Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Sexy Man

Amharic has no word for "sexy."

How I know this is curious. Recently, Anemo has been obsessively repeating a line (the only line, actually) from an Old Spice commercial. It goes like this: "Old Spice, take a look what you've done. You've made a sexy man right out of my son. Old Spice!" If you're curious about the context, you can see the ad here. [Note: neither I nor anyone I know works for Old Spice or its parent company, Procter & Gamble.]

Anemo says that a friend of his taught him this at school. At home, he has tried saying the line at different speeds and with different inflections, especially enjoying spitting out the final "Old Spice!" like the woman in the commercial (or rather like how his friend imitates the woman in the commercial). Anemo has even gotten Suzanne and I to say it, having us compete with each other to see who can say it the fastest. (I can't resist a challenge, no matter how devoid of meaning.)

You can imagine my surprise when Anemo asked me last week how to say the commercial in Amharic. Despite my not wanting to promote P&G products more than I already had, I also did not want to squander this authentic opportunity to expose Anemo to more Amharic. That is my primary mission with this project after all. (Plus, I actually do think whoever is behind the Old Spice ad campaigns is a genius, and I don't mind supporting clever talent.)

So I contacted Lulit, who told me later that she "almost fell off the chair" when she read my email request. To her credit, she took the request quite seriously, even finessing the language to make the phrases rhyme. Going beyond the call of duty, Lulit contacted her sister in Ethiopia to check her translation. Here's what she sent me:
Notice she has several ideas for a substitution of "sexy." The first (ቆንጆ) could be used to describe a beautiful day, so we ruled that out. The second (ቆንጅዬ) is used more to describe people, but it could be for someone quite petite, which wouldn't make sense in this context. We settled on the third (ዘንጋጋ), which is also the most fun to say: zengaga. The word comes from zeng, which, according to Lulit:
is a walking stick that sometimes older people will use and is very popular. Or even in the countryside they always walk with a walking stick because you would have to jump over ditches and things like that. And then they hold it sometimes on their shoulder to rest their arms. So zengaga means kind of slender and tall, like a walking stick. ...
Here is how Lulit reads her own translation:

The next step was to get Anemo to learn it. Showing interest is one thing. Following through is another. We began on Saturday afternoon. The goal was to say this, more or less:
Arogay Q'mem
Min bileh nah'w
Lijane zengaga
sah'w yadereg kah'w.
Anemo wanted to translate Old Spice (አሮጌ ቅመም), rather than say Old Spice (ኦልድ ስፓይስ). I loved that the ቅ sound allowed him to practice his 'k' ejective. We started practicing on Saturday afternoon, lying on the couch. Notice the progression in the videos. As Anemo continued to get blocked on the final line, I suggested we try again the next day. Sleeping on it really does help. You can see the difference in energy on Sunday when he knows he's got it.

On that final take Anemo emphasized the ejective ቅ. He was proud of himself for sticking with this, and he planned to share it with his friend at school. (We'll see if that happens.)

I think we each learned something from doing what initially seemed like a bizarre use of time. Anemo learned that language takes time to seep in, and that coming back to it after a break can be more beneficial than hammering it in relentlessly. I learned that words we take for granted, like "sexy," might not have an analog in another language. I knew this at some level of course, but I always assumed there would be a work-around solution in the other language, perhaps using a few extra words to approximate the same meaning. Not according to Lulit, in this case:
We don't use any type of sexual terms unless it's really vulgar. I looked up sexy in the dictionary and it was a word I've never heard, more like an anatomical term. I would never say that about a person.
Perhaps if I spoke with a someone of a younger generation, a word for "sexy" might be available. This is a hypothesis I'll have to test. In the meantime, I just have to convince Anemo that he's not ready for "man fresheners" just yet. Anyway, I'm hoping he embraces his Ethiopian roots and aims for zengaga instead of sexy.

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