Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Afghan TV

In my downtime here, I try to keep up on events going on in the wider world. This is often more difficult than it sounds. In order to get my news in my preferred manner (i.e. the internet), three consecutive things have to happen. One, there has to be electricity to Kabul power grid, or a functioning generator. Two, the satellite system upon which the connection depends has to be up and running. And three, there has to be sufficient bandwidth on the network to prevent page-loading from becoming an exercise in futility. When these three factors align properly, I’m good to go. If only the first two conditions are in place (power and satellite connection), then I’m reduced to the watching the BBC World news service.

Now, I’m generally a fan of the BBC (although their radio programming is better than TV), but like any international news show it can become staggeringly redundant, with the same headlines and stories over and over again. At those times when I don’t need to see the story about protests by French cheese makers for the fourth time, I slip into old habits and start flipping channels. This is usually not an effective use of my time, since among the thirty channels that I have access to perhaps four of them are in English (including, oddly enough, a HBO subsidiary). The rest are either terrestrial Afghan channels or cable shows from the Gulf (in Arabic) or India (in what I presume is Hindi). I won’t attempt to describe the intense loathing I have developed for Indian television. Suffice to say that nothing about it, not the acting, not the music, not the production value, not even the sound of the language causes anything more than a rapid rise in blood pressure and, after prolonged exposure, uncontrolled twitching and what my father used to call “free-floating hostility.”

No, my focus here is on the English subtitles that accompany about half of the channels, including strangely two of the English-language channels. I’ve noticed something in the last few days that struck me as odd.

In a Muslim country like Afghanistan one expects that certain elements of foreign television (Indian or Western) would be inappropriate for broadcast. An example of this is the clumsily-done blurring of certain parts of the female anatomy, parts which, it should be pointed out, wouldn’t even raise eyebrows on American after-school specials. Really racy things like…..shoulders and knees. Fair enough. You have an inordinate fear of the female form. Whatever. Get over it.

The odder thing is the text in the subtitles. As one would expect, the language is toned down and sanitized from the original dialogue. This may be undetectable to non-native speakers, but when I’m listening to dialogue in English and simultaneously reading the English subtitles, the disconnect is obvious. [Warning – language unsuitable for young eyes follows. If you’re the sensitive type, or still harboring unrealistic illusions about my own propriety, stop reading now…….Are they gone? Good. On with the show.] Words like “shit” are transformed in the subtitles to “crap.” Not sure if that’s actually an improvement, but whatever. “Asshole” becomes “moron,” and “son of a bitch” transmutes to “jerk.” All of this is to be expected, of course, in a country in which harsh language is a serious social taboo. The really interesting bit comes when someone on-screen, as overly-traditional Christians would say, takes the lord’s name in vain. “Damn” becomes “darn,” while “goddamn” magically is transcribed as “gosh darn.” There are of course no derogatory references to Allah or Islam. Those movies don’t even make it on the air.

However, the strangest bit of all is the fact that “Jesus Christ,” when used as an expletive (as in “Jesus Christ, this asshole is a goddamn piece of shit!”) is left unaltered. So the above line, in the subtitles becomes, “Jesus Christ, that jerk is a gosh darn piece of crap!” Lacks the same rhetorical impact, I think you’ll agree.

But why leave “Jesus Christ” unchanged? In the West, that particular phrase is considered by some to be worse than any other curse imaginable. Not by me admittedly, but I pride myself on inventive and entertaining use of the sludgy end of the language pool. So, is it because they don’t recognize that this is considered a swear by Western standards? Or is it because JC is considered a prophet in Islamic theology, and therefore cannot be renamed or redacted? I’m not sure (although I lean towards the latter explanation), but it can be jarring to see Jim Belushi’s words transmuted into something one might here in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, followed by a resounding “Jesus Christ!”

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