On the cultural aspects of translation, and the web

Yesterday’s post was obviously a little prescient: today, my favourite blog boingboing.net (an ex of mine used to call it “Lachlan’s babysitter”) posts a link to one of my other favourite haunts, reddit.com. There’s so much here I’m not even sure where to start.

First, the title’s change in transit – is it Chinese whispers, or the end result of a professional writer (Doctorow) v an amateur sub-editing poster (Arafatkazi)? What are your favorite culturally untranslateable phrases? (reddit) becomes Glorious, elaborate, profane insults of the world (boingboing). Please note that these posts are about insults and therefore some are crass. Do not continue reading or follow the links if you are of a weak constitution:

I was born and raised in Bangladesh. I tried to explain the common saying “Gacche kathal gophe tel” to my friends today. But in English, “Oiling your mustache in anticipation of the jackfruit tree bearing fruit” doesn’t have the same snap.

It means “Don’t get ahead of yourself.” Like, an American equivalent might be, “Don’t start counting your vacation days before the job interview.”

Edit: “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.” Obviously. Don’t know why I missed it.

What follows is the primary awesome power of distributed knowledge condensation on the cold mirror of irreverence. Languages that rate a mention include Chinese, Afrikaans, (various variations of) Spanish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Hindi, Turkish, Romanian, Serbian, Polish, Portuguese, Norwegian, Texas (face it, they have a different culture down there),  French and Quebecois, Japanese, Irish Gaelic, Korean and more – it can never be exhaustive, but it’s a pretty damn impressive list.

Reminds me of a discussion a few years ago on boingboing titled What do you call the shop on the corner? that, due to the nature of boingboing, is much more laden with information than Wikipedia’s Regional names for Convenience Store which betrays a very American centricity to Wikipedia content in it’s very title – the link above is a sub heading on the Convenience Store page, boingboing has more cultural sensitivity in referring to “the shop on the corner”.

When I was thinking about this post this morning, I drew together a couple of threads I’d noticed recently and thought I would share. It came about as I was thinking of boingboing and reddit. I’ve been reading boingboing for a decade, and can’t imagine an web without it. Reddit on the other hand, is somewhere I like to hang out, post and read, but I don’t expect it to last like boingboing will. I used to read Digg, but then it got nastier, sexist and boring and has recently gone through a napster-like internet death (you can read about the fall here) – it still exists, but no one uses it. I expect at some point, reddit will also jump the shark, tip over the edge, become more noise than signal. And I’m not that phased to be honest – there is little romantic attachment to essentially generic web sites and whether they survive. There is a reason why I would be sad if boingboing stopped, and an article about the site I read this week pretty much sums up why:

Boing Boing is “still very respected,” observes BuzzFeed’s Peretti. Yet he also characterizes it as “retro chic.” That could be taken as an insult by some in the future-focused world of online media. But to Douglas Rushkoff, a longtime observer of Internet culture (and a friend of the Boing Boing crew), it’s more like a compliment. “In the beginning, Boing Boing and the Internet were kind of the same thing,” he says. Early Net enthusiasts were curious, off-kilter, nonmainstream people, which led some to believe the new technology synched up with counterculture ideas. (Pescovitz still quotes Timothy Leary’s advice to “find the others” as an apt summation of the web’s revolutionary potential.) Rushkoff’s latest book, Program or Be Programmed, is partly a call to return to that ethos. “As the Net has gone commercial, Boing Boing in some ways doesn’t characterize the Internet anymore,” he continues. “It went from being the culture of the Net to the counterculture of the Net.”

Then I remembered two other discussions I’d had recently, one with my flatmate Richard about how his popular independent theatre show The Last Tuesday Society has stopped using it’s 700+ member Facebook group to send event notifications, primarily because Richard and Bronwyn (the other LTS organiser) have noticed that they personally have stopped responding to Facebook events. The invitations were coming in at such a rapid rate that people have just stopped registering events at all, they ignore all of them. This is a marked change from a year ago when Richard was boasting about how he didn’t really need to do other publicity – two messages from Facebook to the group members and he could sell out a 200 person show. But now, increasingly, they response levels from Facebook didn’t match the door – when 500 people say they are, or maybe, coming, and you only get 130 turn up, something is broken.

The other conversation was with Amber, who has been online for as long as I have and has an excellent analysis of the peaks and troughs of web followers. We were talking about Crowd Funding sites like Fundbreak or Kickstarter in the same vein – when they first appeared, everyone slapped their heads thinking “of course, what a great idea”. Unfortunately, everyone wanted some of that. Now we find ourselves in the situation where (I would suggest) people are spending money that potentially used to be spent on donations to insert-NGO-of-choice-here is now being spent on cultural items – my next cd/novel/play/positive-attempt-to-change-the-world. While I don’t blame people for attempting to finance their projects in this manner, now that I am inundated with requests from friends to do this, I ignore them. I can’t afford to fund that much culture, no matter how much I know or love the artist in question. Having said all that, I should note that I’ve recently given to the wonderful New Matilda via Fundbreak and I would call on other progressives interested in an independent progressive media in Australia do so as well.

The end result of all this thought bought me back to real world similarities. Melbourne’s The Punters Club closed down in 2002 and that happens in real life. You move on. It’s sad but it does give us an opportunity to re-build somewhere else, to continue culture anew in greenfields. We revisit bands as they reform, we revisit books and musical genres as they come back around to relevance. I think the web is too young to show any sign of this happening yet, but I’m fascinated to think that there is a chance that even one site or meme can rebuild itself from a life threatening fall from grace. Could MySpace ever come back from the body blow that Facebook dealt it? Is twitter really the new Facebook? Will Diaspora overturn them both and can it survive human fickleness and competitors if it does? These questions simply can’t be answered without the benefit of a hindsight that we don’t have access to – but I am looking forward to a time when I do have access.