After an absence of more than three months, it is time for another installment of Monday Morning Madness.
The idea of “translating” another language into your own, by assuming that words that sound the same as words in your language are the same, is not a surprising one — the results can be disastrous, or comical. Christopher Columbus apparently believed that fundamentally there was one universal, natural human language, and that if he tried hard enough he could understand Taíno words by listening for similarities. Taíno mentions of what he heard as “Caniba” (later the basis for the word “cannibal”) was first interpreted by Columbus to mean “the people of the Great Khan.” He was so convinced that he could grasp the native language that he had never heard before, that he was reputed to have placed his hands on the mouths of Taíno speakers, to help them better shape their words to sound like Spanish words.
The two videos below do not advance themselves as formal attempts to translate the Hindi heard in Bollywood music videos, but the core of their “joke” is that they notice that some Hindi words, or parts of them, sound like English words — different words with different meanings, but similar sound units. This is either purely an accident, or some phonological echo of what numerous travelers, explorers, missionaries, and then philologists found: the linguistic strands that constitute the Indo-European family of languages.
The results of these particular video episodes of cross-cultural encounters and cross-cultural communication are often hilarious. The first video, titled “Crazy Indian Video” was subtitled by Buffalax in YouTube, someone from Dayton, Ohio, who seems to have made an art of subtitling Indian videos. As far as Internet celebrity status goes, Buffalax is either a star or close to one: this one video alone has been viewed nearly 12 million times over the past two years, and is rated as “awesome” by nearly 40,000 people who bothered to rate it. Almost 36,000 comments have been posted on the video, which inspired the beginnings of a new YouTube genre. “Benny Lava” now appears as a new word in the “Urban Dictionary.” And, someone decided to bring “Benny Lava” to life and turned him into a 33 year-old male in Washington DC, with his own MySpace page. Some are now speaking of a “Benny Lava Phenomenon” seeing that the video has been internationalized, remade, reworked, and reenacted by Brazilians, by Croatian college students, and turned into the basis for another spoof of John McCain and Sarah Palin.
A few months later, Ben174, from Modesto, California, subtitled the second video below, and retitled it, “May He Poop on My Knee.” It has been viewed over two million times so far. This appears to be one of the more popular videos in the Benny Lava Genre, rivaled perhaps by the “Indian Nipple Song.”
No longer remembering who the original critic was who made this argument, I recall reading an unforgiving critique of such phenomena, as signs of the cultural idiocy accompanying, facilitating, or inspired by globalization processes — no content, no meaning, just sounds and gestures remade to fit whatever framework. Actually, the target of the attack was a relatively mute figure, that of Mr. Bean, who I first “met” in Trinidad & Tobago, seeing him again in Australia, and finding him back in Canada, as well as on multiple long haul flights just before the featured film was shown, his appearance timed to go together with the free soda and peanuts. People of all sorts of nationalities and language backgrounds could and did laugh at him — he eluded the challenge of cross-cultural translation by basically never speaking, just making funny little gurgles and moans, and over-expressing himself with his face. His overdone facial contortions resembled those of an adult trying to charm a baby in a crib. Do these two videos follow the same principle? To some extent, yes, in that they still render the object virtually mute, lest anything should hinder the supremacy of our individual agency, which the shopping mall ideology of cultural and neo-liberal globalization had us believe should tower above all obstacles to consumption. More than that, both Mr. Bean and the Benny Lava genre — good natured, humorous, to be sure — point to the shallowness of cross-cultural understanding in what was heralded as this wonderful new age of globalized consciousness and global self-awareness (if one listened to Anthony Giddens elegize the topic). A transformation in social ties there may have been, but a transformation in cross-cultural understanding is much more dubious (and I choose my words deliberately in speaking of globalization in the past tense). Instead we were treated to fare such as these, reduced to gestures, tunes, noises, laughing at others, and thanks to the neo-cons, a renewed fear of others. The globalization of electronic communication made hits of “lol cats” and viral videos of dancing teens — in a time of multiple genocides. One wonders then if in place of communication across cultures, what we have instead is heightened cultural dementia on a planetary scale.
Others might find the charm in these videos to be in their simple, child-like humour prompted by difference and lack of understanding, harmless and happy. It certainly did remind me of cases where, for example, a certain relative who heard that the two main Amerindian language groups in the Andes are the Quechua and Aymara, shouted: “Quechua later! Aymara here!” Or that little fellow Italian-Canadian friend of mine from when we were six, who had something rudely taken from him by another boy in the schoolyard, and who in his “broken” English threatened: “Antonio my mother on you!” (In case anyone does not get these examples: the first sounds like “Catch you later, I’m outta here,” and the second was intended by the boy to mean, “I’m tellin’ my mother on you.”)
Still others might say this is harmless stuff, and if anything one way to bridge a divide. Buffalax certainly devoted considerable time to finding this video, watching it repeatedly, listening, imagining, then subtitling. It does not show a complete lack of interest, for certain.
People don’t often post their thoughts here, usually because by this point I have bored them to death. So, after the video, if it is faster and easier than commenting, perhaps you can enter your vote in the poll that follows — not a scientific poll to be sure, but the precision and objectivity of the questions more than make up for any methodological deficit, not to mention the allowance for repeat votes by the same person, which takes into account the recursiveness of social life.
May he poop on my knee
Your opinions matter!
(Which is I went to the trouble of forming some of them in advance for you):