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An orphan by any other name…?

Eight of the ten US missionaries arrested for attempting to bring a group of children from Haiti to the Dominican Republic have been released. Two others remain in Haiti after being interviewed by a Haitian judge, according to The Washington Post.

I know very little about adoption practices in Haiti, and all I know about events in that country since the earthquake last January I have learned from the news media. My reactions here are more personal than professional.

Still, I can’t help but be reminded of Kerim’s postings at Savage Minds on the perils of “translation” by the US military and others in Iraq and Afghanistan that neglects the cultural and interpersonal dimensions of language (for example here and here). As I commented at the time, simply being able to speak two languages does not make one a translator; a proper translation should attempt to take into account the social context of an utterance as well as the sense of its linguistic form.

Even more apropos, I think, is Colin Jones’ article in the Japan Times on different views of “human rights”. The Japanese Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the children of Japanese fathers and non-Japanese mothers should be granted Japanese nationality even if their parents were not married. This was necessary, the court reasoned, because Japanese citizens can expect “protection of fundamental human rights in Japan” in ways that non-citizens may not. Jones notes that the phrase jinken shingai (人権侵害, literally “human rights violations”) is often used in Japanese legal discourse to refer to bullying in school or disputes surrounding employment.

As I suggested in 2008, even though a Japanese-English dictionary will tell you that jinken means “human rights”, the two concepts are very different in Japanese versus Anglo-American legal traditions.

All of this has me wondering whether the thing that American missionaries call an orphanage is really the same as what most Haitians think of as an orphelinat. Again, my knowledge here comes almost exclusively from news media, but from those descriptions it appears that Haitian orphanages are quite different from my own image of an orphanage. Children may be sent to stay temporarily in an orphelinat, and their parents may visit them while they are there.

I’m willing to believe that people volunteering to work with orphans in Port au Prince have those children’s best interests at heart. I am not willing to take on faith, however, that they always know what those best interests are.