Staff oversee the printing of a Burmese-language newspaper in Rangoon (Yangon). Photograph: Adam Dean/New York Times
It is the dawn of democracy in Burma (Myanmar). If only the Burmese had their own word for it. As this former dictatorship opens to the world, language is a stumbling block.
For half a century, Burma was so cut off from the outside world, people were jailed for owning an unauthorised fax machine. As the rest of the world was hurtling into the information age, the strict censorship of publications, limited access to global media and creaking connections to the internet stunted the evolution of the Burmese language, leaving it without many words that are elsewhere deemed essential parts of the modern political and technical vocabulary.
Today, as Burma embraces change, many foreign words are being imported wholesale, but their meanings are getting lost in translation. The English word democracy was subsumed into the Burmese language decades ago – it is pronounced dee-mock-rah-SEE – but for many Burmese it remains a foreign and somewhat abstract concept. No native words exist for other common ideas like racism, federal or globalisation.
“Burmese has a far poorer political vocabulary than English,” says U Thant Myint-U, a historian who is also an adviser to the president. “At a time when everything is about the country’s political future, it’s a liability and a constraining factor.”
When foreign experts recommended the government pass a computer privacy law, Burmese translators scratched their heads because there is no precise translation for privacy in Burmese. The very idea may not exist, possibly because little privacy is found in a society in which people traditionally lived and slept in common areas.
Interpreters are also stumped when parades of foreign advisers and scholars preach the virtues of strong institutions. While Burmese has a word for an organisation, linguists say, no single word conveys the meaning of an institution.
Under British colonial rule, English words leached liberally into Burmese, yielding such Burmese words as budget and beer. But the xenophobic military governments of the past five decades prohibited the use of English loan words on the grounds they were culturally disruptive, scholars say.
Since the military officially relinquished power in 2011, foreigners have been pouring into the country. Thant Myint-U, whose grandfather U Thant was the secretary general of the United Nations in the 1960s, says he has been in meetings between the president and foreigners where translation is done by some of the country’s top interpreters. “Ten per cent is still lost in translation,” he says.
Vicky Bowman, a former British ambassador to Burma, says 10 per cent is optimistic. “I would say it’s more like 30 per cent to 50 per cent,” she says.
Bowman is director of an organisation called the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business. When she and her colleagues wanted to translate the name of her organisation for Burmese speakers, it took hours. They came up with a Burmese name that in English sounds like a bad internet robo-translation: “Burma economic sector having and assuming the responsibility, support-help department.”
The structure of the Burmese language, part of the Sino-Tibetan language family, varies considerably from English. Written Burmese has no spaces between words and is generally wordier than English.
Burmese is far from unique in having words that are difficult to translate, says John Okell, a scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and one of the leading linguists of the Burmese language.
“Plainly, between any two languages there are words in one that seem to have no equivalent in the other,” he says. “As Myanmar opens up, an increasing number of English words are being imported and slowly standardised. It’s a gradual process.”
No one is suggesting these linguistic hurdles are insurmountable; concepts can be explained and understood even where no precisely translatable word exists. The borrowed word democracy has since been assimilated into Burmese and is even in the name of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy.
But some question how well the term is understood by Burma’s 51 million people after so many years of brutal suppression.
“All these things – democracy, institutions, even freedom – I don’t think Myanmar people know what true freedom is or what to do with it,” says U Thaung Su Nyein, the editor-in-chief of 7Day Daily, a Burmese-language newspaper.
“For them being free might mean, ‘As long as no one is knocking on my door in the middle of the night, I’m free.’”
Even words and phrases that are not difficult to translate can have very different shades of meaning because of the legacy of military rule. The term “rule of law” has become a mantra for Aung San Suu Kyi, the British-trained Nobel Peace laureate and icon of democracy. She rarely fails to mention the importance of the concept in speeches around the country. But to the ears of many in Burma, the rule of law sounds similar to exhortations by generals to obey the law – the junta’s law.
Rule of law “is not an attractive concept”, says U Pe Myint, a commentator and columnist. “We do not usually equate the rule of law with justice. It has connotations of pacifying, subjugating people. I think most people don’t really understand what it means.”
A similar problem of interpretation exists in the country’s peace talks with ethnic armed groups. Ethnic minorities are demanding a federal system, but federal is a term, directly borrowed from the West, that is still abstract in Myanmar. To military leaders, the word sounds threatening because they link it to secession, Thant Myint-U says.
“You assume that another person has the same interpretation as you,” he says. “But these words can mean very different things to different people.”
Burma has one foot in its dictatorial and paternalistic past and one foot in a western-inspired dash for democracy. This makes for odd juxtapositions. A recent edition of The New Light of Myanmar, a state-run daily newspaper, had both an article praising the “strength of honest and hard-working peasants” and a story about the American television show Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
Younger Burmese are growing up exposed to modern technology and foreign concepts, creating a gulf of vocabulary between generations. Ei Myat Noe Khin, a 21-year-old developer who creates apps for Android phones, says her job is bewildering for some members of her family.
“When I talk about my work to my mother and her friends, I can’t explain it in Burmese,” she says. “There is no word in Burmese for developer, so I used the English word programmer,” she says. “If they don’t understand programmer, I say, ‘It’s what is inside your phone and makes it work.’”
“They say, ‘Oh, it’s something to do with computers!’” And they say it using the English word. There is no Burmese word for computer. Or phone, for that matter. – (New York Times service)