Ethics Matter: Political Scientist and Economist Francis Fukuyama

May 13, 2011

How does Francis Fukuyama view state formation, normative issues, and human behavior? Does he believe (as Andrew Carnegie did) that history moves in an upward direction and we can eventually put an end to war? This fascinating interview explores these questions and more.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Welcome. Our guest today is Francis Fukuyama. He is a senior fellow at Stanford University. Today we'll be discussing his book The Origins of Political Order.

Frank, thank you for coming today. We appreciate your being here with us.

Thank you very much.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I have spent some time reading your book. It is a wonderful read. This is a great opportunity to talk to you.

I wanted to begin by asking you to summon your inner Isaiah Berlin. If you remember, in his famous essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox" he said, "The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing." I wanted to see if you could reflect a bit, beginning with The End of History through The Great Disruption and Trust to The Origins of Political Order. Is there one big idea that holds this together?

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: Probably the big idea that unites a lot of those books is the idea of history, because The End of History was really about the evolutionary process. Looking back on it, after more than 20 years now, I see that I didn't get a lot of things right, and the history I was talking about was way too recent. But in some sense that has been a constant concern right from the beginning, is how development happens.

It's funny, because in my last academic position at Johns Hopkins I agreed to be the head of the International Development Program. When I was asked to do it by the dean, I said, "But I'm not a development person." She and a couple of other faculty members said, "Yes, you are." Then I thought for a while and I said, "Actually that's true. The End of History was about development, not just the way we think about it in poor countries in Africa today, but over the long term. That actually did summarize a lot of my interests. So maybe I am a development person."

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I wanted to also use this occasion to ask some very basic questions about how you understand history and human behavior.

You talk at the beginning of the book about human nature itself. You are somewhat optimistic, in the sense that there are certain innate characteristics in human behavior that lead as much to cooperation as to conflict. Is that an ongoing theme for you, or is that something fairly new in your work?

It begins really with Aristotle. He said that man is a political creature by nature, meant to live in society. That has always seemed to me a preferable way of understanding human beings than the early modern liberals who said human beings are these isolated individuals and they only come to society as a result of some kind of rational process where they calculate that it is in their self-interest to do that.

My book The Great Disruption was all about how human nature provided a certain base for human morality, and that morality grows out of the social instincts that we have as creatures that have gotten as far as we have through some form of cooperation. So it has been a longstanding theme.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: There seems to be something of a small boom in this way of thinking. David Brooks has been writing about this.

That's right.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Is this inspired by work in biological sciences or behavioral sciences?

Some of it is. Certainly the works that he cites come out of that. I have used a lot of evolutionary biology, comparative anthropology, and primatology in my book, but in a way you don't need that kind of material. You could also go to literature, poetry, or history to get the same kinds of conclusions. But all of that speaks to the fact that human beings never existed in a state where they were not bound to each other by ties that are not just cognitive and rational but also emotional, and that our deepest social bonds are really based in the motions rather than reason.

Modern science just tells us what commonsensically we kind of knew all along.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Building on that, I remember reading some years ago a book by Robert Wright called Nonzero. My recollection is that he builds on this idea that we can look at history and the trajectory of history as being as much about cooperation; you talk about reciprocal altruism or enlightened self-interest, that what we do depends on how it affects others. Is that fair? Is your work in that camp, meaning looking at history in the sense of nonzero versus zero-sum?

Bob Wright's book is kind of amazing. It's a brilliant book. He points out, among other things, that we think of ourselves as an individual but actually we consist of several billion cells that learned to cooperate with one another, that we evolved out of one set of creatures, and what we are is in fact the result of a prior evolution of cooperation. That's Wright.

But where I would put in an important caveat is that that evolutionary process is also driven by conflict, and conflict and cooperation are two complementary sides of the same process. In many ways you can't really have one without the other. That is the tragedy of human existence, that we like to think of ourselves as cooperative angels, but if we weren't selfish devils in a sense, we'd never learn cooperation in the first place.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Right. That's great. It leads to actually my next question, because I was going to go back to the Hegelian roots of The End of History.

In The End of History you talk about history having some sort of direction. It reminded me of Andrew Carnegie, who also believed that history had some sort of direction. His view was that mankind was improving, that there was moral development in addition to political development. As part of this direction, things like—famously he referred to slavery, dueling—these things would be perceived as illegitimate as part of this direction. But then he came out against war and conflict. He did think that there would be some evolution where rational human beings would see war as immoral.

Was that just a case of him just going a little bit too far?

I don't think so. There are a number of anthropologists that have done empirical estimates of homicide rates over the very long span of human history. There is a prior tradition that comes out of Rousseau where people believe that violence in human history was an evolved characteristic, that the noble savage was actually peaceful, and also eco-friendly and very green. It turns out that everything we can tell about early human beings suggests that is not true, and indeed the primary precursors of human beings don't look like they were very peaceful either.

When you estimate murder rates in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, or you try to estimate rates of violence in archeological digs where they have uncovered among Neanderthals and among other early human communities mass graves, and lots of evidence of really terrible violence inflicted on other people, it looks like we are actually getting better, although you wouldn't know that from the current headlines. But the rate of homicides in Washington, D.C., is still notably lower than it was in London in the 15th century, and that in turn was a lot lower than it was in hunter-gatherer times. So there is some empirical ground for saying that things are getting better.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: So there may be a way to think about conflict in a way that doesn't necessarily lead to total violence, chaos, industrial war, and that it can somehow be domesticated in some way.

We are very cynical about that because of the 20th century. The 19th century had been a century of progress, economic growth, and was largely free of large-scale wars. It turned out that once you turned industrial production towards the process of war, you could kill an awful lot of people.

But again, to put that in an even broader historical context, the 20th century ended in 1945 in a certain way and things have been quite peaceful, although obviously the potential of nuclear weapons is still there.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Just following this line of thought, would it be reasonable to think about the future of war as more like cooperative policing in some way as a normative goal, that we could somehow—of course we'll have conflict, but in a way that is somehow controlled?

It's conceivable. Right now the prospect that any large industrialized wealthy country is going to attack another large wealthy country just for purposes of some kind of material gain is pretty small. In fact, if you think about the wars that we face right now, it's terrorism, it's ethnic conflict, it's various things that don't involve large states. They may involve ruptures within states, but the scale of it is still much smaller.

One point about violence that actually came when I was doing the research for my book. In a lot of human history, in the whole continent of Eurasia you had this constant threat of barbarian invasion. The Chinese, the Europeans, the Romans, the Persians—everybody faced this.

It seemed to me that if you consider the level of violence that was inflicted on people, we should actually be grateful that there are no Mongols today, or at least the Mongols that are there are just peaceful sheep herders. When the Mongols defeated the Russians and they sacked Kiev, they killed every single inhabitant save three or four families and didn't think twice about it. People routinely would have to endure seizures of their cities in which they turned to cannibalism and starved to death. That was a routine experience in human life.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: You are talking about the human experience and how it has changed. The other Hegelian aspect to your thinking goes to this idea of the struggle for recognition. The way I was reading this is that every individual has an impulse to be respected.

So to what extent do you think that is really what we are looking at today in politics? It is about the struggle for recognition?

That is a great deal of contemporary politics. It goes under the heading of identity politics, because what identity politics is all about is people saying that "I am an African-American"—or a woman or a gay or some other category of person who is disrespected in the past—and, "I want respect, I want official recognition that I am as good as anyone else." Nationalism, religion—all of this can be put under that heading.

These crowds in Afghanistan that have been rioting over this character in Florida who burned the Koran, that is ultimately what is driving them. They have no material interest in what this pastor does. But what they feel is that somehow their identity is being disrespected.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Does that equate with democracy in some way? Are the two linked, the struggle for recognition and democratic governance?

I think so. One way to think about democratic rights is that it is a right to be recognized as a person. What it means to say, "I am a citizen, I can vote, and I can express my opinion," is that, "I am a moral agent, I can make my own decisions, and what the government decides to do has to reflect my agency." That is really the profoundest meaning of democracy.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: So what do we do with a concept like illiberal democracy? Is that something that is sustainable, because it seems like there is an internal contradiction there?

It is certainly possible that democratic majorities can oppress minorities.

There are really two separate issues at stake. One is whether the population as a whole gets to decide. The second is whether they respect individuals. The two don't necessarily go together.

You can have illiberal democracy and you can also have a liberal autocracy, where the state actually does respect people but it doesn't allow them to vote.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Where do we put China in that spectrum now?

China is, unfortunately, neither. They don't have a rule of law and they don't have democratic accountability. What they have is a high-quality authoritarian government that on occasion mimics the behavior of a democratic society by being responsive and meeting people's demands but procedurally is really unaccountable.

Singapore is actually a more intermediate case, because they actually did inherit a rule of law from the British. So they've got the individual rights, but they are just not political rights in the same sense that we have them in the West.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: This is more of a personal question for you. When you make a normative judgment when you are looking at regimes, does the language and the concept of rights resonate with you? Is that one way you would judge a regime from a normative perspective, the concept of human rights?

Well, of course that's the way we in the West have understood legitimacy ever since Hobbes, Locke, and the American Founding Fathers.

Mary Ann Glendon, the Harvard legal scholar, wrote a very nice book about the nature of rights in which she talked about in some sense the abuse that the rights language has been subject to over time, so that today we attach a right to basically what is a want or an interest. That is the sense in which the current language of rights is perhaps not the most helpful way to think about—

JOEL ROSENTHAL: It's tricky, though, because it goes to the struggle for recognition, and that's the language that people use to claim it.

That's the language, that's right.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Another big thematic issue that you raise in the book which really struck me was the role of religion. As I was reading it, you paint again an optimistic view of religion, that religion in the historical context actually has been a source of norm formation and of building cooperative society.

So perhaps an unfair question—I'm not really asking you about the book, but it is logical based on the picture you have painted up to the French Revolution—but moving forward, do you think religion and religious institutions have the capacity to perform that positive social function in ways that will be pluralistic and promote cooperation?

It's not just could they, but it's that they have in many cases. We can't understand American democracy apart from American religion. It really did have that quality of providing people with community and yet being sufficiently tolerant and pluralistic that you could have multiple religious sects living next to each other and actually providing competition in a kind of marketplace of religious views that a lot of sociologists think actually enhanced the religiosity of Americans. When you could shop around in a certain sense for your particular faith, it meant that if you signed up for a particular church it's because you found that it actually gave you something in terms of meaning and community.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: But that goes to the American political order because it was an agreement that religion would be left private and not part of the state.

That's right. That was the foundation of modern liberalism. It grew out of the wars of religion in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. After the Reformation there was a kind of recognition that if you let religion into politics overtly there was a very dangerous outcome. So yes, you did have to tame religion before you could have religion become the basis of a peaceful democratic community.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: So is your assessment of what we see today, the radicalized or fundamental religions, that those are really marginal in some way and that they get attention because they make noise, but that's not the main story?

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: I think so. Obviously, the case that everybody has been looking at is radical Islamism. I have right along believed that the people that are the most extreme are a minority. They succeeded in intimidating a lot of people in those societies, but it was a passing phase, and that religion was a way of expressing identity for a great many Muslims and didn't really have to do with extreme religious beliefs or violence.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Our discussion is focusing on norms and normative issues. My definition of a norm is expected and required behavior. Does that sound right to you?

That's generally right. What it emphasizes is that it's a social thing. It's not a norm if other people don't expect you to behave according to those rules. If you have a private rule that only you obey, that's not a norm. It really is something that binds people together in a community and allows them to cooperate with one another.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: This gets to another issue I wanted to talk about, which is state formation, which is the important first third of your book.

One way to think about this is actually the breakdown of norms. When we look around today, some of the biggest threats are from failed states. Is that right? Is that what failed states are all about, it's the failure to sustain some sort of social norms and then embed them in institutions?

It is complicated, because the first states arose really out of tribal societies, societies that were organized on the basis of kinship. You wouldn't say that they failed; they were just weaker. The first states could concentrate power in a better way. Oftentimes they were quite tyrannical and they were just organized for war.

But there is a moral purpose that states often ended up filling, which was a role of protecting a public interest, because any society is going to be full of powerful people who use their power unjustly. In many ways the legitimate role of the state was seen as a protector of the weak against the strong.

Once that order arises and then it collapses, you then are thrown back into this completely anomic—meaning there are no prevailing norms—kind of situation of violence of the sort that we see in Somalia or other countries that have undergone this kind of civil conflict. That is in nobody's interest to exist in a society like that.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: So knowing what we know from your book about failed states, we are embarked in nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan, and perhaps other places. Is it a feasible idea to be nation building in this way, which is to help in state formation?

It is feasible, and outsiders have helped do this. But one of the reasons that I wrote my book is that I don't think we realize how difficult it is, how many resources it takes, and how long of a process it is.

For example, British colonialism in India actually built some important institutions—the army, the civil service, the bureaucracy. It united the country with an administrative language, which was English. But it also took 100 to 200 years to do it.

In American foreign policy the bigger problem is that we are in a hurry. We want to fix things and then get out because taxpayers don't want the burden of financing these endless-seeming wars. We have an attention span of about four or five years.

Under those circumstances, the answer is no, I don't think you can build nations. You can't really create durable institutions if you are not going to invest more time.

In fact, a lot of times you can actually make things worse if you are not serious. For example, in Nicaragua we intervened in 1927 and built one modern institution, the National Guard. We left in 1932, and then that National Guard was taken over by the Somoza family and used as an instrument of dictatorship. So that was a kind of nation building, but one that really went wrong in a very serious way.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Do you think it is malpractice to continue?

It is. That's why, in a sense, if you are really not prepared to stick it out, you shouldn't do it in the first place, because you should at least do no harm in these exercises.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I wanted to ask you a little bit about law, which is another important theme in the book. Since political order depends crucially on the rule of law—rule of law meaning rules that can be enforced—does it make sense to embrace the project of international law? You are talking about states and we are talking about rules that can be enforced. International law seems to be a different kind of project.

Yes, that's right. International law is a little bit like customary law before you had a state. In a tribal society, everybody was equal, and if somebody wronged somebody else, basically you would threaten retaliation, then you would negotiate, and then you would make a payment, which in the Germanic barbarian parlance was called a weregild. You had compensation through an arbitrator.

That is the state of international relations right now. There is no third-party enforcement, and so it is really not analogous to law within a state-level society.

So to really talk about international law in that sense you have to posit the growth of an institution that has something like international sovereignty, where it can really override the laws of individual nation-states. We are pretty far from that right now.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: In the interim, would it make sense to think about more international or global standards to hold individual states accountable to, rather than some sort of supranational institution?

Yes. I have always thought that the idea of going quickly for some kind of supranational institution was just unrealistic. The Europeans are discovering that. They have gotten the furthest of any region in the world, and they have run right into a whole host of problems because there just isn't the consensus and community that is really needed to do that.

But you can have cooperation without having sovereignty or super-sovereignty. And we need it. We need cooperation.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: You can have a sort of political order. It is ordered, but it is not instantiated in a government structure.

James Scott, who has written some wonderful books, like Seeing Like a State, and his most recent one is called The Art of Not Being Governed, makes this point: that you don't need a state to have order. Tribal societies don't have states and they have order.

You can have order in the international system without having a sovereign that can punish offenders. It depends on the alignment of interests of all the actors within the system and their willingness to behave moderately according to certain norms, even if you can't enforce those norms in a legal way.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: You've heard the slogan "Global problems require global solutions." One way to think about this would be that we don't necessarily then need global institutions.

It depends what you mean by an institution. If the institution is one that facilitates cooperation, then absolutely we need them. If the idea is that we need a state-like body that can actually enforce rules, I just don't think we are going to get there.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Accountability is a key element of your thinking about state formation. How do we think about accountability in terms of how we hold our community leaders accountable?

That's a good question, and it is one I have been arguing with some of my friends about. One view says accountability is procedural, and basically what it means is democratic, multiparty elections, because that is the main mechanism we use to hold leaders accountable.

But accountability is broader than just multiparty elections because you can have more informal kinds of accountability. For example, if a leader feels that he's got to explain to foreign audiences why the United States or some other country is doing what it's doing, that is a certain form of accountability.

There is also a degree of moral accountability. One of the classical ways in Chinese Confucianism that order was achieved was to educate the prince and the emperor to believe that he had a responsibility not just to himself and his family but to the broader public. There actually are a number of different ways of achieving accountability that don't simply relate to elections.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: So does WikiLeaks promote accountability or is that a sideshow?

You obviously can't have accountability without information. Governments need to do certain things in private, just like families and individuals need to do certain things in private. Not everything can be completely transparent.

But, in general, the information revolution has improved accountability because dictators can't hide the way that they were once able to when everybody has a cell phone camera and it's easy to get material out on human rights abuses and other terrible things that people do to each other. That does increase accountability across the board.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I want to ask you how accountability relates to legitimacy, because that's what keeps leaders in place. One interpretation of what we see in North Africa and the Arab world now is a loss of legitimacy. Mubarak loses power because he just almost overnight loses legitimacy in some way. Is that related to accountability? What is that process? How does that happen? How does it happen so quickly? Or is that just a mystery of social life? I don't know.

Legitimacy is the perception of justice on the part of a society. It doesn't necessarily correspond to some absolute standard of justice. When we had kings in the world, most of their subjects actually believed that monarchy was legitimate, even though in a democratic society today we no longer believe that.

So where does legitimacy come from? It is a mysterious process in some way, because it depends on people's ideas. A lot of times it can come out of religion, because religion sets certain moral or normative standards, and if the government associates itself or behaves in that fashion, then people will accord it legitimacy.

Today, that legitimacy is very much tied to democratic accountability. People believe that governments should rule with the consent of the governed; this is a basic principle of modern democracy.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I can't resist asking you: After the recent financial crisis, why hasn't the Wall Street system lost some sense of legitimacy? It seems like an institution that would be ripe for some kind of change. But for some reason it seems to be defying gravity in that sense.

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: Yes. It's very curious because, like in the 1930s, you'd think that there would be a big surge of left-wing populism against the people that brought all this pain and suffering on ordinary Americans and were making so much money at the same time. It's complicated.

Part of it is that, in a sense, the collapse wasn't great enough, because sometimes people really need an even huger crisis to be convinced of this sort of thing.

One more sinister view is that Wall Street is so rich and powerful that it could actually buy its way back into legitimacy through lobbyists. And sure enough, they are back to making money and they are just as big and concentrated as ever.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: But is there another way to look at it? We can look at it as the need for systemic reform, but also what about reform of the actors within? Is that a reasonable approach to a problem, meaning that people are proceeding with the wrong ethics operating within the system?

It's not just incentives, and I do think that ethics matter. It's interesting, if you talk to people who had been on Wall Street in the 1950s and 1960s, they will say quite frequently, "I can't believe the way the finance sector has evolved, because we weren't like that. We wouldn't take advantage of clients the way some investment banks do today. We wouldn't do these kinds of shady deals where we didn't think we were contributing to the good of the society."

In fact, it's an interesting critique of business schools that they typically have not regarded themselves as professional schools and other disciplines like medicine or law, where they are committed to, in a sense, a professional social ideal.

That's why you train people. They are committed to an economic view that "you take our courses and we teach you how to get rich." It's all a matter of self-interest.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: But also Wall Street 40 or 50 years ago was the establishment; it was almost a social class as well. So do you think that helped in the self-regulation of it?

I'm sure it did. One of the things that you learn from game theory and the observation of norm formation is that to get norms you need people that interact in small groups repeatedly over time, because if you can't embarrass somebody they are not going to behave properly, and you can't embarrass them if you can't remember their names or faces and so forth.

So to some extent as these financial markets have gotten more anonymous and bigger and the players can go in and out, you can't maintain norms anymore. Whereas if you had to meet them at the club for drinks every Friday—

JOEL ROSENTHAL: This is a great transition to the last question. I hope maybe you will raise some of this in Volume 2 of the book. It goes to the idea that ethics has to flourish within a community and there is a face-to-face human component to it.

At the Carnegie Council, many of the people involved with us are concerned with global-level issues, principally climate change, global-level conflict, and also economic instability.

Based on your thinking about political order, all that we've talked about, can you suggest a direction? What is a point of entry to think about a problem like climate change or global economic instability? They're such macro problems, how do we break it down so that we can make progress?

That's a really tough one. The typical route has been to show the poor polar bears on the iceberg and to make people identify with something real.

It's interesting that this is part of human nature and human cognition, that people can be shown a mound of statistics that empirically is unassailable, and a single image is much more powerful than that, because people's emotions are so much more the source of moral behavior than their reason.

So even though mentally they may look at the statistics on climate change and say, "That looks really bad," in human rights it is the image of the starving child or the violence inflicted on somebody that really gets at people.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: But at the level of identity do you think that it's possible that individuals will see themselves as part of a genuinely global political order, that they actually see that they are connected to it in some way?

I'd like to tell you yes, but—

JOEL ROSENTHAL: No, I'm a realist.

But I must say, quite honestly, that I don't see much evidence that that kind of global citizenship view has really won over very many converts, apart from fairly narrow elites in fairly rich countries. Even in the European Union, which has been trying to build a non-national European identity for the last several decades, what we see now is a reassertion of all these old national identities in terms of being Danish or Dutch or Italian or whatever.

I am not sure that recognition is going to be sought in these global cosmopolitan terms, because human beings identify with very different kinds of groups that are in many ways much more local.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Can you give us a little sneak preview of what happens in Volume 2, in the sense of how you complete the argument?

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: I want to cover several different things. I don't want to just tell the story of, let's say, the rise of democracy, which has been told by very many people.

One story I want to tell is the history of corruption and the rise of impersonal government, because one of the features of the modern world is that we don't just favor friends and family. We favor people on a kind of objective basis, where we are supposed to be indifferent to whether we know them, in terms of hiring, citizenship, and political rights. How do you get to a society that behaves on that basis when our natural instincts are to favor friends and family? The history of corruption, or how we move past certain forms of corruption, is an important part of the story.

The other big part of the story is about the spread of Western institutions to the rest of the world in the process of colonialism and nation building, and how everybody's indigenous traditions were either undermined, supplemented, or replaced by ones coming from outside of their society. That has been the story in so many of the non-Western parts of the world. A lot of the dysfunctions in developing countries come from that.

Then, the final one, that is probably the most related to ethics, is national identity. Ethical behavior is based on shared norms. We can have a pluralistic society, but even in a pluralistic society you have to share norms about tolerance and pluralism, and belief and argument, and deliberation and the like. The question is: How do you get these shared norms? How do people come to agree on certain basic rules for their society?

Those will all be themes in Volume 2.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. I hope you'll come back and share that with us. At the Carnegie Council we believe that ethics matter.

All right.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Your work is an inspiration to us.


JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you very much.

Thank you.

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