February 2nd, 2011

Dalai Lama: my religion is kindness

Sneaky racism? Or not?

Okay, an interaction on Facebook kinda freaked me out today. A friend (K) posted a photo of a toy box for a knock-off "Barbie" doll, with text on the box that said things like "Everybody is quick to come to do the friend with me!!" and "High beautiful doll series" and "The doll of the high quantity." So ... embarrassingly bad translations, right? Well, when I think of really bad translations, I think of Hong Kong film subtitling. So I posted some kind of joke about Hong Kong subtitlers moonlighting.

Well, one of K's other friends (who I have met many times but don't know well at all) got really offended and said I was being racist -- she's Asian, though I don't know whether or not that is relevant -- that I was implying that bad English = Chinese. Huh? I was totally confused at first, because I wasn't thinking of the Hong Kong subtitlers as Chinese, or Asian, or anything in particular ... except really sucky translators! The particular *kinds* of grammatical errors on this toy box (wacko lack of idiom-understanding, incorrect but sound-alike words, etc.) just struck me as being similar to the ones I've seen in often-unintentionally-hilarious Hong Kong flick subtitles.

I've seen lots of movies with subtitles. I've read lots of books in translation. But it's only been the Hong Kong flicks that had the really amusing subtitle problems. It's only the Hong Kong flicks that sounded remotely like the language on this toy box. (I've seen some similar wackiness in anime subtitling upon occasion, but usually only on bootlegs, and it isn't nearly as common. In Hong Kong flicks, it's pretty much omnipresent.) So when I saw the humorous language, I thought of Hong Kong movie subtitles. So the connection between one example of humorously bad translation and another example (well, entire genre, really) of humorously bad translation didn't have anything to do with race in my head.

But when I said so, K's friend persisted in insisting that my thinking was racist. I don't know if I explained myself very well, it being a conversation conducted entirely through Facebook comments, but it left me feeling unsettled.

Racism (and homophobia, and sexism, and weightism, and all other forms of discrimination/prejudice/bigotry) is a *very* important issue to me. I mean, maybe *the* most important issue in my life. So when someone accuses me of being racist (as has happened maybe twice before in my life), my first reaction is to vehemently deny it, and my second reaction is to look within myself to see if the other person might have a point, because if there's racism in my heart, then I want to root it out. I want to shine a bright light on it, expose its wrongness, and find a more open-minded way of looking at the issue.

I really don't think I was being racist in this situation, but K's friend got me thinking. It hurts me *a lot* to be accused of something like this. I don't want it to be true. I'm pretty sure it isn't. If you feel you might better understand K's friend's perspective than I do, please do speak up. I'm totally open to discussing this.