Saturday, April 04, 2009

Problems in translation

(Cross-posted at the House of Leaves forum)

Submitted for your consideration:

Sure: laugh. I wouldn't have found this if someone from The West hadn't run across it, found it to be funny, and posted it on his website. But personally, I didn't find it so much funny as weird: that at some level there was something I just wasn't getting. As I watched this, I couldn't help wondering two things:

1) Is there something present in the basic Superman story that Westerners (or Americans, at least) are culturally blind to but which the maker of this film saw as a kind of space that allows for a Bollywood reading? Surely it's true at some level that the members of a culture naturally assume that non-members of their culture will read a given cultural product in exactly the same way that members will. Another way of asking this: I assume most Indians think of Bollywood films as participating in their cultural idiom, but what are non-Indians who consume them responding to? If some, for example, are aficionados of camp, is the camp they see in those films an Indian campiness?

2) Just how in earnest is this video? It looks nuts to Westerners, but does it to Indians? (And of course I hope sutrix [a forum member who lives in Mumbai] will weigh in on this, but I don't presume that his view is that of a billion people--not all of whom, I'm pretty sure, have his fluency in American pop culture.)

I've wondered these sorts of things with regard to translations of House of Leaves, too: specific issues concerning language, of course, but also that strong sense of American-ness that I get from the novel--whether and to what extent that comes across in its various translations, too. Admittedly, whatever else HoL is about, "American-ness" is (probably) not integral to that, but it does, I would argue, give the novel some texture that it otherwise wouldn't have. It's akin to the effect of watching a French film and sensing, apart from language and setting, its je ne sais quoi that marks it as "French" that language and setting don't.

Anyway. Comments?


R. Sherman said...

Well, there's five minutes and forty-six seconds of my life I won't get back.

Thank you.

Culture and language are two sides to the same coin, in my view. The closer one is geographically and linguistically (and philosophically) to a specific cultural group, the more of that culture one will "get." Of course, the opposite is true.

I'm not sure the Bollywood has tapped into any secret message in the Superman saga. I think they just put an Indian spin on it. And while I don't pretend to know much about Bollywood, it would appear that such, to us "over the top," production numbers are standard fare.

What would be interesting to know/read about, is the lasting effects, if any, of exposure to the British on the Subcontinent.

More thoughts later, but I've got to get back to work.


John B. said...

Well, there's five minutes and forty-six seconds of my life I won't get back.

Thank you.

You're most welcome.

With regard to your observations about this particular cinematic example, I think you're right that it's not even the archetypal Superman story that's been borrowed here, much less examined--just, basically, the outer shell of the character. But that still makes me wonder Why, you know? Usually with parody (if that's what this is), the intent in placing the character in an incongruous situation is to reveal something about that character that, in his/her more familiar narrative environment, remains only hinted at, if at all (see--and you really need to, if you haven't--the Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager videos for pretty good examples of this). In the case of Indian Superman, though, I learn nothing extra or different about him--not even anything funny. Hence the weirdness I mentioned.

You're right that language can't help but be a mirror of some sort of the culture that reflects it. But my example of saying something has a "French" sensibility--or an "American" one, or what have you--goes deeper than language . . . or, better put, is another sort of language, what we might call style or attitude. It's like hearing a Brahms piece and thinking not, Oh, that's Brahms but, Oh, that's German. It's something inherent in the musical idiom that leads the listener to say that, obviously, all that talk aside about music's being an international language--something that you just don't hear in Brahms' musical contemporaries from other countries. But, by the same token, the American novelist Paul Auster's City of Glass just screams "French" to me, despite its being set in New York and having been written in English.

It's hard to talk about what I'm asking about (je ne sais quoi is a very handy phrase for that reason), and potentially dangerous, to talk about: such discussions run the risk of lapsing into cliche and/or overgeneralization . . . or they reveal more about the person making these claims than about the work (though, having said that, D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature is, underneath all his personal fear-of-women stuff, often dead-on in its assessments). I've gone on longer than I've intended to, but I'm thinking I'll come back to this some time in the form of relating an experience I had while living in Mexico.

themanicgardener said...

I'm with R. Sherman about the time lost; I had to keep reminding myself, This is a cultural exploration, this is worth doing. At one point, though, even my computer went to sleep.

So my questions are about what role this was meant to serve in what part of India, and why its intended audience doesn't find it boring. (If, that is, they don't. Wouldn't it serve us right if this bombed in India?)

Is this a music video? If so, what is the dang song about? (I can hear "Superman," of course, but that's it.) And if it's meant to accompany the song, how can we possibly "evaluate" or understand the video alone?

I guess all the other questions about what Bollywood makes of this Hollywood icon seem to me unanswerable until we can situate this video a little more firmly in its original setting.

John B. said...

Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

You're right, of course: to a certain extent, all cultural products, even our own, resist understanding at some level if we don't have a context for them. (And sometimes, not even that: there are some products and features of American popular culture beyond the usual generational gaps between me and what has come before/after "my day" that leave me scratching my head.) There's a "translation" problem for us, too--that is, those of us basically ignorant of Bollywood conventions as we look at this . . . which, in rereading my post, I see I'd neglected to mention but should have.

It takes two to tango, yes; but the prerequisite to that is that both have to know how to tango.