Kimberly Birdsall

Kimberly Birdsall (The Dzeno Association): At the time of her fellowship, Kimberly was pursuing her Master’s degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, with a concentration in U.S. Foreign Policy.



Reverse Xenophobia

17 Jul

English really is the universal language. Not love, nor bribery, as both of these have cultural idiosyncrasies. English.
Sometime in high school – and I believe most people of my generation have experienced this – I had a teacher or two who stressed a form of historical revisionism. You re-learn Christopher Columbus, and hear that Communism and leaders such as Fidel Castro are not really as evil as they were portrayed by the U.S. government in Cold War propaganda. And a teacher, Mr. Anderson perhaps, will tell you it is untrue that English is the most important language, that no one speaks English abroad, and you had better study your German homework, Mister.

These examples of revisionism are false. Fidel Castro really is the devil, estimated to be one of the richest men on the planet while the Cuban people have suffered decades of poverty. And English, being the language of global business, finance, entertainment, and the Internet, is almost a necessity. At least for those individuals and organizations wishing to be competitive and effective in the international context.

I have never been proud of this fact, have complained bitterly that Americans are not forced to learn more languages in school, and wish that I personally had more world languages under my belt. Yet, here I am in Prague, and my greatest contribution as an intern appears to be my ability to create professional and grammatically-correct documents in English.

I just finished a project proposal for Dzeno, for the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia. In exchange for creating databases of organizations in the Czech Republic who fight racism and xenophobia, and contacting them to form a network, Dzeno would receive money and computer equipment. Two things they desperately need.

Before I came to Prague, Dzeno’s proposals would be brought to a translator here. The result was that a gorgeous, inspirational proposal in the Czech language would be transformed into the messy English of a child. All with proper spelling (thanks to spell check), but with rambling sentences, mixed-up word order, and a lack of proper tenses and pronouns. Obviously not the work of a native speaker. And Dzeno pays for this service.

The last proposal I corrected was supposed to be for an “Educational and Media Center.” Instead, the translator used the word “Medial.” Medial, as in middle-of-the-road, and not in any way close to the word “Media.” And not only in the title, no, “Medial” was used throughout the 30-page packet. Such as “Freedom of the press and the medial…”

Maybe I am just caught up in my editorial pickiness. But if Dzeno had turned in such a proposal to the professional bodies of that great bureaucracy, the EU, it would have been thrown in the trash. Any organization who cannot use English correctly (or at least afford to pay for a proper translator) is not considered by the EU as competent enough to carry out their projects. Even private foundations, who are used to working with grass-roots NGOs, would cringe at such errors and opt to withhold grant money.

And such is the issue facing all small NGOs across the globe. Being the little guy means having no money, which means not having the resources to have influence in the international arena, which means staying the little guy forever. Dzeno is no exception. But with the Czech Republic joining the EU next year, they will need to adjust to the new arena. And accept the need for competent, professional English.

On a personal note, if I had one wish, I might well ask for the ability to understand and speak every language in the world. Language is such a cultural base, and without the subtle nuances of words, phrases, and puns, the essence of a society can never be fully revealed. On second thoughts, I would only ask for this if I was blessed with three wishes. I also have to wish for peace on earth and goodwill towards mankind.

Posted By Kimberly Birdsall

Posted Jul 17th, 2003

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