No go for the stupid kong translation that got lost in orbit


Sometimes, things get lost in translation. When I was younger, I recall hearing about the trouble Chevrolet experienced when it tried to sell its famous Nova south of the border. Apparently, nobody stopped to think about how a car named “no go” would sell in Mexico. And there was talk, also when I was younger, about how the famous video game Donkey Kong landed in Japan with a title that translated, roughly, to “Stupid Kong”.

International communication, we learned, can be problematic in very fundamental ways.

What about translation problems within the language, though?

Like Roger Cohen’s recent column for the International Herald Tribune, called “Obama and the planet“. Now, remember, one of IHT’s owners is the New York Times. This is only important because I can’t quite figure out why the Times ran the same article under the title, “Obama in Orbit“.

Aside from that question, it’s an interesting article well worth the time:

If the globe can’t vote next November, it can find itself in Obama. Troubled by the violent chasm between the West and the Islamic world? Obama seems to bridge it. Disturbed by the gulf between rich and poor that globalization spurs? Obama, the African-American, gets it: the South Side of Chicago is the South Side of the world.

Michael Ignatieff, the deputy leader of Canada’s opposition Liberal Party, said: “Outsiders know it’s your choice. Still, they are following this election with passionate interest. And it’s clear Barack Obama would be the first globalized American leader, the first leader in whom internationalism would not be a credo, it would be in his veins.”

To the south, in Mexico, resentment of the Bush administration has less to do with American unilateralism and more with stalled immigration policy and the building of a border fence. But the thirst for change is the same.

“Mexicans want evidence that things are shifting, which means the Democrats, and of course a woman like Hillary Clinton, or a black like Obama, would signal a huge cultural change,” said Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister.

“My sense is the symbolism in Mexico of a dark-skinned American president would be enormous. We’ve got female leaders now in Latin America — in Chile, in Argentina. But the idea of a U.S. leader who looks the way the world looks as seen from Mexico is revolutionary.”

Cohen also points to an article by Andrew Sullivan for the December issue of The Atlantic that considers, among other things, the value of the ethnic card for the Obama campaign. Sullivan writes:

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

And, yes, there is a valuable point there that cannot be ignored. But there is also a flip-side. Just so nothing gets lost in translation: Americans don’t care. You don’t want them to care about this particular point, because if they do, they will resent the obligation to consider the ethnic card.

In the end, the only question Americans care about is, “Can he do the job?” “Will he tell me what I want to hear?”

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