Friday, August 21, 2009

A Derogatory Term for Black People

Proving that the certain professions can attract obnoxious, officious pricks the world over, an Israeli bus driver has refused to let a woman of Ethiopian descent on, saying:
What, don’t you understand that I don't allow Kushim (derogatory term for black people) on board? Are you trying to smash my door in? Were there buses in Ethiopia? Why don't you walk? In Ethiopia you didn't even have shoes and here you do, so why don’t you walk?
Clearly this bus driver isn’t coming off brilliantly in the article. As’ad of the otherwise interesting and informative Angry Arab News Service still isn’t satisfied
Well notice that the paper managed to cite the word Kushim without telling its readers that it means "Nigger." Israeli newspapers don't want to spoil the bogus "liberal" image of Israel, that it never ever deserved.
Aside from the fact that it means ‘Niggers’, plural (the driver later refers to the woman several times as a ‘Kushit’), As’ad is being rather profligate here with the word ‘means’.

Like homophobic abuse, racial slurs are more complicated than they look. How strong is the word ‘כושית’/‘Kushit’? As far as I know, ‘Nigger’ is pretty much the worst thing an English speaker can throw at a person of colour. Is ‘Kushit’ just as strong? Is it relatively mild, like ‘Darkie’, or pseudo-scientific, like ‘Negro’? And where does it come from? Does it, like those three, refer to skin colour? Is it based on stereotypes, like ‘Frog’ or ‘Kraut’? Is it a corruption of the standard term in their own language, like ‘Pollack’ or ‘Yid’? Some racial slurs, like ‘Wog’, seem to be just random, bile-filled clusters of idiotic phonemes. Is it historical, like the Arabic ‘عبد’/‘abd’, meaning ‘slave’, or is it, as the ‘-it’ ending would suggest, a reference to perceived geographical origin, like ‘Paki’? It turns out it’s a mixture of the last two: from ancient Kush. But that doesn’t tell us about its usage. Is it actually as strong as ‘Nigger’? Has it, like ‘Nigger’, been reclaimed at all by those it designates? Can it be used for all dark-skinned people, only black people, only black Ethiopians or only black Ethiopian Jews? Even Wikipedia doesn’t help much, though shows this particular slur to be surprisingly popular among Israeli bus drivers. Even weirder though, putting “כושית” into google images turns up an awful lot of porn. Draw your own conclusions.

Again, a lot more questions than answers. So I reckon Ynet was absolutely right to explain, rather than translate the word. There probably is no exact English translation for ‘Kushit’, and forcing one is not only inaccurate linguistically, but also politicises the translation. As the name might suggest, the Angry Arab News Service isn’t exactly the most pro-Zionist blog I’ve ever read, and while As’ad may be right to attack casual Israeli racism, he shouldn’t expect translators to do it for him.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Queer Fag

This is a tad unusual
A Polish court has banned a woman from publicly using derogatory terms like "queer" or "fag" to describe her young gay neighbour.
See, you read this and you expect what, two words, right? You expect to learn not one, but two terms of homophobic abuse in Polish. And you never know when you’ll need a synonym for that sort of thing. Instead you get this:
Prosecutors said Mr Giersz had endured an "avalanche of hatred" in the small town of Wolin, after his neighbour began calling him a "pedal" - which translates as "fag" or "queer" - in front of others.
So what I find odd is that the translator was unable to settle on the one.

The two have, at least as far as I see it, slightly different meanings and fairly different connotations. For a start, ‘queer’ can be applied to lesbians and a variety of alternative sexualities, whereas ‘fag’ is pretty much exclusive to gay men. Secondly, ‘fag’ makes me think of angry American rednecks, while ‘queer’ conjures up retired colonels and maiden aunts who can’t bring themselves to say ‘bugger’, as well as the running “I ain’t a queer or nothing” gag from Orgazmo. On the other hand, queer theorists, queercore and queer eye have all made serious attempts to reclaim the word, whereas I’ve only heard anyone refer to themselves or their own as ‘faggot’ with tongue firmly in cheek.

How does ‘pedal’ work in Polish? Who says it? Is it a working-class or upper-class insult? ‘Faggot’, like ‘fairy’, ‘queen’ and all that lot, is rooted in effeminacy, meaning either ‘old biddy’ or ‘little bird’ (Yiddish: פּײַגלע/feygele). Is ‘pedal’ too? Is it rooted in godlessness like ‘sodomite’, abnormality like ‘queer’ and ‘bender’, or is it purely descriptive like ‘bummer’? It also sounds like the French pédé, short for pédéraste, so could be similarly rooted in child molestation. Does the Polish gay rights movement tend towards reclaiming it, stamping it out, ignoring it or some other strategy? How would that affect its connotations? It looks like the BBC’s translator wasn’t much more certain, as they’ve plumped for two starkly different slurs. But then both of them are well known enough that most audiences will recognise and understand them. Whatever it is, swear-words and insults are often tricky things to translate, as they tend to have both a literal and metaphorical meaning, and strength, gender, register, all have to be taken into account.

What’s refreshingly simple though, is the woman’s excuse:
All the witnesses lied
Good luck with that appeal.