Thursday, May 5, 2011

Weird, Womanly Words of Obama

In this post, I'd like us to consider President Obama's words as womanly and also as weird.  But can we also talk about how a translator may and "ought not" translate these words of his?

(This has implications for translation theory and practice as related to what's better for the bible.  So maybe we can get to that some too.)

First, I'm not the only one to say Barack Obama's words are womanly.  Second, I am going to call these words "weird."  Third, would you look at and listen to them with me.  Finally, let's talk translation.


Mr. Obama's speech tends to be rich and nuanced and different from the stereotypical speech of a man.  (The stereotypes were created by Aristotle or were reinforced by him in many cases.  Aristotle made a big big deal out of the differences between male and female speech; Anne Carson, a careful reader and wonderful translator of ancient Greek has noted many of these differences; and Nancy Mairs makes a big deal out of these differences too.)  Deborah Siegel of posted how some of us have observed the stereotypically womanly characteristics of Mr. Obama's words in answering the question, "Is Obama Leading Like a Woman?"


I'm calling Obama's speech womanly.  But let me also qualify much of it as "weird."  Now let me go a step further and say it's not only womanly and weird but also "foreign."  (Aristotle would have called it absolutely barbaric or barbarous or something like that.)  Please know that I'm now using the words weird and foreign in the way that two of the Better Bibles Blog bloggers are using those words this week.  I don't at all agree with their arguments yet (i.e., that the Bible doesn't have weird or foreign language and/ or that even if it did a translation of the Bible shouldn't have weird or foreign language); I'm only using the words they way they do:  "We may have to learn many more new things all at the one time when we read the Bible, but that doesn’t require weird language" and "It may be inevitable that sometimes the message sounds foreign, but there is nothing about this that suggests that the [English Bible] translation should sound foreign, generally speaking."  

What I'm saying is that Obama's language is weird and might sound foreign and that better translators of his language do even better when they translate it that way.  


Want some evidence?  Okay then.  Here's some recent stuff from President Obama:
  1. his Presidential Proclamation for the National Day of Prayer (which happens to be today)
  2. his speech announcing the killing of Osama bin Ladin (which most of the world has heard now)
  3. his recent book (which is the only children's book any US president in office has ever written)
In 1. his President Proclamation, he uses interesting language at least at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the pronouncement.

At the beginning, President Obama hearkens to history and quotes what others before him have said, including a former president and a civil rights leader.  He identifies with both men quoted.  But to quote the civil rights leader (with whom he identifies, by race, at least in other contexts), Mr. Obama first quotes a woman:
The late Coretta Scott King recounted a particularly difficult night, during the Montgomery bus boycott, when her husband, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., received a threatening phone call and prayed at the kitchen table, saying, "Lord, I have nothing left.  I have nothing left.  I have come to the point where I can't face it alone." 
Here, the President's words are rather nuanced.  He's not giving the source for his first quotation.  But when quoting the African American leader, he does.  And he goes on at length.  And his readers see how important it is to him that a woman, this particular woman, has recounted with some considerable pathos (i.e., remembering "a particularly difficult night") some danger and much desperation beyond all human limits.  If this were translated into, say, Arabic language, then wouldn't the better translator try to account for the English language nuance here, for the digressions that back up the story and put it back into the memory of a woman who is not really the central one being talked about in the first place?  Well, yes.

In the middle of his Proclamation, President Obama uses gendered language that is inclusive.  He says:
Let us pray for the men and women of our Armed Forces and the many selfless sacrifices they and their families make on behalf of our Nation.  Let us pray for the police officers, firefighters, and other first responders....
Notice the language that many say is awkward and just politically correct.  It's awkward to specify men "and women" and it's even more awkward to use two words and five syllables (i.e., "police officers") instead of more directly "policemen" and to use three syllables (i.e., "firefighters") for the clear two in "firemen," and so forth.  The translator should not bother readers with literal forms.  The dynamic-equivalence translator would be kind to let the readers know that were talking about mostly men anyway.  However, wouldn't the better translator of Chinese language do well to take the time to render the President's female-equal and woman-inclusive words as 男人女人 even though that can also simply and clearly communicate 人?  And how about his woman-inclusive words?  Wouldn't she or he (the translator into Chinese) find 消防队员 more descriptive of what the President wrote than 救火队员 , the former phrase literally meaning something like Fire-Rescue Team-Member for "firefighter" and the latter phrase meaning literally something like Warrior-of-Fire Team-Member and referring exclusively to males? Well, yes and yes.

At then end of his Presidential Proclamation, the President writes the following:
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim May 5, 2011, as a National Day of Prayer.  I invite all citizens of our Nation, as their own faith or conscience directs them, to join me in giving thanks for the many blessings we enjoy, and I ask all people of faith to join me in asking God for guidance, mercy, and protection for our Nation.
      IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-ninth day of April, in the year of our Lord two thousand eleven, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-fifth.

          BARACK OBAMA
Now, that's just weird.  I'm talking about the President's words here.  If a team of linguists were to field test this among native speakers of natural American English in 2011, then they'd say, "Not my heart language."  And if some other linguist in, say, Mozambique were to try to take this into African Portuguese, then he or she would likely want to rid the language of its strange and foreign sounding high register.  Otherwise, who knows what President Obama really meant?  But the better translator into Portuguese would translate it as weird and foreign-sounding un-natural and un-contemporary Portuguese just as it's weird and foreign-sounding un-natural and un-contemporary English on May 5, 2011, right?  Well, yes.  Here's the Proclamation.

In 2. his speech announcing the killing of Osama bin Ladin, President Obama uses womanly and weird and foreign-sounding words too.  You can read the speech here at Unsettled Christianity.  You can listen to it and watch it again here at

First of all, he's mentioning with men, again, "women, and children."  And with "their father," also "their mother."  (Of course, I'm being a little silly to point out his gender inclusiveness, again.)  Secondly, the President is way too subjective.  He's getting way too personal.  He's used first person personal pronouns, "I" and "we" and "I" and "we" all over the place.  He's named groups "my team," and "their Pakistani counterparts"; he's identified individuals by name, insinuating how they deserve a share of the credit, "Leon Panetta," and "President Bush," and "President Zardari."  (Yes, I know.  He's taken some political partisan flack for that and has been cynically suspected of being a slimy woman-like sophist trying to garner his own political capital from the electorate and the populous and even the world audience.)  Thirdly, he says "may God bless" at least twice.  (And we all know that in natural field-tested English this shouldn't be used for common-man language but for helping someone out after they sneeze.  "God bless you."  A perfect, non-literal and dynamic equivalent to that is "Gesundheit."  What the President should have said, what he really intended is this:  "Thank you. Don't Worry; be happy. And that goes for the United States of America too."  In colloquial, natural German it's Danke. Keine Sorge, glücklich zu sein. Und das gilt für die Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika zu.)  And yet, doesn't the better German translator keep Obama's language just a marked and as weird as it is in English?  Well, yes.

In 3. his recent book, President Obama again uses womanly and weird and foreign-sounding language.

Well, we just have time to consider the title.  But if you read it all for yourself, you'll get it.  The title alone is Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters.   Well, okay, peek in for a bit.  It's dedicated:

To Michelle -- whose fierce love and daily good sense
have nourished such wonderful daughters

And the book's about 13 Americans, not all of whom are men.  That's right.  Some are also African Americans, some are even African American women.  The audacity.  Is this weird hope again?

Now, I said we only have time for the title.  So let's get back to it.  "Of Thee I Sing"?  Doesn't the President know how antiquated this phrase is?  Doesn't the President care how ambiguous this phrase is?  How will the readers know what he means?  Who can tell us what he surely must intend singularly intend as writer?  Well, the translator can.

The translator won't confuse us with the fact of the deep cultural significances of this phrase for African Americans closer to the onset of the Civil War and beyond.  No, surely Obama is being more American than that.

The translator won't bother us (unless in an endnote) with the fact that this particular phrase has had earlier and more enduring historical significance for women in America working for their rights.  So let's just take time to read a page real quickly from that history (from Sweet Freedom's Song: "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and Democracy in America) -

Those women's rights songs riffed off of "Of Thee I Sing":

Let your joy be unconfined. 
Let it speak so clearly that its echo will be 
heard around the world.
[Let] it find its way into the soul of every woman

who is longing for the opportunity and liberty still denied her.
Let your voices ring out the gladness in your hearts! . . .
Let us sing, together, 

"My Country, 'Tis of Thee . . .
Sweet Land of Liberty,
Of Thee I Sing.

Thee means what?  That weird womanly foreign-sounding language is written to whom?  To two young people, English readers.  Both black.  Both female.  Both growing up in America when it's still 2011.  The audacity.

The other day, I read that there's a Korean translator who's translated this book into Korean for Korean readers.  Although I haven't seen it yet, I wonder if she or he has kept in the womanliness, the weirdness, and the foreign-sounding tone of President Obama's words.  Would that be a better thing than not to do?  Well, yes.


let's talk translation.  how do you think a translator may (and "ought not") translate these words of Barack Obama, these weird, womanly words of his?

1 comment:

Kristen said...

Good points. Though I recognize the place of meaning-for-meaning translations, what bothers me is that what I'm getting is not necessarily what the original text means, but what the translator thinks it means. And how do I know how much of his biases he is bringing to the text?

President Obama is in good company with his gender inclusiveness-- in company with the Apostle Paul. I've seen how often Paul's words which are gender-inclusive are reworded to sound male-exclusive. And that applies even to the more word-for-word translations (especially when, as the ESV does, the translation has an admitted agenda to uphold male supremacy.

Let Obama be "weird" and "foreign" and "womanly." And also let Paul. And let their words be accurately translated to convey the sense they intended. With regards to Paul-- it's high time.