Monthly Archives: October 2012

Gangnam Wordplay and Tiananmen Poetry

In this pod, we get the lowdown from the Big Show’s Beijing correspondent Mary Kay Magistad on Ai Weiwei’s latest project—a punning re-take on Gangnam Style. Not surprisingly, Ai’s video has annoyed China’s authorities.

Also, a conversation with the Jeffrey Yang, translator of imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo’s poems about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.



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What’s in a Street Name? In Jerusalem, Plenty

Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, at a ceremony to unveil the newly named Umm Kulthum Street in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Note from Patrick Cox: Here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Jerusalem correspondent Matthew Bell.

Google maps is a handy tool for navigating the streets of West Jerusalem. The roads the city’s Jewish neighborhoods might be a bit confusing to newcomers, but even the most insignificant of hidden alleyways will have a name and appear on your smartphone. The Arab sections of East Jerusalem are a different story. Take a look at this map and notice how all street names suddenly vanish as you enter the Jabal Mukabbir neighborhood.

A convenience store owner who gave his name as Mahmoud told me he gives directions to places in Jabal Mukabbir by using landmarks. “It’s past the United Nations building, near the school, down the road from the cemetery,” he said. “If you pass the mosque, you’ve gone too far.”

A basic annoyance can turn into a tragedy though. “If you need to order the ambulance, [or] somebody [is] sick,” Mahmoud said, “it’s a big problem.”

Mahmoud told me he has seen more than one incident of people in his neighborhood having a heart attack and dying as paramedics struggled to find the victim’s house. The trouble is, ambulances are dispatched from the Jewish side of town.

View of the Old City from the Jabal Mukabbir neighborhood (Photo: Matthew Bell)

But this is something Jerusalem’s mayor said he wants to solve by starting to officially name hundreds of streets in Arab neighborhoods.

An Arab-Israeli singer serenaded Mayor Nir Barkat during a recent ceremony in the Beit Hanina neighborhood. Community leaders had proposed naming a one-block residential street there after Umm Kulthum, the famous Egyptian singer.

Barkat said naming streets in Arab East Jerusalem is a strategic step for the city.

“We’re going to cover all names, streets names and street numbers, to all the houses in East Jerusalem.”

Some Arab residents hear that and say, it’s about time. East Jerusalem has been under Israeli rule since 1967 and only now is the city starting put up street signs.

Akram Abadwan attended the ceremony with the mayor in Beit Hanina. When I asked him about the street naming initiative, he just shook his head, saying the Israelis are not really interested in improving Arab neighborhoods.

“Look what they’ve been doing all day, they’ve been fixing the roads,” Abadway said. “Just because the mayor’s coming.”

“I wish they had that same energy on a daily basis,” he said.

Instead of street names, Abadwan wanted to talk about the demolition of Arab homes and the Jewish groups settling in Arab sections of East Jerusalem. If the city puts a stop to those things, he said, then he will be less cynical.

An intersection of two unnamed streets (Photo: Matthew Bell)


Others are more pragmatic. Hossam Wattad is a community activist in East Jerusalem.

“We need basic services,” Wattad said. “Mail delivery, ambulance services, utilities. Just giving people simple directions to your house requires street names and building numbers. People pay taxes to the city,” he said. “Let’s get to work on improving the quality of life in East Jerusalem.”

Mayor Barkat conceded that some Jerusalem neighborhoods have been neglected by the city.

One of the biggest complaints from Arab residents over the years has been the difficulty in obtaining building permits. That means many newer buildings in Arab neighborhoods are considered illegal by the city. Barkat told me that dealing with the issue is all part of his program that begins with naming streets.

“We’re actually going through a process of re-zoning, [a] very liberal approach to re-zoning,” he said.

“The challenge is to enable a path of both upgrading and making the houses legal. Indeed, it’s part of the process and the strategy and the public policy that I have, accepted by all of the municipality.”

But many Palestinians would not accept Barkat’s vision for Jerusalem. They hope to make the city the capital of a future Palestinian state. And they are still wary of cooperating with what they see as the Israeli occupation, even on something as seemingly tame as putting up street signs.

This video was produced by the Israeli government:

Want to hear more on street naming? Here’s a podcast on provocative street-naming in Israel and the Occupied Territories.



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What Happened to Britain’s Stiff Upper Lip?

A funny thing happened at Wimbledon this year: British player Andy Murray cried.

“I’m going to try this and it’s not going to be easy,” Murray said through tears, addressing the Centre Court crowd after losing the men’s final to Roger Federer.

Murray blubbered his way through a speech—and in doing so, endeared himself to a nation.

He’d been a moderately popular tennis player. But from that moment on, the British public no longer merely admired Murray. They loved him.

Had he’d burst into tears in an earlier era, he might have been mocked and shunned. But not in every earlier era.

There was a time, long before those stern Victorians, when Britain was a nation that wept a lot.

Historians says that seventeenth and eighteenth century visitors from mainland Europe recorded this behavior in diaries.

“A proper man and a refined woman would display their emotions openly,” says journalist Ian Hislop who has made a BBC TV series on the subject. “They would cry and you weren’t a civilized person if you didn’t.”

It was ingrained in the culture. Books were written about it, and codes of behavior taught.

So what changed? What transformed the British character into the more familiar one – of restraint and unflappability?

Hislop believes it was the French Revolution in 1789.

The British watched “some foreigners getting very excitable, out of control, passions unleashed,” says Hislop. “Look what happened.”

What happened was the rise of Napoleon, followed by decades of war.

Napoleon was to man who wore perfume, read books and looked at art.

The British response was the Duke of Wellington, a man of discipline who spurned creature comforts. Wellington then vanquished Napoleon on the battlefield.

In the years that followed, the British empire thrived. Self-restraint became the emotional expression of that, and it served the empire well.

The British people came to see their rule abroad not as repressive but as a civilizing mission.

Charles Darwin, better known for other observations, declared that “Englishmen rarely cry”—implying that everyone else did a little too much.

Thomas Dixon, director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London, says many British men at the time put themselves through feats of endurance: swimming the channel, climbing mountains, trying to find the source of the Nile.

The expeditions were “an extreme version of the stiff upper lip, proving that the Anglo-Saxon male could achieve anything, could suffer anything and come out the other end robust and manly,” says Dixon.

As for women, they were praised for putting up with a hard life, in silence.

It was a “backhanded compliment…to say to women, ‘You’re so great at suffering and having no power. Please carry on doing it,’” says Dixon.

But that didn’t last forever—women demanded and got the vote. What’s more, millions of men died in World War One because they followed the orders of incompetent officers. The idea of grinning and bearing things lost its appeal.

However, after a few years of social rebellion—and lots of partying—along came a second Napoleon: Hitler.

Britain’s wartime propaganda machine revived the idea of the stiff upper lip.

It is in newsreels: “Never in history has an entire people formed so frightful an ordeal so bravely. So, yes! England can take it.”

Joanna Bourke, a historian at the University of London’s Birkbeck College, cites another propaganda film, Fires Were Started.

A woman in military uniform is on the telephone, “and all of a sudden a bomb drops just behind her and she dives under the table. Just a second later, you see her crawling out, and she carries on doing her business,” on the phone, says Bourke.

The World War Two version of the stiff upper lip was admired around the world, especially in the United States.

It survives today, at least in how the world views Britons. They are seen as people who just get on with life. They kept calm and carried on through the IRA bombings in the 1970s and the London terrorist attacks in 2005.

Moreover, the British don’t grumble— even if they do make a point of saying: “Mustn’t grumble.”

Still, modern life has dealt blow after blow to the stiff upper lip. Most people put it down to a combination of TV, therapy and America.

“The most powerful arguments against the stiff upper lip were really medical ones,” says Thomas Dixon. “Both physically and mentally having a stiff upper lip, being repressed was bad for you.”

Brits were learning to let it all hang out, with the help of one figure in particular: Diana, Princess of Wales.

It’s well documented that when Diana died, millions of Britons cast aside what was often described as their ‘natural’ reserve, and wept openly.

They wept for someone who seemed to personify the new Britain—open, emotional, confessional. She seemed at war with the old order—stuffy, formal and cold.

The very public mourning of a nation was enough to make many Britons wonder just exactly what the national character was, or had become. That questioning continues to this day, with episodes like Andy Murray’s Wimbledon tears.

Ian Hislop says don’t be fooled: the stiff upper lip remains part of the British character.

He acknowledges that its beginnings in the nineteenth century were less than benign: “The flaws with the stiff upper lip do include it being used as a method of social control: ‘Don’t control, carry on.’”

But that “empire swagger” is gone for good. By the time it returned during World War Two, the stiff upper lip had a smile. Today, it sometimes sports a tear, too.

Will it keep evolving? Hislop thinks so. He says it’ll adapt to the time and place, re-emerging when needed. “Serious times require a certain amount of keeping it together,” he says.

If Hislop is wrong, and the stiff upper lip is dead, that’s fine, he says.

“No point in making a fuss about it, just deal with it and get on with life.”



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Translating Birth, Love and Death

Interpreting for the US Army in Afghanistan

The translation and interpretation industry in the United States is vast and wildly diverse. It’s almost easier to list the areas of our lives—public and private—where it doesn’t exist than where it does.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly Kelly, herself a Spanish-English translator and interpreter, has co-written a book with Jost Zetzsche on the industry.

Some of best sections in Found in Translation are Kelly’s own war stories:

  • Interpreting a 911 call made by a Spanish-speaking woman who was whispering: “He’s going to kill me.” The woman said the man in question was outside, with a gun. She was in a bedroom lying on the floor under the bed. Kelly interpreted these details back and forth between the woman and the 911 dispatcher. The woman said: “I can hear him in the hallway.” And then: “He’s at the door.” The line went dead soon after. Kelly never found out what happened.
  • A so-called “cupid call” in which an American English-speaking guy and his Colombian Spanish-speaking fiancée are trying schedule their next rendezvous. Kelly quickly cottons on that there’s a problem: the man wants to make sure they don’t meet at a time when the woman is on her period. He attempts to convey this subtly, but she doesn’t pick up on it. (“Oh, I am all yours. Every last bit of me. Any day you choose.”) Eventually, Kelly intervenes, adding her own words to a sentence that she translates. (“Elena, do you remember back in December, when we couldn’t say good-bye at the end of the trip the way we wanted to?” Kelly adds: “…because you were having your period?”) It worked.
  • Translating the poetry of Maria Clara Sharupi Jua, a Shuar woman from Ecuador. Kelly has translated several poems from a hybrid of Spanish and Shuar, including one that she translated with the help of a group of poets at the Poetry Translation Centre in London. Working as a group, they successfully figured out how to render into English hard-to-translate words like bejuco and seemingly easier ones, like delgado.
  • Translating colors, something Kelly considers the most difficult of tasks. For one job she had to translate a hair dye catalogue. She come up Spanish words for shades of color for scores of different shades—including twenty different shades of auburn! The English versions had names like sunny auburn, glowing auburn. Kelly found it “almost impossible.”

There’s much more in Found in Translation: segments on special challenges of translating religious texts, the language of space exploration, advertising wordplay, pornography and more.



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An Australian Dictionary Redefines Misogyny

Australian Conservative Party Leader Tony Abbott, accused of “misogyny”

In politics, words can take on new meanings in the blink of an eye. The phrase “binders full of women” had zero currency before the second Obama-Romney debate. Now it’s what many people remember as the debate’s takeaway moment, full of perceived meaning about women, power and the workplace.

In Australia, another word has become caught up in a political storm over the role of women in society and politics. It was uttered—several times—by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

“I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny,” Gillard told the Australian parliament.

That was the start of a speech that has rapidly become famous around the globe, thanks to YouTube.

Gillard was defending her government, which had been accused of protecting the speaker of the house, who’d been caught using sexist language in text messages.

Rather than talk about that case, Gillard turned the tables on her government’s accusers, specifically Conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott.

“The Leader of the Opposition says that people who hold sexist views and are misogynists are not appropriate for high office,” said Gillard. “I hope the Leader of the Opposition…is writing out his resignation.”

“If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia,” she contined, “he needs a mirror.”

Gillard’s opponents didn’t take kindly to this speech. More than a few objected to her use of the word misogyny. They said that was going too far, much farther than the word “sexism.”

Sexism, they pointed out, means discrimination based on a person’s sex. But misogyny means intense dislike and mistrust of women.

That’s what the dictionaries say. For the time being at least.

Sue Butler, who is editor of the best-known dictionary of Australian English, the Macquarie Dictionary, said it’s time to update the definition of misogyny. After watching Gillard’s speech, Butler and her fellow editors wondered about their dictionary’s definition of misogyny.

Like most other dictionaries, the Macquarie Dictionary used a definition “that had been standard for some centuries”: the hatred of women.

But Butler and her team of editors didn’t think that Gillard was using the word quite like that. She wasn’t accusing Abbott of a “pathological hatred of women.” The accusation was more of a “common garden prejudice against women, particularly women in positions of power.”

Butler’s team tracked the evolving meaning of misogyny back to 1970s feminist discourse in the United States, where it was often used as a synonym for sexism; a synonym “with a bit more bite to it perhaps,” said Butler. “But still in the same range of meaning of entrenched prejudice.”

And so the editors of the Macquarie Dictionary have announced that they will be updating their definition of misogyny to reflect the way it has evolved in recent decades.

That’s only enraged Prime Minister Gillard’s political opponents for a second time. They say the dictionary’s editors are letting Gillard off the hook, rather than forcing her take responsibility for her hyperbole.

To which Macquarie editor Sue Butler shrugged, and pointed out that many words change their meanings over time.

But what of the statements made by Australia’s Conservative leader Tony Abbott—the very statements that Gillard was calling “misogyny”?

Abbott once wondered whether it was a bad thing that men have more power than women, and suggested that men might be more “adapted to exercise authority.”

And then there were his personal attacks on Julia Gillard.

Gillard told MPs she was offended when Abbott stood next signs that said “Ditch the Witch” and one that called her “a man’s bitch.”

It almost makes the Obama-Romney debate, repeatedly described in the US news media as “feisty,” seem friendly.



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Hinglish: A Case of Reverse Colonization?

A sign in Wagah, India, near the Pakistani border (Photo: PP Yoonus/Wikimedia)

English is something of an open-source language: the people who speak it shape it, and add to it. No one has the authority to exclude words.

That affects how English is spoken by its hundreds of millions of native speakers; also, how it’s spoken by those who come to it as a second or third language.

Those speakers are having a profound influence on English. Especially in country as large as India.

Many young Indians mash up English with Hindi, Punjabi or Bengali. The result is known as Hinglish.

Hinglish comes in many forms. Sometimes, you conjugate a Hindi word with an English conjugation. Sometimes you put together a 50-50 sentence—half Hindi, half English. And sometimes you “throw a choice Hindi word into a sentence that without it would lack the right amount of masala,” says Anand Giridharadas, author of India Calling.

If you’ve seen a Bollywood film, you’ve probably heard some Hinglish. Giridharadas believes that Hinglish, in this modern form, reflects India’s new-found confidence.

But what about when English first rubbed shoulders with Hindi and India’s other languages? The British ruled India for nearly 200 years. In 1886, at the height of British power, a dictionary called Hobson-Jobson was published. It was subtitled: “A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms etymological, historical, geographical and discursive.”

Compiled by Colonel Henry Yule and AC Burnell, Hobson-Jobson wasn’t just a dictionary. It was a cultural snapshot, with linguistic advice for British bureaucrats and army officers.

It listed words from India that were entering English: shampoo, pajamas, dungarees, bungalow etc. The entry for the term Hobson-Jobson explains that it’s an anglicized version of something very different-sounding.

Hobson-Jobson: My friend Major John Trotter tells me that he has repeatedly heard this phrase used by British soldiers in the Punjab. It is in fact an Anglo-Saxon version of the wailings of the Mahommedans as they beat their breasts in the procession of the Moharram. ‘Ya Hasan! Ya Hossain!’”

“There is a huge delight in language that’s evident throughout the dictionary,” says Kate Teltscher, the editor of an upcoming edition of Hobson-Jobson. That delight in language continues to be contagious. Even Indian-born writers have written about how seductive some of these mixed-up words are. Salman Rushdie wrote that it nearly made him regret the passing of empire in India.

But you just can’t get away from the linguistic power plays in Hobson-Jobson. “There is an almost innate sense of British cultural superiority.” says Teltscher

It’s in the phrases that made their way into English, and even in the use of verbs. For example, the authors note something strange that happens to some verbs when they traveled into English. “They are often in the imperative form, says Teltscher. “They are giving orders.” This often happens with words associated with violence, like the words for to bully, and to lay hold, “usually of a recalcitrant native.”

“All this language obviously relates to British colonial role,” says Teltscher.

Of course, most of the words used by the British in India were English. But they sometimes took on new shades of meaning. Hobson-Jobson sought to explain those words too.

Take the entry for the word home:

Home. Home always means England. Nobody calls India home. Not even those who have been there 30 years or more, and are never likely to return to Europe.”

Javed Majeed of Kings College, London, says the entry reveals that the British “never became a hybridized elite” in India. But he says that other entries in Hobson-Jobson suggest that, despite certain misgivings, India did become home for many British “because of the long periods of service there…and because they’re dealing with India in quite a lot of detail.”

Majeed views Hobson-Jobson as a “careful balancing act.” It captures the colorfulness and the creativity of the slang of the time. But at the same time, “it has to guard against going native and becoming vulgar.”

At times, the authors of Hobson-Jobson complain of undesirable words from India “insinuating themselves” into English—words like calico, chintz and gingham which Hobson-Jobson warned were “lying in wait for entrance into English literature,” as if to impose some kind of linguistic reverse colonization.

No-one called Hobson-Jobson a study of Hinglish. The word Hinglish didn’t exist—which is just as well. In today’s Hinglish, there’s no longer colonial control of the language. And it’s Indians who are selecting the words, and how and when to jump between languages.

But Anand Giridharadas says the use of Hinglish in India—as well the use of much more English—can be misinterpreted. “We tend to assume from the outside that when countries modernize and have growth and get on the cover of Newsweek and Time that they’re becoming more Western,” he says. “My experience in India suggests otherwise.”

English these days is spoken with different accents—American and local. English suffixes, and sometimes whole phrases, are added to Hindi.

“My cousins in India feel more comfort speaking Hinglish and mixing Hindi into their English, and speaking without the British accent that my parents were taught, than my parents generation,” says Giridharadas. “That’s actually about self-belief and self-confidence—which is also part of the fuel of India’s rise.”

Indian English may have its roots in a history of imperial rule but it doesn’t sound like that any more. It sounds light and playful.



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