Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Lost in Translation

Is it possible that truth imitates fiction? Or maybe fiction becomes its own kind of truth. The New York Times has this piece about the epidemic of rape attacks in the Congo.

According to victims, one of the newest groups to emerge is called the Rastas, a mysterious gang of dreadlocked fugitives who live deep in the forest, wear shiny tracksuits and Los Angeles Lakers jerseys and are notorious for burning babies, kidnapping women and literally chopping up anybody who gets in their way.

What do tracksuits and Lakers jerseys have to do with forest gangs in the Congo?

A curious interaction often takes place when people like Congolese jungle gangsters watch the movies. What we see is not what they see. They combine Hollywood ideas of cool with their own ideas of murder. Concepts and words that have one meaning in the West sometimes assume a totally different meaning. The infamous General Butt Naked, for example, understood how to use the telephone. But someone else was on the line.

At age 11, he claims, the Devil called him on the telephone, commanding him to his later excesses. ... Blahyi has said he led his troops naked except for shoes and a gun. Apparently, he believed that his nakedness was a source of protection from bullets ... Some of Blahyi's soldiers — often teenage boys — would enter battle naked; others would wear women's clothes. In June 2006 Blahyi published his autobiography including pictures of him fighting with a rifle, wearing nothing but sneakers. ...

Maybe they were Converse, Chuck Taylor, Five Star rubber sneakers. Now he's been introduced to the concept of evangelism and pastoral care. I hope the words have approximately the same meaning.

Blahyi is now the President of the End Time Train Evangelistic Ministries Inc., with Headquarters in Liberia. He is married to Pastor Mrs. Josie and has three children: Michaela, Joshua Milton Junior, and Janice.

I've often told the story of cult militias in the Philippines attacking to the martial music of Tony Orlando's Knock Three Times on the Ceiling if You Want Me. And here's a classic I've posted before about the Filipino prison inmate take on "Thriller".

FWIW, Commander Robot of the Abu Sayyaf was so named for his proficiency at doing the Robot dance. Maybe one of the unrecognized skills needed for operating in the Third World is the ability to translate concepts in an effective way. This goes beyond mere language translation and involves creating attitudes and ideas that are equivalent to the ones one is trying to convey. Maybe in trying to explain the idea of secularism and democracy to the Islamic world it is necessary to use analogies and explanations wholly different from the familiar ones.


Blogger sam said...

I hadn't seen that clip before. You've got to admit, that track's got a great beat.

11/21/2007 03:56:00 PM  
Blogger F said...

The biggest day in Bamenda, Cameroun, or Filinghi, Niger, or any other number of other market towns, is the day the mission barrel arrives from the US with a new selection of used clothes. My favorites were always the slick nylon bowling suits from Ames, Iowa or Kearney, Nebraska, in bright reds and yellows. They were a hit with the folks as much for their smooth texture as their bright colors. But that always mystified me was how some kid in (very) rural Zaire or CAR could wear a thick woolen ski cap on a sweltering hot day (as they all were). If only the folks in Kearney knew how much profiteering was taking place from their charity, they might just throw that track suit or bowling jacket in the trash. F

11/21/2007 04:52:00 PM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

Watch a teenaged gangsta in LA bopping down the street under a semi-tropical sun, 90 degrees or more, with his baseball hat on and his hoodie pulled up and over it, beady white eyes peering out of the darkness of the hoodie in approved gangbanger style. You just know if the little cretin had a brain, it would be frying.

Oh, and to complete the ensemble, pants literally falling off his skinny skanky ass, and tennis shoes flopping untied on his enormous elephant feet.

THIS is supposed to make onlookers fear and respect him.

11/21/2007 05:30:00 PM  
Blogger El Baboso said...

You have hit on a very important point, Wretchard. The parts of our culture that are transmitted are rarely what we think they will be. I remember a certain little trip I made into Bolivia. I wanted to leave the press-ganged teenagers that we were working with with some appreciation for the American sense of fair play, or more participative leadership technique. I sometimes think that the main thing we left behind was a knowledge of how to apply a prison tattoo (with a needle and India ink). The kids were all sporting them before we left. I never did figure out who taught them that.

11/21/2007 05:36:00 PM  
Blogger Pax Federatica said...

Then of course, there's the phenomenon of sports apparel companies donating their unsaleable merchandise to kids in these same Third World countries. I wonder how many of these gangs there are whose members proudly wear shirts that read, say, "Chicago Bears, Super Bowl XLI Champions"? (To say nothing of how they might react when you try to tell them who really won that game.)

11/21/2007 05:38:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

nahnce commented, "and to complete the ensemble, pants literally falling off his skinny skanky ass,"

There's a little known origin to what most people consider a ridiculous fashion statement: it was started in prison as a way for prisoners to advertise their availability for sex.

Think of that the next time you see a punk attempting to look cool.

11/21/2007 05:52:00 PM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

Language appears to work in this way: we make some vibrations in the air but they press a chord of memory in the listener. The outcome is compiler dependent.

Years ago, before plastic bags become commonplace in the Philippines, some persons persons who had recently arrived from the United States would set out their trash in garbage bags. But because it seemed lunatic for people to put trash in a perfectly clean and new plastic bag, the low income residents would steal the garbage bag, leaving the trash in a heap by the collection point. In that economic context the garbage bag was too valuable for the garbage.

Suits in the Philippies are another ordinary item whose meaning has been subtly corrupted by context. The climate is so hot nobody but a nut would wear one. Many foreigners and ordinary Filipinos often use a guayabera type shirt called the barong tagalog at formal functions because it is cool and comfortable, but some Filipino high officials insist on using dark wool suits on every occasion. Why? Because it is impractical.

To understand the twisted logic you have to realize than only someone who can afford 24-hour central air conditioning at home, an air conditioned, chauffered limousine and a posh office can have any chance of wearing a suit without being bathed in sweat. The fact that you can wear a thick garment in the tropics is visual evidence you are somebody. And the hoi-polloi part before you as the Red Sea parted before Moses. Hence, Filipino high officials wear suits.

Maybe some other cultural type of logic drives kids in Africa to wear woolen beanies in 135 degree weather. I know what makes Filipino high officials and celebrities wear winterweight wool in a climate that would strike the average arrival prostrate. The suit is not a suit. It's a status symbol.

11/21/2007 06:38:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

It's stuff like this that makes William Gibson write contemporary fiction. What he wrote in the 80's was sci-fi (technologically and culturally). We now live in a William Gibson world.

11/21/2007 07:50:00 PM  
Blogger Towering Barbarian said...

A large part of what you are discussing has nothing to do with the 3rd World but is rather universal to everyone and is something anyone who follows the Muse must learn quickly and well if he is not to go insane - The artist may draw, the poet may write, the actor may declaim but it is the reader who chooses what he will or will not take away from the Art that he beholds. I say that this is a feature rather than a bug for it is upon this rock that every propagandist, especially the leftist propagandist, breaks himself. ^_^

Were it otherwise it would be easy for the Human Race to be reduced to automations. So let's be grateful that the choice of what the audience and the reader takes from what is given to them lies with them rather than with the performer. ^_~

11/21/2007 10:49:00 PM  
Blogger NoGenius said...

Wretchard: "Maybe in trying to explain the idea of secularism and democracy to the Islamic world it is necessary to use analogies and explanations wholly different from the familiar ones."

The most effective marketing campaigns I have ever seen are the recruiting commercials for the US Army or the Marines. They effectively reach out and show the achievements of the American ideals, coupled with being a bad-ass in 30 or 60 seconds.

King Arthur/Braveheart/LOTR type films also translate this sort of thing. Chivalrous men standing up to evil.

Maybe we aren't that far from reaching out in the way of which you speak, if these concepts could be culturally spun.

11/22/2007 06:24:00 AM  
Blogger RattlerGator said...

NahnCee, had you intentionally wanted to caricature yourself, I doubt quite seriously if you could have done a better job.

I mean, really, "tennis shoes flopping untied on his enormous elephant feet."

Obviously, NahnCee, they have scared the ever-lovin' hell out of you, my dear!

Those kids with supposedly elephantine feet (as opposed to what, mousey feet?) set the fashion trends for the youth of the first, second, and third world. And they are often bizarre trends, no doubt, but it has always been thus.

Wretchard, I agree with you and towering barbarian. All of this is consumer-dependent and true even in America. Your humorous examples also get played out in Black America, WASPish America, etc. To simultaneously stand between/within two symbiotic cultures and be conscious of the correctness of Booker T. Washington's famous opinion (as one as the hand, as separate as the fingers) is quite an experience and often humorous to the max.

Sometimes you're in on the joke, and sometimes the jokes on you.

What a world!

11/22/2007 08:05:00 AM  
Blogger Art Hippler said...

There is a famous phrase in Latin (used in introductory Latin courses) which translated says, "That which is received is received in the mode of the receiver".

11/22/2007 08:50:00 AM  
Blogger Art Hippler said...

We are always and ever less than a generation from barbarism and even savagery. Civilization is a thin veneer. If you doubt that walk through the once beautiful and well kept parts of Detroit, St. Louis and Oakland. Consider how easily an uncivilized population took them down.

11/22/2007 09:00:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Robert Kaplan in his famed "Atlantic Monthly" essay "The Coming Anarchy" does a treatment of this phenomena in describing young thugs in broken parts of the world armed with the omnipresent AK47 listening to heavy
metal music or NWA or Snoop Dogg.
Not what Air America and the Peace Corps envisioned.
Good post, Rattlegator. I marveled at the hip- hopization of back woods Alabama where the spawn of Klan members were strutting with sagging drawers down the streets of Rainsville and Section.
Art Hippler, good observation on the thin veneer of civilization.We're breeding some young Barbarians in many dysfunctional homes these days. Steely Dan's "Razor Boys" honing their implements of destruction even as we muse.

11/22/2007 09:19:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

RattleGator - you're just itching to throw in the "racist" word, aren't you, but can't since I deliberately kept it nebulous as to what color these baby gangsta's are.

I know their shoes are untied because you can see the shoe-laces flopping about in the brilliant sunshine, and you wonder why they don't trip and maybe knock some sense into themselves, except that wouldn't work since their reptilian brains are already fried by buttoned-up hoodies in tropical weather and a dope-of-choice habit that probably began when they were weaned from milk.

Their mothers let them go out in the street looking like that, and why not? Because in that world every one else looks like that, too, so they don't look unreasonable until they get around "normal" people. And then when their obit is written up in the LA Times for being shot while running away (not very quickly because of their untied shoes and falling-off-pants), their momma's boo-hoo about what a good kid little Junior was, killed at the same age his daddy was shot down, and he didn't deserve that.

If bad guys in the rest of the world want to emulate these guys, fine. They'd do better in my opinion, though, to discover Clint Eastwood and John Wayne as role models.

11/22/2007 10:02:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Regarding the Thriller clip - I'm speechless.

A good friend recently returned to Guyana to visit family. He mentioned the black teenagers in Georgetown (east Asian descendants tended to settle in more rural parts of the country) had adopted the U.S. gangsta culture in both music, dress and manners (or lack thereof).

11/22/2007 10:03:00 AM  
Blogger davod said...

People, you are thinking to hard about this.

It really is quite simple. They are part of a Cargo Cult. A box dropped from the sky filled with tracksuits and dreadlock instructions.

11/23/2007 01:41:00 AM  
Blogger RattlerGator said...

Actually, NahnCee, I never used the racist thing since I realize we're all racist -- and usually MOST racist with those who look as we do.

But feel free to carry on with your presumptions. Trust me, they are every bit as glaring as those elephantine feet that seem to have set your fantasy atwitter.

11/23/2007 04:59:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

GAtor, seems to me that YOU are the one equating big feet with ginormous penises, an image beloved by the KKK. What I was envisioning when I wrote it was a puppy like a St. Bernard slapping down the street with feet bigger than the body it would eventually grow into, if it lived long enough. Obviously that's not what leaped into YOUR mind upon reading the description.

11/23/2007 08:42:00 AM  

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