Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Friday, July 23, 2004

Reading, Writing and Ricky Retardo

I used to laugh at Ricky Ricardo. Now I am Ricky Ricardo. Except for the good parts. Let me talk about what I have in common with Ricky, take a little linguistic detour through Japan, then (inevitably) get back to Joseph Wilson and the subject of lying.

I speak Japanese rather poorly. Pathetically so, given that I've been living here some 10-odd years. When I get into an argument with my Japanese wife, I'll often struggle along, getting increasingly flustered, then burst into a brilliant and scathing tirade - but, alas, in English.

As a kid, I used to think that Ricky Ricardo was hilarious when he went Spanish Ballistic in mid-argument, eyes bulging, on "I Love Lucy." Does anyone know of translations of what he was saying? Maybe Ricky was savagely witty in Spanish. But how would I have known? I called him "Ricky Retardo" - much harder to get away with, I suppose, in these more politically-correct days when some U.S. state tax forms come in half a dozen languages. Well, I got my come-uppance. It just took a few decades.

Worse, I'm Ricky Retardo without the fringe benefits: I can't trot down to my Cuban-style nightclub and unwind on the congas, yodeling "Babaluuuuuuuu!" And ... need I say it, friends? Recent audiences at Transcendental Bloviation don't love me nearly as much as audiences loved Ricky. He was tall, dark, handsome, and he was a plucky, entrepreneurial refugee from Communism. I am none of those things. He played drums and sang. That was kinda sexy. Pounding the keyboard and sighing in exasperation can't possibly be as cathartic. Worse, it's about as sexy as being a eunuch-bureaucrat in the Byzantine empire, staring dully at his scrolls as the harem girls swish by.

Being even haltingly bilingual has carried another risk besides being an involuntary template for immigrant stereotypes in Japan: you can start turning Japanese. Linguists who study second language learning speak of "interference" from the first language in trying to speak the second one. Interference turns out to be a two-way street for long-stay gaijin like me: your English can start taking on the flavor of the very different language they speak here.

Interference from second language to first came up recently on the mailing list for SWET - Society of Writers, Editors and Translators in Japan. One gaijin member wrote that he'd muttered, in stop-and-go traffic, "the road is crowded today." His wife (Japanese) gently suggested that maybe he might have meant "Traffic is heavy today." Boy, do I ever understand. But it actually makes sense. Japan's idiom grows out of an era and an urban geography in which pedestrian porters and handcarts dominated traffic on streets so narrow that American visitors call most of them alleys. "Konde-iru" ("is crowded") worked fine. After the automobile ... well, people infer from context.

I got to wondering about language interference again today, when someone proposed by e-mail that Joseph Wilson lied in his July 21 L.A. Times op-ed. It's not currently within scope for the contest, but here's the problematic quote anyway.
For the last two weeks, I have been subjected — along with my wife, Valerie Plame — to a partisan Republican smear campaign. In right-wing blogs and on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the National Review, I've been accused of being a liar and, worse, a traitor.
Why was this offered as an example of a lie? And moreover, a lie that my current rules can't register? Because there is no evidence (that I can find right now, anyway) that Wilson has been called a traitor by either the National Review or the Wall Street Journal. My contest rules have a bug: How can you provide a direct, full-context quote of something not said?

Now, it's quite possible that Joe Wilson - undoubtedly flustered and stressed out recently, if he is a liar, and perhaps even more so if he's not - just tried to pack too many allegations into one sentence. The worms didn't fit in the can, and now they are squirming out, all over the place. When I first looked at the sentence, I thought, "Well, wait a minute - if any of them called him a traitor, then the sentence, while not crystalline in its logic, exactly, nevertheless holds up. Bloggers calling Wilson a traitor? That's a 3 second Google run."

Then a thought gave me real pause. Am I a victim of "reverse interference"? Former diplomat Joseph Wilson - could he be falling prey to it? Could both of us be having problems? I know my English gets more Japanese when I'm under stress, haven't rested well, feel defensive or cornered. Japanese has two different 'ands', an 'or', and an 'and/or', and these conjunctions don't always translate perfectly. Some other languages also have this problem of translation. Maybe under stress, Wilson's English starts to get more ... French?

Let me rewrite his sentence to illustrate:
In right-wing blogs and/or on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and/or the National Review, etc., I've been accused of being a liar and/or, worse, a traitor.
Admit it: if you'd seen that in the L.A. Times, you'd go beyond assuming that Wilson had totally lost it, and start sizing the editorial staff for straitjackets as well. And yet, you can do something like this in quite a few languages in the world. Japanese is only one of them. Not only would nobody bat an eyelash, but they might consider it more honest: you're being more precise about what's imprecise in your statement, rather than leaving the reader to guess about the imprecision. Your audience knows what meanings they can't assume.

Of course, maybe Wilson just "misspoke." Again.

Let me leave this subject here, feeling a little triumphant: when I started this blog, I thought I'd subtitle it: "Politics, Space, Japan". I strayed outside those subject areas, then confined the blog too much to politics recently. Today, at least, I mentioned Japan. And I'll be writing more about Japan and politics. Because if you think Joseph Wilson gets evasive and ambiguous, you should listen to Japanese politicians.


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