Homogenizing the global literature experience

Any hopes to dealing with the translation gap that’s been blocking these non-English international blockbusters books?

If this trend is any indication, then perhaps we have little to worry about – since everything will converge to the same blend of McDonalized dullness. In an attempt to appeal to a global, and more importantly, English-speaking audience, the art of literature has been reduced to ploys and strategies.

[C]ontemporary authors like the Norwegian Per Petterson, the Dutch Gerhard Baaker, or the Italian Alessandro Baricco, offer us works that require no such knowledge or effort, nor offer the rewards that such effort will bring.

More importantly the language is kept simple. Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader.

What seems doomed to disappear, or at least to risk neglect, is the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture, the sort of writing that can savage or celebrate the way this or that linguistic group really lives.

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Why deal with confrontation when you can hire help?

In a society where confrontation is hardly desired nor practiced, the Japanese’s reluctance to engage in face-to-face has created a whole new level of creepiness.  Where wannabe models and actors elsewhere wait tables and tend bars, the ones in Japan find employment as wakaresaseya, or splitter-uppers.

Rather than pleading with him face to face, a woman whose husband is having an affair may hire a splitter-upper to seduce his mistress away from him. Parents may engage their services to prise off the unsuitable lover of a son or daughter. Dozens of wakaresaseya companies advertise on the internet, under names such as Lady’s Secret Service and Office Shadow. They employ models, actors and personable people of different backgrounds first to trail and then to seduce their quarry.

But looking at the grander picture, these soap opera-ish home wreckers are merely one symptom of much larger problems in Japan.

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Is English heading into a even more non-standardized and fragmented form?

Numbers certainly support the theory, and on the ground reality also corroborates the trend, where English is heading in the same direction as languages like Arabic, Chinese, Hindi and Latin, where the language will not merely differentiate based on accents, but where dialects will become mutually unintelligible to each other.

According to linguists, Panglish will be similar to the versions of English used by non-native speakers. As the new language takes over, “the” will become “ze”, “friend” will be “frien” and the phrase “he talks” will become “he talk”.

By 2010 around two billion people – or a third of the world’s population – will speak English as a second language. In contrast, just 350 million people will speak it as a first language.

[A]s new dialects develop, global English – or Panglish – will become simpler. Unlike French – which is jealously protected from corruption by the Academie Francaise – there is no organisation to police the English language.

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China enters Eastern Europe

Having forged some pretty sturdy commercial ties with Africa and Latin America, China is now entering Eastern Europe.  Long-time backyard of Russia, and some-time cold war battlegrounds in bygone days, many have become scourges of Europe in recent years.

Enters China with tons of cash.

China last July signed a memorandum of understanding to lend Moldova $1 billion – equal to a tenth of the east European country’s gross domestic product, and easily the biggest loan it will have received from anywhere.

Last June, it agreed to invest more than $1 billion to build power plants and roads in Tajikistan, an impoverished ex-Soviet state with limited natural resources. In March, China’s central bank agreed a three-year currency swap worth 20 billion yuan ($2.93 billion) with another former Soviet republic, Belarus.

And why would China want to throw its money into those economic basket cases?  Political capital with its main energy provider, Russia.

China will increasingly need leverage with Russia as its dealings with its oil- and gas-rich neighbor expand. Russia provides nearly 8 percent of China’s total crude oil imports, and Gazprom is in advanced talks on a deal to supply gas.

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Mysteries behind Japanese bows

The Japanese take the art of bowing just as seriously as they do with the art of honorific speechSalon investigates the four different kinds of bows through the Toyota recall debacle.

Japanese bows can be formally categorized as eshaku, a simple 15-degree bend or nod of the head; keirei, a 30-degree tilt to show respect; saikeirei, a full 45- to 90-degree bow intended to show the deepest veneration or humility; and dogeza, a fetal prostration expressing utter subjection or contrition.

But it’s not just the gradient of the bows either.

As important are the duration of the gesture, and the exact context under which it’s made. A graduating student might perform a full, prolonged saikeirei to his professor as a gesture of gratitude, but he might perform the same bow in an abbreviated form to apologize for having accidentally stepped on someone’s foot.

Now taking it to the nth degree, because this is Japan we are talking about.

Bowing is so important in Japan that parents begin to teach the practice to children shortly after they start walking, and some schools hold enormous assemblies where preteens spend hours bowing in unison to master the postures. One company supposedly developed a machine with a laser line to teach their sales staff the ideal angle for bowing to customers.

But really, it’s what those bows signify in the Japanese context that’s both mind-baffling and strangely fitting at the same time.

Still, in most daily interactions, the four categories and the precise pitch of the body matter far less than properly representing the hierarchical relationship between the two parties: The subordinate person—student, son, employee, etc.—must always must bow down lower, and stay there longer, than his superior.

japanese bows

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Why the idea of an “Asian century” is steeped in exaggeration

Someone has taken a chill pill and examined whether the idea of an “Asian century” has any bearings to reality.

The way those arguments go, not so much.  It turns out that advantages accumulated over centuries will not disappear over night, or even decades, for that matter.

As much as the Asian economies have shocked and awed the rest of the world in their speed of growth, a rapidly aging population, wealth disparity, income inequality, political turmoil, and the lack of any kind of “Asian consensus” will make the emergence of a united Asian block highly unlikely.

Whether measured by military prowess, education ranking, level of innovation, or simply, coolness appeal, it is doubtful that Asia will ever overtake the West.  Moreover, it is arguable that the world will default to trusting the devil it knows, than the devil it doesn’t.

With Asian nations still squabbling amongst themselves, many look to the United States as a neutral power broker, a role America plays around the world. German writer and scholar Joseph Joffe calls the United States today the “default power”: No one in the world trusts anyone else to play the global hegemon, so it still falls to Washington.

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Taking Japan’s kawaii cultural phenomenon a step further

A while ago, I wrote about Japan’s export of soft power through its kawaii culture, spear-headed by Hello Kitty, and now complete with culture ambassadors wearing Lolita uniforms.

The same thread was picked up by Wilson Center, whom viewed the phenomenon through more cynical lenses.  Is Japan’s obsession with cuteness merely a reflection of an increasingly infantilized and emasculated culture?

A clue as to what’s really going on may lie in the career of artist Takashi Mura­kami, an Andy ­Warhol–­like figure who has played a big role in taking cute global. In 2005 he curated an exhibit in New York titled “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture.” “Little Boy” was a reference to the atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, but it also “highlights what [Murakami] believes Japan has become in relation to the United States” since World War II—“a ­forever-­emasculated ‘little boy.’” Cute is a symptom of Japan’s infantil­ization, but as an “exploding subculture” it is also an assertion of Japanese soft power throughout the world, albeit an ironic ­one.

Or is it just simply, bored to death? Was the Japanese’ obsession with imperial glories simply channeled into more, mundane, matters? Is a country as rich and conformist as Japan doomed to become the poster child for post-modernism and despair?

Japan is rich enough, bored enough with national ambition, strait-jacketed enough and gloomy enough to find immense attraction in playful escapism and quirky obsession. … [T]here’s a Japanese word, otaku, denoting a whole universe of monomaniacal geek-like obsession, whether with an electronic game, some odd hobby, or the cartoonlike “manga” comic books devoted to everything from kamikazes to kinky sex.

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Testing the limit of cultural relativity

Most of us recognize the existence of cultural relativism, right?  Like, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, someone’s religious devotion can be construed as adherence to superstition and voodooism, etc etc.  There are cultural gaps and differences that we simply just cannot imagine buying into.  Like, ever.

Or, can we?

Consider this situation Roger Cohen was recently confronted with.  The practice of dog-eating, in China.

As it happened, our meal came shortly before the eruption of a furious online debate in China over a proposed “anti-animal maltreatment” law that would outlaw the eating and selling of dog and cat meat, making it punishable by fines of more than $700 and 15 days of detention.

The legislation, now under review, immediately came under heavy fire. One restaurant owner in the Chaozhou region declared: “This is ridiculous! You make dog and cat meat illegal, but aren’t chickens, duck, goose, pig, cow, lamb also animals?” Another noted a local saying: “When the dog meat is being simmered, even the gods become dizzy with hunger.”

I’m with these indignant protesters. I’m not happy that I ate dog. But I’m happy China eats dog. It so proclaims both a particularity to be prized in a homogenizing world and its rationality. Anyone who doesn’t want China to eat dog must logically embrace pigs as pets.

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Australia may save us all

Unlike its OECD brethrens, Australia is facing a population crisis, in the other direction!

Australia now has the fastest population growth in the developed world, surpassing that of the U.S. and the United Kingdom, and even many developing countries, including Indonesia and China.

Nice.  Except in a rather Malthusian twist, Australia has limitations when it comes to natural resources, and even more trouble catching in terms of infrastructure. So what to do?

Australian businessman Dick Smith is opposed to population growth and says Australia should cut its skilled migration intake, and encourage people to have fewer children.

But an uptick in population density has its benefits.

“And there will be opportunities there. Greater density will mean that certain public options become viable; better public transport’s viable … so there’s all sorts of ways that we can deal with this. But closing our minds and our hearts to people from around the world is not the way that’s going to do that,” he added.

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What do the Scandinavians get right? E=MC2

Along with a heavily distributive society, what else do the Scandinavians get right?

A review of The Spirit Level finds the following:

Deep down, Norway and the other Scandinavian societies still have it right because there are a host of other social policies (affordable child care and greater paternity leave for men among them) that are sustainable on the back of a redistributive economy, but which themselves provide the basis for a more caring society.

So it’s not merely the act of wealth distribution that result in the happier, safer, and nicer societies as outlined in Wilkinson and Pickett’s research.  It’s the social policies that consistently display a “degree of care” that some countries have neglected in our pursuit of individualism and fairness, so argues the authors.

Do you buy the arguments for nanny states?

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So if apocalyptic population collapse hasn’t happened yet, it won’t?

Two arguments on why it won’t happen, and eve it does to a certain degree, it won’t matter.

Apparently, severe population decline is very limited to certain regions, also mentioned here last week.

There will be countries and regions that will suffer long-term depopulation due to low fertility and emigration – but a combination of the two phenomena is mostly concentrated in eastern Europe, particularly in eastern Germany, Bulgaria and Ukraine. But the European population will also continue to age, and some demographers predict that babies born in the first decade of this century will live to an average age of 100.

And size is not always proportional to influence, if that’s really the concern at hand.

Since the late 19th century, when a massive decline in birth rates began in most of Europe, some demographers and long-forgotten futurologists have been busy envisioning an inevitable demise of Europe and “western civilisation”. However, it is not population size but affluence and technology that make some countries more powerful than others. Switzerland, with a population of 8 million, is globally more significant than, say, Bangladesh, with a population 20 times larger.

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Ayn Rand belongs to Russian history, not American?

The views of Ayn Rand has long inspired Americans, especially during times of economic hardship.

Now referencing Anne Heller’s biography of Rand, Anthony Daniels offers a pretty scathing critique of Rand.

First, her outlook is almost entirely Russian, and reactionary to the Soviet system that she came from.

Although she wrote in English, and her two most famous books are American in subject matter and location, she remained deeply Russian in outlook and intellectual style to the end of her days. America could take Rand out of Russia, but not Russia out of Rand. Her work properly belongs to the history of Russian, not American, literature—and nineteenth-century Russian literature at that.

She had a narrow and rather absolute view of the world, and is a hardened ideologue whom had little time for self-reflection, a trait perhaps similarly reflected in the outlook of her most ardent admirers.

Her intelligence was narrow rather than broad. Though in theory a defender of freedom of thought and action, she was dogmatic, inflexible, and intolerant, not only in opinion but in behavior, and it led her to personal cruelty. In the name of her ideas, she was prepared to be deeply unpleasant. She hardened her ideas into ideology. Her integrity led to a lack of self-criticism; she frequently wrote twenty thousand words where one would do.

Her belief of rationalism over rationality, and her adherence to intellectual principle over humanity, is reflected in her personal relationships with others.  Will Wilkinson also raised his objection over this aspect of Randian egoism.

Rand believed all people to be possessed of equal rights, but she found relations of equality with others insupportable. Though she could be charming, it was not something she could keep up for long. She was deeply ungrateful to those who had helped her and many of her friendships ended in acrimony.

For Rand, there was no ambiguity in the world: if it is true that man has free will and is responsible for his conduct, it cannot also be that there is a condition such as dementia that robs a man of his capacity for choice. Hence her husband’s lapses were wilful and deliberate, to be corrected by Randian brainwashing. This is authentically horrible.

Her megalomaniac pursuit of ideology confines her worldview to a very narrow criterion.  And in Daniels’ view, almost Soviet.

Like any Stalinist despot, Ayn Rand considered herself to be totally unprecedented and quite without parallel. Like Kim Il-Sung and Howard Roark, she sprang into the world with her philosophical genius fully formed, not needing any support from any other thinker, despite the fact that (in fact) no element of her thought was entirely original.

In her expository writings, Rand’s style resembles that of Stalin. It is more catechism than argument, and bores into you in the manner of a drill. She has a habit of quoting herself as independent verification of what she says; reading her is like being cornered at a party by a man, intelligent but dull, who is determined to prove to you that right is on his side in the property dispute upon which he is now engaged and will omit no detail.

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How much longer can the Beijing Consensus last?

Just to be clear, there’s never been an acknowledged nor formal definition of the Beijing Consensus, which is an alternative economic development model to those proposed by the Washington consensus.

This article in Foreign Affairs argues time might be running out on this social contract based on a trade-off of political and economic freedoms, when and if the country’s economic growth slows down.

China’s astronomic growth has left it in a precarious situation, however. Other developing countries have suffered from the so-called middle-income trap — a situation that often arises when a country’s per-capita GDP reaches the range of $3,000 to $8,000, the economy stops growing, income inequality increases, and social conflicts erupt. China has entered this range, and the warning signs of a trap loom large.

So far, China has been applying band-aid solutions to social unrests as a result of unfair and inequitable distribution of wealth.  This kind of short-term patching might not be enough to assuage the discontented for much longer.

The reforms carried out over the last 30 years have mostly been responses to imminent crises. Popular resistance and economic imbalances are now moving China toward another major crisis. Strong and privileged interest groups and commercialized local governments are blocking equal distribution of the benefits of economic growth throughout society, thereby rendering futile the CCP’s strategy of trading economic growth for people’s consent to its absolute rule.

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Uncut umbilical cord between Africa and France degenerate with time

Francophone Africa is gradually moving away from its former colonial overlord.  Those with resources are finding it easy to make new friends with a clean slate.

Gabon has acquired many friends in recent years, including China, the US and a number of wealthy Arab regimes. Beijing is courting, hosting and assisting African leaders, with very few conditions, much as France used to do, and while they may not fight to the death for real democracy in their country, Gabonese nowadays rise up in revolt at the idea of a leader being ‘elected in Paris’.

Half a century after the independence of most of its former colonies, France is still “nodding and winking” when it comes to African politics. And things haven’t changed much.

[S]ince he took office, Sarkozy has perpetuated France’s time-honoured tradition of parallel diplomacy in Africa. … In its African backyard, Paris professed a doctrine of ‘limited sovereignty’, just as Brezhnev was doing in the satellite states of Eastern Europe.

Before Rwanda and Ivory Coast, however, France was surprisingly effective in protecting pax franca – those under its jurisdiction against violence, relatively to other European masters.

Between 1960 and 1990, 40,000 people are believed to have died as a result of internecine violence in French Africa, half of them in Chad; by comparison, roughly two million died in former British Africa, another two million in former Belgian Africa, 1.2 million in the former Portuguese colonies and another million in the residual category that includes Ethiopia, Somalia, Liberia and Equatorial Guinea.

Nowadays, Françafrique is losing patience with its elitist Franco-African leaders, whom are increasingly detached from Africans on the ground.  The French too, while holding little objection to the idea of neo-colonialism, are becoming more and more aloof to the realities of maintaining political ties while doing business on the continent.

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