Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lost in Translation

The things from America that become popular in Kazakhstan never cease to surprise me. Rarely are they also popular in America, and some of them I've never even heard of before. It seems like every week there's another old Eddie Murphy or Steven Segall movie on TV. The biggest pop hit of last year was Enrique Iglesias' “Ring My Bells.” Did that even make the Top 40 in America?

This phenomenon extends beyond mere pop culture. I recently read the book The Little Lady of the Big House by Jack London. In America, London is famous for his adventure stories set in the far north, principally White Fang and Call of the Wild. The Little Lady of the Big House, however, is set in California, and there's almost no adventure in it all. Instead, it's more of a philosophic treatment on love, strength, beauty, and what makes the ideal man and woman. In fact, it reads more like the Russian Turgenev's Fathers and Sons or First Love that it does the typical American vision of Jack London. Yet when I told my family what book I was reading, thinking they would never have heard of it (just like I had never heard of it), they nodded in understanding. “Yes, that is a very great book,” they said.

Another time, I was sitting at dinner when my host father started asking me about some American singer I'd never heard of. “How have you never heard of him? He's a great singer! He has an amazing voice. It is terrible that you have not even heard of your own great artists.” This last comment got under my skin a little, but he was still talking. He went on to tell me the history of this great singer, how he was a communist and so he had to flee America and made his home for most of his life in East Germany. “Well, no wonder I've never heard of him,” I thought, “he didn't even live in America most of his life.” If I'd been feeling argumentative, I might have asked him if he'd ever heard of Boris Pasternak or Alexander Solzhenitsyn, both of whom won Nobel prizes for their work but were repressed in their homeland. But, of course, I couldn't say this to my host father, both because of my broken Russian, and because, despite his great pride in the Kazakh people and their independence, he still has many good things to say about the USSR. So instead, I replied that we have many great singers in America, so it's impossible to memorize the names of all of them.

That conversation illuminated a common frustration I feel here. People seem to assume that, based on the American things that have filtered through to them, they know and understand American culture. But the American things they have here are, as often as not, not even what Americans like. Still, it's not the things themselves that are really frustrating (although “Ring My Bells” is a really annoying song.) Whether The Little Lady of the Big House is more popular than Call of the Wild doesn't really make any difference. The frustrating part is not that Steven Segall is popular in Kazakhstan, but when people tell me that Steven Segall is also popular in America. The rub is that people assume that they know American culture, when they actually only know their version of it.

But then, I have to turn the issue around. How much do we as Americans claim to know about Kazakhstani culture? If we claim any knowledge at all, it usually involves yurts or Borat. But I'll tell you this: I've only seen one yurt my entire time here, and people hate Borat, if they've even heard of him. Actually, more often than not, they haven't heard of him. Just like I'd never heard of that one singer who'd moved to East Germany, or The Little Lady of the Big House. What “Kazakhstan” (or Sasha Baron Cohen) exports to America is not necessarily what's popular in Kazakhstan.

Even when we know more about a culture than we know about Kazakhstan, we're still often off base. Take Russian literature. We all know and revere Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – great writers both. But who in America has read Gogol or Turgenev or the most beloved Russian writer of all, Pushkin? Pushkin is the Shakespeare of Russian literature, and every school child in the former Soviet Union has a fair number of his poems memorized. We can't really know Russian literature without knowing these great writers, yet we claim we do.

What is it that determines what aspects of pop or artistic culture will become popular abroad? I'd like to hazard a guess, based on Jack London. In America, we like exciting stories with lots of action, like Call of the Wild. Over here, a great deal of their classical literature is driven by strong characterization and philosophic discussion, more similar to The Little Lady of the Big House. So maybe that's part of what determines the ability of a book, painting, or song to cross a border: how closely it resembles the cultures it's entering. The more similar to that culture it is, the more likely it will become popular there. And then how does that, in turn, reflect our understanding of the culture from whence it came?

I think this calls for an in depth scholarly study of Enrique Iglesias' “Ring My Bells.”

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