Friday, June 6, 2014

Wikipedia Language Barrier: The Great Wall

There was an important (and awful, as such things are) battle on the Korean peninsula in April 1951. The Chinese PRC army attacked UN positions held by troops from the USA, UK, South Korea (ROK) and other nations, but was held back by the UN troops. Casualties were heavy all around, especially for the Chinese. This and the subsequent few battles were important in delineating the modern border between the Koreas.

Youths playing the roles of soldiers on all sides should have been able to re-purpose all that war-cortisol toward cramming for exams, applying for jobs, awkwardly courting girls, and otherwise learning about and building their worlds.

But I'm not here to talk history, but meta-history. The English-language Wikipedia article is drastically different from the Chinese-language one. In particular,
  • The Chinese-language article includes exclusively quotes from Chinese politicians and generals, while the English-language article includes only quotes from American and British figures.
  • The English-language article describes how the battle is remembered by British communities for their fierce fighting, and how they defended their positions in certain battles with much fewer troops and fewer losses while causing large numbers of Chinese casualties. The Chinese-language article emphasizes the provocation created by Allied bombings of Pyongyang and other cities, the Western advantage in logistics, and marginal territorial gains from Chinese attacks.
  • The Chinese-language article follows the decision-making process through the battle of the Chinese side, and the English article follows the Allied side. For instance, the English article reads "The Royal Ulster Rifles were unable to secure the bridges. This development meant that the Belgian battalion on the north bank of the river was in danger of being isolated from the rest of the 29th Brigade." The English article does not explore similar tactical considerations from the Chinese army's point of view.
  • The distribution of content among these and other related wikipedia articles are structured differently in the two encyclopedia versions, reflecting the priorities of the authors in each language. 
  • The English wikipedia pages are larger and include more detail than the relevant Chinese pages. But, remember that Wikipedia is banned on the Chinese mainland. And, the corresponding page on the battle on the probably-censored but also collaboratively-written Chinese BaiDu/BaiKe encyclopedia website is similary detailed as Wikipedia, and also has a considerable political slant.
All in all, these articles could use a great deal of cross-pollination between language versions, but Google Translate isn't really up to the task yet, and has a long way to go. Chinese-proficient contributors in the diaspora and Taiwan express diverse political viewpoints, and often help balance the content across the languages for more important Wikipedia articles. But it seems that in an obscure historical article like this one, we can actually observe history being told by two sides. (Not that there are only two!) Wikipedia is doing its best at NPOV, but it's a tough world out there.

I haven't seen this kind of thing on Wikipedia much yet, but that's probably because I haven't really started looking for it yet. I bet it's everywhere...

In the future, these Wikipedia and BaiDuBaiKe articles will be very different from the way they are now. But here is my folder of pdfs of these articles and talk pages as they were today, for future reference.

Links to the articles: English-Wikipedia, Chinese-Wikipedia, Chinese-BaiDuBaiKe.

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