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The (Globalized) Three Amigos: Translating and Disseminating HIV/AIDS Prevention Discourse

  • Luise von Flotow

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  • Luise von Flotow
    University of Ottawa
    School of Translation and Interpretation, University of Ottawa, 70 Laurier Ave. East, Room 519, P.O. Box 450, Station A, Ottawa ON K1N 6N5, Canada.

Logo for TTR : traduction, terminologie, rédaction

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It is never simple to assess the effects of a translation, or to measure its influence. For contemporary literary texts, the problem is often ascribed to the reviewers, those arbiters of literary taste, and their often unwitting disregard for the fact of translation. Antoine Berman (1995), who has devised arguments and methods for engaging in reasoned and productive translation criticism, writes about critics’ perennial lack of interest for “les problèmes de la traduction” [translation problems], and their tendency to report on translated texts “dans leur langue […] en ‘oubliant’ qu’il s’agit d’une version; elle (la critique) étudie une oeuvre étrangère” (pp. 40-41). Critics conveniently “forget” that they are reading translations and simply report on “a foreign work,” if they even mention this fact. To go beyond the work of these professional readers, and seek out the broad effects of a wave of translations (from English into German, say [1]) usually means engaging in comparative literary studies that gauge the influence of a certain era on the texts of the next generations. [2] This leaves the contemporary effect aside.

In AV/multimedia translation, the effects are equally hard to gauge, for one thing because the text is not alone but is surrounded and carried, and sometimes overpowered, by the images. While there are always opinions on translation quality, [3] and arguments about dubbing vs. subtitling, the effects of a certain type of translation usually elude description. I know of only one instance where an approach similar to the historical comparative literature methodology has addressed AV/multimedia translation. A recently published piece by Caroline-Isabelle Caron (2003) on Patrouille du Cosmos, the Quebec-dubbed Star Trek series (done from 1971 to 1972) addresses the neutralization of language in the series, which saps actors’ verbal power and has the crew of the Enterprise speak “in a manner that implies an extensive education, some degree of refinement, great psychological strength in the face of danger and an underlying uniformity of social provenance” (p. 343). Caron takes her work a step farther, however, and is able to study the effects of this translation. Given the time gap of 30+ years since the dubbing of Star Trek, she can show how the dubbing language, and especially the disjunctures it causes between language, image, characters and story line has entered Quebec creative work–for laughs. Space explorers, devised in Quebec, routinely speak in “pathos-filled, longwinded speeches […] (where) accent and vocabulary are in perfect International French” (p. 348), and the lack of coherence between audio and visual elements, specifically “the exaggerated linguistic characteristics and uninspired acting inherent in most dubbing performances” (p. 347)–where the prototypes were first encountered–are exploited for comic effect. In other words, a generation later, the constructed dubbing language, often referred to as “le synchronien” has entered the creative realm of the generation of young filmmakers and artists that grew up aware of and laughing at this language.

How singular, then, for an AV/multimedia translation and distribution project to receive the following, immediate, and gratifying information on its “effects”:

I am happy to inform you that PSI’s sales and distribution of male and female condoms in South Africa increased from 1 million units in 2003 to 40 million in 2004 […] We understand that this increase in condom distribution occurred at the same time that your Three Amigos campaign was being implemented in South Africa. Although we have no data to support it, it seems logical that your campaign contributed to that increase. [4]

This statement from Population Services International, a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC., that is devoted to public health projects in many parts of the world, recognizes the enormous impact in South Africa of a creative series of PSAs (Public Service Announcements) promoting condom use. An increase in sales from 1 million to 40 million is indeed enormous! Created and disseminated exclusively by volunteers who collaborated over three continents, in South Africa, Canada, and India, The Three Amigos uses a globalized genre–animation–to carry its message to 15-24 year-olds, some of the most endangered in regard to HIV/AIDS infection in the world. Translated into 40 languages, the series could now be available to millions more people, with potentially the same effect on human behaviour as it has had in South Africa.

This article describes a case where translation has been effectively deployed for the purposes of global social activism, and where this globalized aspect plays a more positive role than usual. [5] In fact, one of the more ubiquitous forms of globalization–Hollywood animation for children–underlies its phenomenal success. This article also looks, however, at the two forces affecting the possibilities and the effectiveness of this translation project, two different and ultimately opposing elements, both located in the source culture, that are struggling for control over HIV/AIDS prevention policies: these are secular forces, on the one hand, that support and teach consistent condom use for safe sex as THE most effective “technical” way to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, and right-wing, fundamentalist, religious forces, on the other, who preach abstinence and faithfulness in marriage as the best way to fight the epidemic. This article will describe the translations (looking at only 4 languages), and address the split source culture, of which the secular group has produced highly creative and effective methods to control an epidemic, yet whose products are systematically undermined by the other source culture faction.

The Series

The Three Amigos is an audiovisual HIV/AIDS prevention project. Initiated by Brent Quinn, a South African designer, produced in Canada by Firdaus Kharas, with animation drawings done in India, it consists of twenty short sketches that present the adventures and lessons learnt by three animated condoms–Stretch, Dick, and Shaft; the announcements are 15, 30, or 60 seconds long, and are designed to be played repeatedly on TV, in cinemas, and in other public places such as screens at bus stops and subways stations, in hospitals, barracks, and prisons. Addressed to adolescents and young adults, the series uses humour rather than moralistic messaging to get across the information that HIV/AIDS is a preventable disease, and that this prevention depends solely on changes in human behaviour, in this case, on the consistent use of condoms.  [6] Originally conceived of and created in English, the series has been translated into many of the languages of cultures most at-risk from AIDS in the early 21st century: in Africa, South East Asia, India, East Central Europe and China. It is also available in all the European languages and in Spanish, English, French, and Brazilian Portuguese for the Americas.

A solid example of globalization rather than localization, in the sense that only one media product was produced and only those texts were translated and dubbed through voice-overs, [7]The Three Amigos does not, however, engage in some of the other marketing ventures often associated with audio-visual globalization: no paraphernalia (T-shirts, dolls or fanzines) are being sold (or translated) alongside. [8] But the series does, inevitably, mobilize the cultural assumptions of a certain secular Anglo-American perspective. [9] Its mission is to promote social change and change human behaviour by spreading much-needed information on HIV/AIDS prevention in such a way as to effectively reach the most vulnerable young people, those just becoming or just recently sexually active. This approach could be, and has been, seen as inviting this age-group to indulge in promiscuous sex. But rather than a recipe for promoting promiscuity, the series can, and should probably, be seen as a form of edutainment that addresses a very real problem no amount of moralistic preaching about existing sexual practices or belief in human self-control will ever solve. It dares to override cultural differences and address a highly sensitive issue currently affecting all cultures.

The main creative choices that were made in order to achieve these goals are the choice of genre, which is animation, and the focus on humour. Indeed, the Three Amigos have all kinds of communicative fun as their adventures are implemented as edutainment to combat a disease that, in the words of producer Kharas, “from the very beginning […] has been plagued by silence. It is a huge communication problem” (Shoumarova, 2005).

The antics of these new ambassadors for safe sex were ready for airing in English on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2003, their adventures and jokes designed to remove the stigma from condom-use, make it something matter-of-fact, something that can and should be discussed and that can provoke laughter. However, the fun ends with the end of each clip when a strict female voice cuts in to say: “Use a condom. Stop the spread of AIDS.” This not only brings home the message, but is also meant to help empower women to insist on condom use.

The three amigos are a tall black dude who wears a baseball cap backwards, a lanky blond guy in a Hawaiian shirt, and a short blue guy, the “star” who has the best lines, and who speaks with a light Latino accent in the English source versions. They are cool and easy-going, and looking to get “lucky;” they’re also non-threatening and funny, and ultimately there to edutain: at a soccer match, for example, they (and their audience) discover “you just can’t score without a condom.” Bungee-jumping, they learn “Never make a leap of faith. Always wear a condom.” And in an appearance on a talk show with a crabby host discussing the considerate and thoughtful new man, they hear her say, “Trust your instincts, not your date. Carry a condom.”

These are the “lessons” that the punch line makes explicit with that strict woman’s voice. The Amigos themselves are good at a certain witty banter, full of insinuations and innuendo, wordplay, and double meaning, all of which support the humorous effect created by the images. In one clip, for example, Shaft, Dick, and Stretch are seen from the waist up. They are looking down, apparently comparing body parts. They say, one after the other, “How could anyone put one of these in their mouth?” “Is it true what they say? Size doesn’t count?” “Yeah, dynamite comes in small packages.” “How come mine’s all shriveled up?” “At least it’s not bent to the left like mine.” The reference seems clear, and is doubtless amusing for most of the viewers targeted by the series. But when the camera pans away, or the drawings reveal that they’re actually discussing chili peppers at a chili eating contest, the surprise is equally amusing. The punch line, “Don’t play with fire. Always use a condom. Stop the spread of AIDS” neatly, briefly, and clearly pushes the message.

The series has won numerous awards–for humour, for short film, for animation–and it quickly acquired cult status in South Africa where the South African Broadcasting Company ran the PSAs up to 20 times a day, and where it continues to run. Its humour is designed to make an issue that is often considered embarrassing or inappropriate for TV and public discussion of any kind more accessible. The humour breaks open the communication problem, and allows the material and the message to travel the world. Producer Kharas says: “I believe comedy is the best way to transform perceptions. Communicating a message of prevention to sexually active adults has a far better chance of getting across via comedic rather than solemn old-fashioned moral messaging.” [10] Contrary to PSAs created with real condoms, these animated condoms that have faces and arms, and that talk, are abstractions, that both personalize the means to safe sex, and create the suspension of disbelief required for a shift in mindset. As one commentator put it, “To call a condom an amigo, is to make it a friend that can save your life.” [11]

Translation Questions

And this brings us to the first translation question: the word “amigo.” How was this selected? Why? Is it a sign of globalization of the worst sort? Does it refer back to a silly comedy film of the late 1980s? Or is it a nod to the current world-wide impact of Latino music and dance? And if so, to another form of “globalization?” There is no obvious answer, [12] except the The Three Amigos’s statement of objectives, which reiterates that “condoms are ‘friends’ or Amigos.” It is, perhaps, just a simple calque.

Spreading this particular safe sex message across such wide territory means extensive translation–and by March 2004, the multiple translations were available. In South Africa, where the “effects” were recorded in condom sales, the PSAs were broadcast in English–but also in Zulu, Sotho, Afrikaans. [13] Given the humour, the sexual innuendo, the wisecracks and colloquialisms used by Stretch, Dick and Shaft, on the one hand, and the multiple target languages and cultures on the other, the translation labour was an enormous challenge, met with a shoestring budget, and again, numerous volunteers. The translations were all done and recorded in Ottawa, Canada, financed by a private Canadian TV network. Groups of international students from the local universities, diplomats, and/or recent immigrants were brought together by a coordinator and spent whatever time it took to hammer out and record the most workable versions. These sessions were not always easy–and this is understandable, when we consider to what extent sexual activity can be politicized and rendered a public scandal, if not a crime, in even the most secular cultures. Producing globalized versions of these sensitive texts, versions that could travel equally well to places as diverse as Haiti, Thailand, Pakistan, Iran or Swaziland involved considerable adaptation by all parties concerned. [14]

Very generally, the translations render the gist of each clip, only sometimes managing to reflect pithy wordplay and the innuendo of the English. In the chili pepper clip, every comment seems to have been translated in the languages I can check, though considerably adapted–in German, French and English, and in Persian. [15] “Dynamite comes in small packages” is adapted in French as “le bon vin vient dans des petites bouteilles,” [good wine comes in small bottles] and in German as “je kleiner desto gemeiner,” [the smaller the meaner] and none of the other comments about “mine bending to the left” or “mine being all wrinkly” are censored. However, this complete translation is the exception. For example, in one of the PSAs, Shaft, Dick and Stretch arrive at a truck stop. A voice-over says “Truckers are always on the move,” and we hear a strange hubbub as the three amigos climb out of the truck. Then we see a line of trucks behind the restaurant literally bouncing on the spot from all the (presumably sexual) activity going on inside. The three amigos take one look, and one of them says laconically “Better keep on trucking.” They end up camping out by the roadside, only to be stalked by a pack of hyenas they have to scare off with a flare. A voice-over warns “Don’t get too friendly with the locals.” None of this Anglo-American talk is translated (into French, German, Spanish, or Persian): the double entendre of “truckers always being on the move” disappears; the feel of quiet resolution and working class perseverance in “better keep on trucking” disappears, and the reference to the “locals”–hyenas as symbols of HIV-positive sex workers–is silenced. The only thing that is translated is the equivalent of “let’s keep going” for “better keep on trucking”: “Mejor pasamos de largo” in Spanish, “Lasst uns weiterfahren” in German, and “Il vaut mieux continuer la route” in French, translations that evacuate the illocutionary force of “keep on trucking” [16], and are typically orthonymic. The punch line, however, is maintained: “Truckers beware. Always use a condom. Stop the spread of AIDS” becomes “Fernfahrer, schützt euch,” “Camioneros, tengan cuidado,” and “Camionneurs, faites attention.” Although the meaning of the menacing hyenas may be rather obscure with such non-translation, the final message is clear–and very appropriate to the reality of long-distance truckers in India, South Africa, and other parts of the world who are particularly endangered as victims and carriers of AIDS. In general then, much is omitted or neutralized in translation, and the translations focus on the punch line, the aspects of the text that are most necessary for the message. The humour is carried by the images–the three active, humanoid, condoms, bouncing around on the hard rubber edge of their opening, alert and active, wanting to “live life to the fullest” to use a contemporary cliché.

As is the case in much multimedia or audiovisual communication, the image carries enormous weight although it can seldom do so without accompanying, clarifying, language (Remael, 2004). However, even the reading of images can require common cultural knowledge, and in multimedia/AV translation this puts an additional strain on the linguistic transfer, often burdening it with an “information overload” (Tymoczko 1995) [17]. In the examples discussed above, this problem might be represented by the pack of hyenas stalking the Three Amigos camped out by the roadside. When the line “Don’t get too friendly with the locals” is omitted in the translations, the hyenas suddenly seem superfluous, or simply random; they are an example of the image “overload.” There are doubtless many more such Three Amigo images that do not pass easily into languages such as Bengali, Swahili, Somali, Amharic, Mandarin, or Arabic, or into the cultures that use them. Yet, given the animation genre, and the widespread circulation of Anglo-American cartoons in TV series for young people over the past 50 years, there is reason to assume that much can be understood even when the translations are not adequate. While the Hollywood media industry may have affected other cultures negatively, in this case of edutainment via animation, its effect has also been to pave the way for characters such as Stretch, Shaft and Dick to travel relatively easily and lightly.

The glowing accounts of the series from various international HIV/AIDS conferences and journalists, its widespread use by broadcasting agencies in countries as diverse as South Africa and Thailand, its adoption in January 2004 by UNAIDS, and finally its support from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose endorsement is used on the publicity blurb, are witness to its success. But perhaps most importantly, a measurable aspect of its impact is a boost in condom sales, as cited at the outset of this piece.

The Source Culture Divide

In translation studies there is often an unspoken assumption that the source culture in which the texts we study originate is a relatively homogeneous whole. Seldom, if ever, are there discussions of the many factions in any source culture, whose divisive presence can affect the creation, production, and dissemination of materials prior to their translation. In the case of the The Three Amigos and, more generally, of the North American discourse on HIV/AIDS prevention, the source culture divide is enormous.

Committed to condom-use as the best, if not the only, preventative measure for the spread of HIV/AIDS, The Three Amigos represent one side of the Western/North American source culture. This is the side that over the past 20-25 years has been plying the public in many parts of the world with safe sex campaigns, sex-education programs in schools, and free condoms. This is also the side that one might describe as “secular,” in the sense that it is concerned with “worldly matters rather than with religion” and “is not under the control of a religious body” (New Webster’s, 1987). Indeed, as discussed above, its texts are so secular that, in terms of the translation challenges, they are sometimes extremely neutralized, thus hardly making the transfer into languages/cultures where religious authorities or simply other religio-cultural values play a greater role.

While such nervous translation or simple silencing was expected by the creators of the series who deliberately made a variety of clips for broadcasters to choose from, the de-secularization of the HIV/AIDS prevention discourse and the resulting anti-condom campaign in the Anglo-American source culture (and most importantly, in its largest funding body, the USA) is another, more recent, story. Pioneered in the United States, and now an inherent part of the Bush regime’s HIV/AIDS prevention strategies, the focus has turned from ‘safe sex’ to ‘almost no sex’–or the ABCs of HIV/AIDS prevention: A for abstinence, B for being faithful, and C for consistent condom-use. This focus does not, however, offer even these three options to the various bodies that lobby for HIV/AIDS prevention money worldwide–the NGOs, religious organisms, health agencies, public education organizations, and governmental bodies. PEPFAR (the “President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief 2003”) imposes “abstinence from sexual activity until (heterosexual) marriage” as the most important preventative measure. [18] This means that in order to get any funding for communication, education, or information, bodies working in HIV/AIDS prevention must prioritize this message. One youth worker in Uganda comments: “With funding coming in now for youth activities, if you talk about abstinence in your proposal, you will get the money.” [19] Not only has this top funding body prioritized abstinence, it has also created a situation where teaching abstinence on the one hand and condom use on the other is confusing and contradictory, especially for the young people it purports to reach. As a result, the “C” portion (consistent condom-use) has been relegated to a distant third place.

This development has been vehemently criticized by organisms such as Human Rights Watch and UNAID, and been written up in publications such as the New York Review of Books (Epstein 2005), yet the religious and ideological forces behind the politics of abstinence have an interesting upperhand. Helen Epstein describes what she calls the “unseemly battle” over US government contracts waged by evangelical Christian groups against secular HIV/AIDS organizations, and shows what the stakes are. She writes that “with so many people on the verge of death, AIDS has created an evangelism opportunity for the body of Christ unlike any in history” (Epstein 2005). In other words, the religious right, the born-agains and evangelists (increasingly in Africa, though funded by their overseas sponsoring churches) [20] are not only imposing their sexual politics on HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns but are looking to benefit from the evangelism opportunity at the same time. One is invited to imagine a situation where the more people fall ill, the more converts will be promised evangelical salvation. Even more dangerously, the discourse within this particular faction and the Bush administration focuses on the “poor” quality of condoms and their untrustworthiness. [21] In the words of some, anyone who teaches and supports condom-use is a “killer,” urging young people toward their deaths.

The Three Amigos producer, Kharas, has commented drily that “Arguing about abstinence vs condoms ‘is sterile’ because 5.3 million people got the HIV virus last year,” but the series is strongly affected by this socially conservative religious development. Despite having managed to translate the edutainment series into dozens of languages and cultures, the plan to actually have the Three Amigos “on TV in 100 countries with $100 million worth of donated air time so that one billion people can see them” [22] is now being foiled at home, in the very culture where the impetus for the project originated, the culture where the volunteers and the donations were found, and the culture where the genre of animation was so strongly developed that the series was easily globalized.

In Fall 2005 Kharas refused to be interviewed about The Three Amigos by The Economist, since there are no funds available to finance further dissemination of the series. Requests for the thousands of copies that such an article would elicit–from China, Russia, Eastern Europe, and India–cannot be met. Available monies support abstinence, not the dissemination of safe sex programs and initiatives. In conditions such as these, the details of translation, the focus on the small variations in or occasional censorship of text, and the questions about the relationship between image and words suddenly dim in importance, set as they are in a political and ideological context that is pushing aside the entire initiative, and burying its possible achievements in the sand.