Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Sweet Revenge of Recycling a Book Title

Let’s say you read a review of a novel called Pure. The review prompts you to buy the book. But you’ve forgotten the name of the author.

Amazon to the rescue. Search word: “Pure.”

Do that, and you’ll find no fewer than four novels published in 2012 under the title Pure (and countless more published before 2012).

Of the four published this year, one is set in Thailand, another in France, the third in the future, and the final one in a really scary place: Teenageland.

Book titles are endlessly recyclable. With a few exceptions, copyright law doesn’t cover book titles. So it’s fair game to “rip off” Fyodor Dostoevsky and title your novel The Double. Many have.

Other perennials: Twilight (though the series may change that); Nemesis (Phillip Roth wasn’t the first novelist—and he won’t be the last—to call his novel that); The Innocent; The Fury; The Awakening.

There’s a biography of music and TV mogul Simon Cowell out called Sweet Revenge. That’s also the title of at least 15 romance novels written in the past decade.

There are, of course, what appear to be blatant attempts at deception. In the UK, you can buy an ebook called The Vampire with the Dragon Tattoo. And guess what? The cover art resembles the cover to Stieg Larsson’s bestseller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

There are protections. Trademark law, it it turns out, is more useful than copyright law. The Harry Potter books fall under trademark law, partly because they’re a series, partly because they’ll also a movie series, and partly because of all that Harry Potter merchandizing.

Does all this mean that even with more books and ebooks being published, there will be fewer titles? Probably not. There’s still likely to be plenty of books called Pure and Nemesis.

But with the rise of marketing localization, it is possible that in the future, a book may spawn several titles. Already, some books in translation are known by two titles. The 1992 Danish thriller Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne was translated in most parts of the English speaking world as Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.

The American version was snappier and more alliterative: Smilla’s Sense of Snow. It was a huge seller.



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The Many Meanings of Chips Funga


[This is a guest post from Big Show Africa correspondent Anders Kelto]

It’s 2 am in downtown Nairobi, Kenya. Wendy Kimani is doing what a lot of young people here do around this time—standing outside a night club, holding a bag of French fries. You can see the grease soaking through.

“It tastes like heaven,” says Wendy. “Greasy as hell. And we like it that way.”

French fries to go—or chips funga as they’re called here—are the late-night snack of choice in Nairobi. But recently, chips funga has taken on a whole new meaning.

“It’s basically taking a lady home who you don’t know,” says singer Anto Neosoul. “You met her for the first time, and you take her home for a one-night stand.”

Neosoul is a rising star on the Kenyan music scene. His song, ‘Chips Funga,’ has been riding high on the airwaves here for more than a year.


Neosoul says when he first heard the term chips funga he immediately got it. He says young Kenyans are constantly inventing new slang terms—in English, Swahili, and tribal languages.

The phrase chips funga started popping up on Facebook and Twitter about two years ago, says Harriet Ocharo, a 25-year-old technology writer. So she decided to blog about it. She asked readers about the “etiquette” of a chips funga. The comments started pouring in.

“No sleeping over,” was one comment. “No phone calls before 9 pm, like, there’s nothing to talk about during the day, so you only call for the hook-up in the evening.”

“No emotional discussions. All gifts are accepted; money is always good. No baby talk.”

Ocharo says, at first, it was mostly men who used the term. But now, women use it too. They’ve even come up with a spin-off: sausage funga. You can probably figure out what that one means. Ocharo says women’s use of these slang terms is a sign of the times in Nairobi, where women no longer feel bound by traditional gender roles.

“Nairobi is a very free town,” says Ocharo. “No one judges a woman if she chips fungas a guy or the other way around. I think it’s a good sign.”

There’s even an online dating site called Chips Funga.

But singer Anto Neosoul says he sometimes worries that young people in Kenya are chips funga-ing too much. And they’re putting themselves in dangerous situations.

“We might contract HIV and AIDS,” says Neosoul. “We might contract STDs and STIs, we might get pregnant.”

Anto even worries that the term makes people want to chips funga – because it sounds funny and lighthearted. So he wanted his song to send a message: that it isn’t necessarily good to be a chips funga. The third verse, which he sings in Swahili, does just that.

“If I put it in English,” says Neosoul, “it would basically be, ‘Put on some ketchup, put on some mayonnaise, put on some salad, you’ve just been served. So, you’ve had a one-night stand, and that’s what you are. You’re chips. You’re French fries. You’re vegetables. And you’ve made yourself cheap, like chips.’”

That’s the message Anto wants people to hear. But it may be the opposite message that has them singing along.

Watch a 15-minute documentary of the chips funga phenomenon here.




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Damon Albarn’s Soundscape Gives the BBC Something to Celebrate

Damon Albarn (Screen shot of BBC interview)

These past few weeks have difficult for the people who run the BBC (which of course is one of the co-producers of The World).

No-one at the Beeb feels like celebrating a birthday. But the BBC is 90 years old. And, awkward or not, it’s marking the day—November 14, 1922—when it made its first broadcast.

At exactly 5:33pm London time on November 14, 2012, scores of BBC stations in the UK and around the world dropped their regular programming. Instead, listeners heard the chimes of Big Ben, followed by a scratchy old recording of an announcer: “This is 2LO calling…” 2LO was the name of the BBC’s first transmitter from 1922.

After that, an old tune—a hit from 1922. Mixed into it was rhythmic birdsong. And then a child’s voice: “Hello future,” the child said. “I hope music still matters because music is everything. Without it there’s nothing; just silence.”

And then there was silence, before the program restarted with a mishmash of more sounds—some eerie, some sweet. All made you listen on.

The BBC commissioned musician Damon Albarn to put this audio collage together. Albarn’s resume is itself a bit of a collage. He’s the front man of the bands Blur and Gorillaz. He’s also recorded songs with African musicians, and he’s written an opera that was staged by the English National Opera in 2011. The BBC asked Albarn to create something that would convey a sense of not just the past 90 years, but also the next 90 years.

And through its various radio outlets – talk stations, music stations, foreign language stations – the BBC solicited responses to this question: “What message would you give to somebody listening in 90 years time?” Albarn said he was overwhelmed by the responses.

“It varied from the very old and wise who tended not to imagine the future but were interested in providing a piece of hard-earned wisdom,” said Albarn.

Middle-aged people tended to be “quite downbeat,” said Albarn. But the young were different. “They in a way were the most interesting because they were very free—in a sense, the only people will have the only connection with 90 years.”

In the soundscape, one child says: “I think there will be more people and because there’ll be more people I will tell them to be careful not to get lost because it might be like really, really busy.”

Not all the messages are delivered with the human voice. Philosopher Bertrand Russell’s famous quote, “Love is wise, hatred is foolish,” is rendered in Morse code. There’s also the sound of what Albarn calls a “scary” Cold war spy station.

At the end, there are the BBC’s “pips” which—like Big Ben—usually mark the top of the hour. Albarn weaves the pips in and out of a piano tune.

And then, after three minutes, BBC programming returns to its regular schedule.



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The BBC and the Language of Responsibility

Here’s a story I did for the Big Show on the troubles engulfing the BBC. There are some specific language issues here. I’ll let the audio file above do the talking.



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Aramaic Revival in the Holy Land

Israeli Maronite children learning Aramaic (Photo: Ksenia Svetlova)

Aramaic is best known as the lingua franca of the Holy Land of two thousand years ago. It’s still spoken now—in various modern dialects—by an estimated 200,000 people worldwide. But few speak it as their mother tongue.

In Israel, there’s a move afoot to change that. The country’s roughly 10,000 Maronite Christians are seeking official recognition as a national group. They’re currently classified as Arabs—a label that the Israeli government insists on. But the Maronites say they’re distinct, and they are appealing to Israel’s high court. They say they should be known as ‘Aramaic.’

As part of an effort to maintain their culture—and to prove to the authorities that they are deserving of their own classification—Maronite activists have organized Aramaic language courses for kids. Most Israelis Maronites speak Arabic as their mother tongue. Volunteer teachers—whose Aramaic skills are of varying quality—want to ensure that the next generation speak the language better than they do.

In the pod, we speak with Israel-based reporter Ksenia Svetlova about all this. Her fascinating report for the Jewish Daily Forward outlines the history and politics of this linguistic initiative. It also explains why largest concentration of Aramaic-speakers today is in, of all places, Sweden.

A book written in Aramaic




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America’s Woes From the Outside In

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback surveys the collapsed portion of I-35W Mississippi River bridge. (Photo: Kevin Rofidal, United States Coast Guard)

Two people following the US elections especially closely are Lionel Shriver and Edward Luce. Both are writers.

Shriver is an American who lives in London. Luce is a Brit who lives in Washington DC. Both have one foot in and one foot out of America. They are each insiders and outsiders.

Lionel Shriver is author of We Need To Talk About Kevin and ten other novels. She has lived much of her life outside the United States—in Kenya, Thailand, and now, Britain.

Her annual trips home to New York have become a way of measuring America’s decline. When she drives the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, she sees what was once a serviceable highway now “completely rusted out.” The repairs “look as if they’re made with plywood.”

“You see this all over the United States,” says Shriver. “For visitors it’s quite a shock. Since I only go back every summer, I see this in juddering increments.”

Over time, Shriver has come to a stark conclusion about her homeland: “The United States is failing—and failing big time.”

There’s plenty of evidence to support that. The Pentagon recently commissioned a report on the nation’s defense-industrial preparedness—essentially, a compendium of the companies manufacturing key materials for the military.

Of the nineteen most critical industries servicing the US military, American companies led in all categories in the early 1990s. It now leads in just four of those categories.

That damning statistic was cited by Edward Luce, a Washington-based columnist with Financial Times, in his book called Time To Start Thinking: America and the Specter of Decline. (The US version subs the softer Descent for Decline.)

Luce spent time at the National Defence University, quizzing the kind of military people who he believes will be running the Pentagon a decade from now. He describes them as “panicked” about the disappearance of America’s manufacturing strength.

“They completely depart from Republican Party orthodoxy by saying that the first thing we must do is withdraw from the world,” says Luce. These officer-scholars believe that military strength “is based on economic strength.”

And so they have concluded that the Pentagon needs to slash its budget, freeing up public money for the domestic economy—primarily, education and infrastructure.

That may or may not be a solution. But will it see the light of day in the current political climate? Could such fundamental rethinking be adopted in today’s Washington? Luce doesn’t think so—and nor does Lionel Shriver. They think the country is too polarized.

For someone like Shriver who lives abroad, the gradual tribalization of political America into red and blue appears anything but gradual. It seems not just sudden but difficult to reverse.

Shriver recalls going to a party outside New York on one her recent trips back from Britain.

“Everyone agreed with everyone,” says Shriver.

“I had a conversation or two in which I indicated that I supported the Conservative Party in the UK, that was of course the wrong word.”

She says that made her a pariah. She calls this new-found tribalism, “political apartheid.”

“If you go to a party in the New York area you know that they’re all going to be Democrats. And if you open your mouth and say something that seems faintly Republican or even mildly pleasant about the other side, you’ll shock everyone,” says Shriver. “They will physically pull away from you.”

Writ large, that isn’t a great recipe for solving the country’s problems.

There’s plenty of despair in Shriver’s words—Luce’s too. It may be that they are chroniclers of America’s decline. But they are also passionate chroniclers, who believe that the country can yet learn from its missteps.



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Is Language Holding Back New York’s Bengali Voters?

Bangladeshi-owned barbershop in Jackson Heights, Queens

[Note from Patrick Cox: Here’s a guest post from New York-based reporter Nina Porzucki]

Once a month Zain Ahmed treks from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to a windowless basement shop in Jackson Heights, Queens, just to get his haircut. “I take 3 or 4 trains just to get here,” says Ahmed. “That’s dedication, right?”

Ahmed works in finance, as a bond researcher. When it comes to the election, he’s most concerned about the economy and “where we’re headed.” Ahmed is a Democrat, and Tuesday he will be voting for Obama.

Ahmed was born in the US but his parents are from Bangladesh. He grew up speaking both English and Bengali. For him, language assistance at the polls isn’t an issue. He didn’t even know that Bengali translations of the ballot would be available—or for that matter that the local Bangladeshi population has grown as much as it has.

According to the latest census, there are enough limited-English speakers of South Asian decent to require language assistance in Bengali, Punjabi and Hindi at certain polling places in Queens. Of those languages, there are more Bengali speakers who speak limited English. While there will be interpreters available for all three languages, officials chose to translate the ballot into just Bengali.

Glenn Magpantay of the Asian American Legal and Education Fund says language assistance to non-English speakers is crucial. If people “are not proficient enough [in English] to read a ballot, should they be denied their right to vote?”

Under the federal Voting Rights Act, more than 5,000 Bengali speakers in Queens should have been able to cast their ballot in Bengali. But ballot translations will not completed in time. The New York City Board of Elections has not explained why and didn’t respond to requests for comment. However, there will be some language assistance at the polls, including interpreters and signage. There will also be sample ballots in Bengali. Just not the real thing. “It’s nice to have a sign which identifies the poll’s site,” says Magpantay. “But really the ballot that you mark to vote for the president or senator or member of congress needs to be in a language that the voter actually understands.”

Magpantay isn’t quite sure how the lack of Bengali ballots will affect those 5,000 potential voters. Jackson Heights Barber Sonatan Sil is one of them. When I ask Sil about the importance of voting in his mother tongue, Sil brushes off the question. He’s more concerned about deciding who to vote for. Sil says he still hasn’t made up his mind between Obama and Romney. “I am not Democrat,” he says. “I am not Republican.”

Sonatan Sil gives Zain Ahmen a haircut (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

This surprises his Upper East Side customer Zain Ahmed. Ahmed shakes his head at the barber. “To me that’s absurd. I mean I’m a religious middle-class minority,” says Ahmed. “The opposition is not in favor of people like me.”

The undecided barber shakes his head back at his Obama supporting customer. For Sil the biggest issue this election season is jobs. “Romney’s policies [are], I think, good policies,” he tells his customer.

Ahmed gets upset. “What are you saying?” he says to the barber. “What are you talking about? Not for people like us.”

The discussion continues on just like that throughout the entire haircut. Sil, the barber talks about his dislike of Obamacare. Ahmed, the customer continues to disagree.

There’s no consensus in sight—just like discussions in barbershops in Ohio or Florida. In a small basement shop in Jackson Heights, Queens, democracy certainly is alive and buzzing. But while Ahmed and Sil have the language skills to easily navigate the English ballot this election day, many of their neighbors may not.

[Patrick Cox adds: In the pod, I mentioned two other language-related election stories. In Maricopa County, AZ, election officials put out a Spanish-language flyer urging people to vote on November 8, two days after the day when everyone else will be voting. And California’s official Korean-language voters’ guide said that Proposition 20 would raise the state sales tax by 25 cents, one hundred times higher than the correct amount, a quarter of one cent.]



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