Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Perils of Campaigning in Spanish

[This is a guest post from my colleague at the Big Show, Jason Margolis.]

This summer Mitt Romney appeared on a Cuban-American radio program in Florida. Romney was on his way to a fruit juice stand, so, the host asked him: What are your favorite types of fruit?

“I am a big fan of mango, papaya, and guava,” said Romney.

The hosts couldn’t suppress their laughter.

The chuckles were because Romney said he likes papaya. That might not strike you as all that that funny. But papaya is Cuban slang for vagina.

Now, c’mon. Let’s be mature and fair here. Who, besides a Cuban or Cuban American, would know that?

But that’s not the only Spanish slip-up from Romney. His most notorious one came five years ago when he was giving an impassioned anti-Castro speech in Miami.

“And at the end of speech, Romney had the crowd fired up,” said Joe Garcia, a Cuban American in Miami who unsuccessfully ran for US Congress in Miami as a Democrat. “And he (Romney) ended, ‘Patria o Muerte, Venceremos — the nation or death we shall win,’ which is the closing line of all of Fidel Castro’s speeches, right? It’s a great line. Unfortunately for Romney it was the wrong line in this crowd.”

But Romney is far from alone having problems with Spanish.

In 2008, then Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told the crowd, “Sí, se pueda.”

She meant to say “Sí, se puede,” instead of “Sí, se pueda.” Not a huge deal, but it is among the most famous American political phrases in Spanish, made famous by Cesar Chavez in the 1960’s.

Then there’s the downright bad Spanish from Newt Gingrich.

But at the end of the day, does it really matter if an English-speaking politician has a bad accent or mess up a few words?

In Denver, I met American voters Maria Young, originally from Mexico, and Martha Caban from Puerto Rico. I asked them what they thought of candidates who mangle their Spanish.

“I will say a couple of brownie points, yes, because at least they tried,” said Young.

Caban said, “I give them points too, following what Maria said, because at least they’re honoring and respecting us and trying to do something to connect with us.”

But what if they really, really screw it up like Romney did in Miami, speaking to Cuban American voters and quoting Fidel Castro?

“It will not matter. I am used to bad translations, so it doesn’t matter,” said Young.

And that’s coming from an Obama supporter.

But Christine Marquez-Hudson of the Mi Casa Resource Center in Denver said, “I think it can come across as patronizing.”

She said if a politician’s message is inauthentic, she doesn’t want to hear their Spanish.

“When someone comes out who has absolutely no personal connection and says, ‘hola, bienvenido,’ and they say it in a really terrible accent. I think it can be offensive.”

But Marquez-Hudson doesn’t see this from either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. She says Romney’s connection to Latin America gives his attempts at Spanish some authenticity. And she appreciates when President Obama uses his favorite Spanish phrase, “Sí, se puede.”

Marquez-Hudson said, “The thing about Obama is that he was a community organizer, and Sí, se puede is a community organizing chant, and so that’s the connection for me.”

Presidential candidates and their surrogates have been speaking some Spanish as far back as the 1960’s.

John F. Kennedy “Viva Kennedy” campaign reached out to Latino voters.

Since then, many presidential candidates have tried some Spanish here and there, most notably President George W. Bush who often spoke the language.

President Bush was applauded by many for speaking Spanish. Though, many also made fun of his Texas accent.

Democratic presidential candidate US Senator Obama campaigns at the Los Angele Trade Technical College. (Photo: Jason Reed/REUTERS)

Democratic presidential candidate US Senator Obama campaigns at the Los Angele Trade Technical College. (Photo: Jason Reed/REUTERS)

So, at the end of the day, what’s a candidate do? Try a little Spanish? Not try? Why bother if it can result in endless ridicule?

I asked Diane McGreal what she would advise. McGreal works with the language company Berlitz and directs the company’s global leadership training program.

“I would inoculate the audience. I would say to them right up front, I would start out by saying, I want to apologize for any mistakes that I make and then say a few words. And then the next step would be to ask their permission to continue in English, to say it’s important that that the message I get across is clear and understood.”

And there is one other way to make absolutely certain you get your Spanish correct. Pre-record the message. Mitt Romney ends his Spanish-language campaigns flawlessly staying, “Soy Mitt Romney y apruebo este mensaje.”



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In Cairo, Cars Speak

Cairo taxi driver Hicham Uhmarey (Photo: Gabriel Luis Manga)

[Note from Patrick Cox: In Boston, where I live, honking is not considered a skill, and the car horn isn’t much of a tool. Hitting the horn is a way of giving obnoxious voice to your frustration at the rest of the world as represented by the idiot who just cut you off. In Cairo, and in many other cities, drivers are more expressive and creative. They’re also noisier: many Cairo drivers put in a louder horn when they get a new car. Below is reporter Julia Simon’s take on car horn speech.]

I lived in Cairo a little more than two years and whenever I’d walk down the street and hear a honk that I thought was just a…honk. It turns out, that honk has a meaning.

The honk—four short bursts followed by a slightly longer one—means: “Open your Eyes.” It’s directed at people who aren’t paying attention. Or in the words of Hicham Uhmarey, a Cairo cabbie, people who are “crazy,” and not looking up.

Uhmarey has been driving the streets for two decades. He says that in Egypt, honking is a language. Drivers combine short and long honks to make words, like Morse code. He says most drivers speak this language, not just taxi drivers.

Uhmarey took me for a cab ride around Cairo for a little lesson.

It probably won’t come as too much of a shock that a lot of the honks represent such descriptive swearwords that I can’t translate them here. But the honks aren’t just for other drivers. Some are for women that drivers see walking on the street. There’s a special one for “I love you.” Honking is a male language.

Even so, some women do know they’re getting honked at. But they may not know whether the message is “I love you” or “Oh beautiful woman.” To the untrained ear, they sound similar. What’s more, many of my female Egyptian friends don’t know any honks at all. Even among the few who drive, many haven’t gotten the chance to learn the honking language.

But I am proud to say that I am now officially a student of honk. Hicham Uhmarey confirms that I can now honk “I love you.”



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Free Speech, the Arab Spring and the Death of an American Diplomat

Screen grab from “The Innocence of Muslims”

Every month, amateur filmmakers upload videos to the web: videos full of hatred against Muslims, Jews, blacks, gays, women, Arabs, Russians, Americans—they’re all available to see, and nearly all of them are…ignored.

So what happens when yet another apparent whack-job makes a film—in this case with a bigger budget than most—that isn’t ignored? On the contrary, it is paid way too much attention—too much at least as far as most Americans are concerned. But some people, far away, do pay attention. They are the targets of the film’s ire after all. And this is, although with laughable production values, a slicker-looking piece of hatred than most.

The film is misunderstood in those faraway places, and taken to represent mainstream American beliefs. And so there is violence—quite possibly pre-planned—-and the slaying of a US ambassador and three other Americans. How do we avoid that happening in the future? Can we?

Do we do what the Germans do when it comes to anyone who denies the Holocaust or says “Heil Hitler”? Ban the speech, and prosecute the perpetrators?

Or what the British have recently tried doing with racist speech: charging—but failing to convict— the former captain of the English soccer team of a “racially aggravated public order offense”?

Or should the US continue to allow people like US-based Coptic Christian activist Nakoula Basseley Nakoula aka Sam Bacile and Florida pastor Terry Jones to express themselves freely, no matter how much their hateful messages insult and incite others, and imperil the lives of US citizens?

The trouble is, things may be changing faster than we can legislate, faster than we can think. Hate videos cost virtually nothing to make and are accessible globally at the click of a button. The “trailer” of The Innocence of Muslims has so far been downloaded close to 1.5 million times (as of noon Eastern on September 13).

There’s a fateful irony here. The Arab Spring has ushered in a degree of free speech in places like Libya and Egypt. With that has come the freedom to react to hateful speech from abroad that targets Muslims. On Sept 11 in Benghazi such a reaction took place, and boiled over into mob rule. Newly acquired free speech in North Africa may mean Americans have to re-think free speech in their own backyard.

And they may have to rethink the idea of free speech protections—or rather, the balance of protections. In the past, civics classes boiled that balance down to the much paraphrased line, you can’t (falsely) shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, from then-Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The limit of free speech arrives when you needlessly and recklessly endanger others.

The balance of protections may extend beyond the theater. The Innocence of Muslims (if it really exists beyond the “trailer”) did cry “Fire!” What’s perplexing Americans, though, is that it was never, figuratively or otherwise, shown in an American theater. And yet, angry audiences are nonetheless stampeding out of their theaters and toward US embassies across the Arab world.

It’s at those embassies and their outposts—and indeed in hotels frequented by American tourists—where the competing protections seem unbalanced. For these diplomats and citizens, is their right to personal security as valued as the free speech protections of others? And what of the context? This is playing out in countries that have recently overthrown dictators and are struggling with unfamiliar tensions that often upend new democracies.

Is it really enough now for Americans to tell themselves and the rest of world: “You see, we have the First Amendment here”?



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The Language of Disability Around the World

The BBC has issued linguistic guidelines for its journalists covering the Paralympic Games. But the guidelines only include English words—which is a problem for the many programs the BBC puts out in other languages.

According to the new rules, ‘disabled person’ is preferable to ‘person with disabilities.’ ‘Invalid’ and ‘handicapped’ are unacceptable. To describe those without a disability, the BBC likes ‘non-disabled’ more than ‘able-bodied.’

The BBC program The Fifth Floor gathered three non-English language journalists to talk about this. Do these reporters translate the approved English terms? Do they use alternative expressions that might be locally acceptable but frowned upon in English? Or do they dream up new terms that make more sense in their languages?

BBC Uzbek reporter Shodiyor Sayf has particular insight. He’s disabled—he had polio as a child. But even he and his translator have trouble coming up with the appropriate words to describe how his disability affects the way he walks.

“Not as an able-bodied person,” his translator says, then asks: “Is that right word I’m using now? Non-disabled person?…I’m really sorry!”

Sayf says until recently he simply hadn’t thought about the language of disability. “But now I’ve arrived [in London to cover the Paralympic Games]. And there are words I’ve never actually translated into Uzbek before. Now I know that those are the words I need to be using.”

Words like ‘non-disabled’ which Sayf has translated into Uzbek as ‘a person without limited abilities.’

But there’s a problem with some of the words that the BBC says should be avoided. In certain countries, words like ‘invalid’ and ‘handicapped’ are still widely and benignly used, by government officials as well as the general public.

“In our language, it’s still correct to use…invalid,” says Ukrainian journalist Andriy Kravets.

Ukraine’s lexicon is evolving though.

“There is a saying—if I translate it into English—‘people with limited abilities,’” says Kravets.

But what of places with disproportionately large numbers of disabled people, like Afghanistan? An estimated two million Afghans are disabled, most because of the decades of conflict there.

Tahir Qadiry with BBC Persian TV, which broadcasts in Afghanistan says disdain for the disabled is reflected in the language. One widely-used expression translates as ‘person with a defect.’

The news media use more respectful language, but Qadiry says it’s not always that easy to come up with the right translation.

“I know it makes sense in English,” he says. “But for us, especially in Persian when you translate it, it doesn’t make sense,”

So sometimes, local journalists reject imported, translated solutions in favour of local ones. Consider this Persian expression for ‘blind’: ‘Bright in the stomach.’ In English it sounds strange. But in cultures where the stomach is considered a focal point of the body—almost like a second brain—it works well.



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Where Chinese and Arabic Calligraphy Meet

Born in China in 1967, Haji Noor Deen is probably better known today in the Arab World and the West.
His claim to fame is his mastery of a script that fuses two great traditions of calligraphy: Chinese and Arabic.

Haji Noor Deen is ethnic Hui, which is a bit of a catch-all term. The Hui people are predominantly Muslim, and most speak Chinese as their first language. Although we don’t hear as much about them as about the Uyghurs, the Hui are China’s largest Muslim group. When Beijing sends Muslim musicians abroad to represent the country’s diversity, most are Hui.

Ha Hui is one of the China’s best-known Hui musicians. She sang one of the Beijing Olympics’ official songs, and has represented China culturally in performances in Egypt, Turkey, Israel and the United States. Interestingly, official Chinese media often don’t mention her ethnicity.

Another Hui song:

Many thanks to former Big Show intern Angela Sun (follow her on Twitter here) for her research and interviews for this podcast.

Photos: Angela Sun, Haji Noor Deen



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