Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Grammar of Rock Singers and Dictators

I once asked a friend to translate Van Halen's Standing on Top of the World into Japanese, so I could sing it at a karaoke bar in Japantown, San Francisco. My friend said, "I don't know if you can really translate it." Glance briefly over the lyrics and you may understand her complaint:

Hey, baby, woo
I know you believe in me, that's all I ever need
No no, nothin's gonna stop it
Nothin' will discourage me, oh, no

Hey baby, uh, it's the only way out
Oh, little darlin'
Now come on, what's it all about?

Oh, I know you wanna touch
I got to have a little taste
I don't wanna sink my teeth in that fine piece of real estate, yeah

Hey baby, woo! make it nice 'n sweet, oh
Oh, little darlin'
Let's take a walk down easy street

If you're using the term for infant for "baby", or literally translating "I got to have a little taste", or goodness forbid actually trying to understand the meaning and direction of each phrase, you're probably not going to translate the important component of the song. Another friend once asked in frustration about this song, "What is this even about? This song is about nothing. It's just Sammy Hagar selling his personality."

It's becoming increasingly clear that the actual propositional content of human utterances is often secondary to other purposes those utterances may have - particularly, emotional or tribal afiliation purposes. This goes double for beliefs which are professed explicitly for tribal loyalty signaling. When your team wins an upset, and you hold up one index finger as you scream triumphantly into the camera, everyone (including you) knows that your team really isn't number one. Although "beliefs" are often thought of as propositional attitudes, the important part of these team cheers is not the actionable, semantic, propositional content. It's the visceral and emotional loyalty signals it sends. Sometimes, where the stakes aren't so high (as at a football game) you can jokingly point out to your friend that no, we're not really #1, and he'll say "I know, but you know what I mean. Don't ruin the moment." However, in more serious settings, you cannot directly address the emptiness of dogmatic statements ("God is great", "Hail Mary full of grace", and "From each according to ability...", etc.) without giving away the game - so people sometimes get confused, and start to take all their own utterances literally. More interesting perhaps are the gyrations people go through to avoid acting on things that they absolutely insist they believe - and indeed, most people are able to say these team cheers without thinking too much about them or why they don't seem to be able to meaningfully affect their actions in concrete ways.

Donald Trump is difficult to translate, and has frustrated translators the world over with his incoherent stream of narcissistic consciousness. A recent article points out that in fact translators have had this same difficulty with other twentieth century demagogues. Whether this is clever manipulation of crowds or merely the result of impoverished minds, I won't speculate. The important point is that somehow, they communicate something, even if it's semantically jumbled propositionally empty territorial barking. We can think of this as finally boiling off the pesky, pin-down-able, commitment-laden propositions from language and leaving behind a distilled tribal chant, empty of formal meaning but chock full of visceral power. Trying to translate Donald Trump or Van Halen lyrics exposes the vacuum of actual content in both cases, without bringing along the emotional tribal-identity impact that is really the only thing there. Consequently, those who look for inaccuracies and broken promises in Trump's words hoping to finally wake up his supporters are, unfortunately, playing checkers against a wrestling team.