey”.)

g. Detail and consistency in the first paragraph.
If you have the time, read the first paragraph of each translation. How do they differ? Which ones go into more detail? Which ones strike you as more accurate? Which ones are you more comfortable with? Any versions that see wildly different from the majority of the others should usually be discarded.

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Of course, not all of these things need to be present in a book for it to be a good translation. If you can find one with all of the above, that’s the optimal, but shoot for the translation with the most. Read the opening paragraph of each version. Think about the time period and country or origin and look for cultural hints like rendered names and italicized words. Look at the quality of the footnotes and the introduction. The most important thing is that you think about whatever you do and use your own judgement and common sense to pick the best translation, especially if it isn’t apparent. And the more foreign books you read, the better idea you’ll have of what else to look for in a translation.

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