Saturday, January 13, 2018

Where birds don't lay eggs

Modern-day American discourse - who says the two
sides aren't talking to each other?
When my father bought the house in rural Connecticut where my sister and I grew up, it had a shithouse out back. A one-holer, unlike the two-holers we were accustomed to in the more sociable Nova Scotia, where we spent the summers. Plumbing was an afterthought. My father was a grocery clerk at the time and still looking for a second nickle to press against the first, so they had to make do. When they did finally put in indoor plumbing – my father did everything himself – he had to dig through hardpan to put in a septic tank, and that took him years. The tank went in, but it never drained properly, and the toilet often backed up. The outhouse was left standing for emergencies. My mother complained constantly that she was not born to live in a shithole.

I learned at an early age that shit was a bad word, and they would threaten to wash our mouths out with soap if we used it. My German grandmother, however, routinely referred to the outhouse as the Scheißhaus – the “shithouse”, in the quiet but certain conviction that one should call a spade a spade. In later years I learned that words don’t really have any inherent meanings; it’s only the way words are intended and understood that determines their power, or what linguists call illocutionary force.

I remember arguing with my German roommate in Munich about which language, German or English, was more expressive. He used shit as an example. “You say shit, he said. One syllable and you’re done. In German, you can draw out the double s in Scheis-se and it’s so much more satisfying.” We would simply have to agree to disagree. Now, some sixty years later, thanks to the internet I can watch German talk shows day in and day out and I have observed that Scheisse is routinely in use by folks, even on television, while here in the U.S. one feels the need for circumlocutions. When POTUS Agent Orange came out with shithole the other day, most news agencies twisted themselves into pretzels to avoid repeating the word.  In writing and in speaking both, most of them chose to speak of “s-hole countries.”  Confrontation with this everyday word was suddenly turning everybody into prudes who – if forced to refer to it at all – could only blush and speak of “the s-word.” Huffpost even featured an article on the avoidance, “How May Times Can Wolf Blitzer Avoid Saying Shithole?” 

NBC’s Peter Alexander introduces a segment in which he tells his audience that he is going to use the word  (sic) “once so that you can hear the complete quote for yourself” and warns that it might not be suitable for younger viewers.”  What a fuss over language. I understand the media have to create a firestorm to keep their viewers glued to the tube, but this American prudishness only distracts us from the weightier problem, the fact that we are dealing with a president who doesn’t give a shit what’s socially acceptable or whether America’s reputation as a land of opportunity is being shitcanned before our eyes.

If you watch international news you may be amused by the difficulty people are having translating the word shithole. It’s the illocutionary force, you see. Translate literally and the air goes out of the balloon. It isn’t easy to translate the shock and the loathing. The words alone won’t carry that.

The Tageschau on Germany’s Channel One reported the president’s insult to Haiti and Africa with Drecksloch-Länder.  Dreck, curiously, is already a circumlocution for Scheisse and carries far less of a punch. It is associated as much with mud as with shit, and the adjective dreckig suggests muddy, dirty, soiled, rather than “shitty.” On the other hand, once you add the word Loch (hole), that kind of snaps you to attention, and you kind of get the point. Since the loanword shitstorm is now an everyday word in German, one wonders why they didn’t simply stick with the English original.

I came across a marvelous satire this morning in which Norway was alleged to have changed its name to Dritthull, in solidarity with Haiti and the African countries being disparaged by AO.  Dritt is a Germanic cognate to Dreck, of course, and hull to hole. 

The no-nonsense Chinese got right down to the point. Rather that struggling with a word for shithole, they translated AO’s remarks as carrying the meaning of countries “where birds don’t lay eggs” – 鳥不生蛋國家.  One reader claims that the Korean paper, the JoongAng Ilbo, chose “beggar’s den.” In Japan, notorious for its poverty-stricken vocabulary for translating English (to say nothing of Russian or Arabic) vulgarities, apparently the best the Sankei (a.m. circulation 2 million plus) could come up with, oh dear, was countries that are dirty like toilets (便所のように汚い国). Another Huffpost reader points out how Romance language readers seem to suffer from a failure to appreciate the polysemy of shithole countries, settling for the simpler shit countries (pays de merde/ países de mierda).

Forgive me for this linguistic tangent. Sometimes you get tired of gazing directly into the fire, and have to look aside.

Tomi Lahren/Kevin Sieff  twitter exchange
letter from Botswana Ministry of International Affairs and Cooperation

Added Sunday evening:

Shit in Icelandic is skít.  Country/countries is land, plural lönd. They've followed the French and Spanish examples above and chosen "shit countries" (skítlöndum in the Dative plural, following the preposition  fra (from)) to translate AO's remarks, as opposed to "shithole countries." Got it.


„Hvers vegna er allt þetta fólk frá þess­um skíta­lönd­um að koma hingað?“ is an adequate translation for AO's "Why do all these people from shithole countries come here?"

So how come when you type that Icelandic sentence into Google translate, they give you:
"Why are all these people from these countries to come here?

Prudes, prudes. American prudes on all sides.

Then there's Hebrew, where, according to the Jewish daily Forward,  shithole countries is rendered medinot mechurbanot by Ha'aretz, Tel Aviv's lefty newspaper and Yediot Aharonot, Israel's largest.

I cannot speak to the power of "mechurbanot," but Forward tells us it is "not exactly elevated, fit-for-company Hebrew."


William D. Lindsey said...

What an amazing posting, Alan. Erudite, earthy, and funny all at once — the best kind of bitchin' and testifyin'. Thank you!

Dorothea Jurgenson said...

Yes - a laugh for the day! The contorted efforts of other countries/languages to convey the point are hilarious. Never knew about your house/outhouse at the lake, though. Jim could identify - he too had one, and a dad who put in a septic system.
Your post reminded me, only somewhat amusingly, of the degree to which prudishness magnifies the meanings - my son and wife (especially wife) are very touchy about the use of 'bad words' by their children, or by others that might be present. To which end the oldest, who is all of nine - took a can of spray paint and wrote 'fuck' on the wall behind a door upstairs at the Cape Cod house last summer!
The coziness of the news media about all this only escalated the silly focus on the wrong things, mostly failing to call it the blatant racism it clearly was. Journalist Jamelle Bouie, the blackest of black men, almost bemusedly and without rancor called it out eloquently this morning on the news.

Bill Sweigart said...

What better way to deal with yet another of this president's daily inanities than to take your readers on a linguistic journey. Thank you for this one.