Friday, 24 October 2008

Uses of bad translation #17: sensationalist reporting

The English-language press is all abuzz right now with scandalous headlines out of Austria:

Far-right Austrian leader Joerg Haider was my gay lover, reveals his successor

Haider's deputy reveals gay affair

Leader says Haider was his lover

Ooh,  how very exciting and shocking.  Apparently Haider's deputy and designated successor Stefan Petzner told an Austrian radio interviewer that Jörg Haider  (the most charismatic of Europe's extreme right politicians, who accidentally killed himself in a car crash a week ago)  was "the man of my life".

Naturally I turned immediately to the German-language press,  expecting it to be absolutely overflowing with feverish coverage of such a salacious tale.  Strangely enough however I could hardly find anything.  The German press,  if they mentioned it at all,  treated it as a very minor aspect of the larger Haider-death-and-aftermath story  -  a typical example is this article in Der Tagesspiegel,  which mentions Petzner's remarks in a couple of paragraphs right at the end,  calling them "supposedly homoerotic statements"  (angeblich homoerotische Äußerungen).

Huh??  Saying that Haider was "the man of my life" is a bit more than "supposedly homoerotic",  I would have thought.  What gives?

Bad translation,  that's what.

Turns out that what Petzner actually said was that Haider was his "Lebensmensch".  Lots of high-ranking figures in Haider's party have been using this term to refer to their dearly departed leader,  and while there is speculation about the homoerotic bonds between Haider and his circle of young male adjutants,  they were not likely to have all been his lover.  Petzner probably was,  but it's not the words he used which revealed it so much as his tearful and emotional behaviour in general.  He was in fact at pains to avoid saying anything unequivocal about the precise nature of his relationship with Haider,  and the Austrian media is still too constrained by notions of decency to have hounded him about it.  (The fact that Haider had a male lover was in itself not shocking because rumours about his sexuality have apparently been quietly circulating in Austria for a decade  -  exciting little interest because the homosexual minority was one of the few Haider did not attack,  and no one else was very concerned about it,  apparently not even his wife.)

So what does Lebensmensch really mean?  Interestingly, many Germans themselves seem to be unclear on this point,  as the word is quite obscure.  In the way it was used in Haider's circle,  it has at least two dimensions:  it can mean someone who plays a vital role in your life,  and it can refer to a life partner,  i.e.  a person with whom you share your life,  either as a very close friend or as a lover.  So quite a lot of room for ambiguity there,  and the words Petzner used were certainly not tantamount to declaring that you've been shagging the guy for years.

This is even clearer when you listen to the interview that the reports all refer to.  The relevant bit comes about 8 mins in  (just after 25:40 on the site's countdown clock).  The interviewer says that Petzner said at a press conference that Haider was  "so important for you,  a Lebensmensch,  and  -  in your words  -  'I loved him'.  How would you describe this relationship between you?  Everyone has the feeling that this was quite a special relationship".  You can see where she's going with that,  but she's not so rude as to be completely direct about it,  and he isn't going to be either.  Note also the use of the indefinite article with Lebensmensch:  she allows the interpretation that Haider was potentially just one of many important people in Petzner's life.  He then says that he got "Lebensmensch" from Haider,  that Haider had often said to him  "you are my Lebensmensch"  and that  "he and I know what is meant by that and that should remain just between the two of us"  ("er und ich wissen, was damit gemeint ist und das soll auch zwischen uns bleiben").

That's as explicit as it gets.  Barely enough to raise an eyebrow.  But it's nothing bad translation can't fix.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

"An encounter with a guy who's a plumber"

Possibly the finest moment of Jon Stewart's Daily Show in the US presidential campaign thus far:  their take on the media blitz on  "Joe the Plumber"  following the third presidential debate.  An example in miniature of what happens to anyone whose head pops up above the political parapet these days.
(The relevant bit starts at the 5 min mark of the first clip;  the media-related stuff begins at the 7 min mark and continues into the second clip)

"Why are we vetting THIS guy??  He's already done more interviews than Sarah Palin!"

Friday, 10 October 2008

The troubling mind of Sarah Palin

A fascinating article in the Guardian yesterday casts an intriguing new light on the Republicans'  vice-presidential candidate in the coming US election.  Admittedly it's just one article and the author is almost certainly writing from a position of left-wing bias,  but it nonetheless rings true with everything I've so far seen from Sarah Palin,  especially in the interviews,  the convention speech,  and the debate.  It all seems to fall into place now.  And the result is an even more disturbing picture than the one we already thought we were seeing.  A montage of quotes from the piece to illustrate:

Lyda Green,  Republican president of the state senate,  speaks for many in the party in Alaska when she says Palin has been "disappointingly liberal" since she was elected governor.

Larry Persily,  a senior civil servant who has worked for three Alaskan governors and is a former associate director of Palin's office in Washington, says:  "She was just not interested.  She had no interest in public policy beyond the populist drive to raise oil taxes and push through ethics reforms that the Democrats had already drafted."

Rebecca Braun,  editor of Alaska Budget Report,  a non-aligned political newsletter,  adds:  "If she hasn't pushed the teaching of creationism in schools,  it's because she hasn't pushed the teaching of anything in schools.  She hasn't promoted her rightwing views because she hasn't promoted any views at all.  She really hasn't done very much."

Laura Chase,  who managed Palin's campaign,  recalls her not as doctrinaire but as seriously ambitious.  "We were sitting at my kitchen table at about 11 o'clock one night,  talking about term times,  and she said:  'If I haven't moved on to higher things after two terms,  I don't deserve to be in politics.'  I said:  'Sarah, you'll be governor in 10 years.'  And she said:  'I don't want to be governor,  I want to be president.'  I glanced up and she was looking down at a piece of paper,  she was on to the next thing we were doing.  I just chalked it up to the adrenaline of the campaign."

"She's really pretty insecure.

"She likes being in the limelight,  being the centre of attention.  What she really craves is popularity,  she wants the warmth and love of the public."  Laura Chase says Palin has an uncanny ability to be all things to all people.  "She can walk up to people and quickly have a perception of what they want her to be,  and she will instantly be that person."

"She draws on something inside herself to make them like her.  She's a natural actress.  And then she wants to do it again,  with even more people.  She's a brilliant politician,  but it's all about getting more and more people to love her."

Now, I can sympathise to some degree with Palin's desire to be liked and her chameleon-like attempts to be everything to everyone.  I'm prey to similar insecurities and I tend to do the same sort of thing  (albeit with less success).  But Sarah,  well,  she takes it a good few steps further.

It would seem,  in fact,  that this woman is doing nothing less than trying to seize control of the most powerful country on earth for ultimately no purpose other than her own personal need for approval.

Breathtaking though that is,  it does seem to make sense.  And that,  viewed together with her relentless ambition and her undeniable charisma,  rather freaks the hell out of me.  Sure,  she probably won't get into the White House this time.  But she's still relatively young,  and the Republicans have a recent history of favouring populist charismatic candidates with highly dubious qualifications.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if she comes back in a few years,  older and wiser and even scarier.

Now I know what "generation gap" means

Overheard in the locker room of the local pool - three seven-year-old boys talking while towelling themselves dry:

"Hey, we all have team towels"
[exchange of observations on which teams they have]

Oh how cute,  they all have team towels.  Of course they do,  they're Melbournians,  every man,  woman and child here seems to have a full wardrobe of items in the colours of their favourite football team.

"I like mine because it has my favourite font on it.  Comic Sans MS."


Well Ma,  I'll be danged,  the boy has a favourite font.  Why,  gosh be darned,  when I was his age,  I don't think I knew what a font even dang well was.  'Course, back in them days,  we was still scratching our wordifyin's on bits of slate,  wasn't we.

I am feeling so very twentieth century right now.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Metaphysical typo

It's unusual for a typographical error to make you take a moment,  sit back and ponder life's mysteries.  Well to be honest it's never happened to me at all.  Until today,  that is.  And I have the online version of Melbourne's The Age to thank.  They just ran a story reporting the sudden and unexpected death by stroke of Rob Guest,  a cast member in the Australian production of the musical Wicked.  The crucial sentence:

Guest talked to a friend early on Tuesday night and seemed fine before collapsing at his computer and being,  according to radio station 3AW.

Fascinating, isn't it.  Initially I thought they meant "dying",  but he died later in hospital,  not at his computer.  So I am left pondering their meaning – and ultimately other things besides.

I actually saw that show just two weeks ago,  by the way.  I remember thinking how amazingly agile he was,  marvelling at the way he could leap around the stage like a ballet dancer,  and hoping I would be in such good form at his age...