Friday, December 01, 2006

Culture Shock

Once, a long time ago, I was trying to design a computer program to generate sentences in another language with which to practice translation skills (okay, so I was actually just trying to help someone much smarter who was designing the program for me). Anyway, it turns out that as long as you kept to simple enough structures, it would be comparatively easy to get the computer to spit out grammatically correct sentences. The problem was that the vast majority of the sentences would still make absolutely no sense. You’d get things like, “The fat green silence nearly licked both students.” or “Yesterday there was a completely wide shore in your bicycle.” Now, if you’re practicing translation with sentences like that, you’ll possibly lose your ability to make sense in any language.

What does this have to do with hockey, you ask? A couple nights ago I tried to watch half an episode of this show entitled Rent-a-Goalie, which if you live in Canada and have cable you may have heard of. Anyway, it reminded me of that language experiment: they were speaking (mostly) grammatically-correct English, and I still could not make any sense of it. The characters might as well have been going around saying, “Where is that long toad which had driven his hat to the revolution?” I couldn’t even begin to figure out the basic principles of the show, much less the specific problems of the plot.

I have not the slightest idea why one would want to rent a goalie. I mean, I’ve never heard of anyone renting football players. Who is renting them? What do they do with them? Is there a shortage? If so, why? What is the advantage to renting a goalie rather than just buying one? And don’t the goalies themselves feel a bit like whores in this whole situation? If they’re in such high demand, couldn’t they just rent themselves and get a higher percentage? Do these mysterious people ever need to rent skaters? Who the hell are all these vaguely sinister mafia-type guys hanging around? Is there a Canadian hockey underworld? And if so, what is its interest in this whole goalie-pimping business? And what’s with all the teenagers? Doesn’t anybody have to go to school? Why does the whole thing take place in a coffee shop? Is it some sort of front for the goalie-rental business, to protect it from the hockey mafia? And why are all the goalies apparently insane? Is that supposed to be characteristic of the species in general, or is it a feature of the show?

I think this is because although I am in Canada, I am not actually Canadian, and therefore I have no grasp of hockey culture. After all, a sport is never just the game itself, it’s also collections of social practices that evolve around the game. While every day I am learning more and more about hockey as a game, especially as played in the NHL, that doesn’t necessarily lead to any understanding of the culturally-specific categories, stereotypes, beliefs, ideals, dreams, icons, and whatnot that comprise what hockey means for Canadians. You don’t learn these things by watching hockey, or even studying hockey. You learn them by watching other people- relatives, friends, strangers- watch it; by seeing headlines about it on the cover of the sports section every day; by seeing movies about it; by being forced to play it in elementary school gym class even if you don’t want to; by having a crazy uncle whose plays terribly but still plays all the time.

Weirdly enough, I have knowledge of baseball culture, football culture, and especially basketball culture, even though I have absolutely no grasp of the games. I may have no idea what a quarterback’s actual game-function is, but I know what the idea of the The Quarterback is. I have no idea what the acronym ‘RBI’ refers to, or what the number that follows it says about a baseball player, but somehow I still feel a gut thrill at the idea of a home run, and a reflexive sentimentality about Wrigley Field. I don’t know much about Michael Jordan as a person, but I know what Michael Jordan symbolizes.

I have none of this type of knowledge of hockey.

I need a Canadian-to-American translation program.


Laura said...

Nice post--I've been meaning to say this for a while, about many of the posts on this blog. Thanks and keep up the great work.

E said...

thanks for the comment, and even more thanks for reading. it's wonderful to have evidence that i'm not just typing to myself!

Colby Cosh said...

I've never watched that show, and maybe I am mistakenly treating an ironic query as a legitimate one here, but "rent-a-goalie" services are real (try Google).

There is a chronic shortage of goaltenders in rec-league play for reasons you probably have a glimmer of. The position is painful and particularly hard on the joints, driving young people out of goaltending as they hit their 30s. The equipment is expensive, tedious to don, and onerous to maintain in good condition. So a lot of teams have only one goalie and cannot ice a team if he is hurt, and for casual scrub games (or even street games) it can be hard to find one in the first place. Plus, what if you just want to go practice with a live human in net for an hour?

"Rent-a-goalie" outfits--some just social-networking websites, some a little more profit-driven--put teams in touch with emergency goalies. The goalies earn a little extra money and make new friends while someone else is paying for the ice time (which is expensive). They aren't doing it professionally so the whole point of the service is to develop a big list of goalie phone numbers and cover any night of the week (or any time of night, since ice time gets cheaper as the clock advances).

As for why the goaltenders on the show are all insane, this is because goaltenders in real life are all insane.

Colby Cosh said...

(I also know how to find the long toad who drove his hat to the revolution. Details on request.)

E said...

see? this is why one blogs: in the hopes of attracting kind internet-people who can explain the mysteries of canadian society. thanks, truly, for the explanation- my confusion was sincere, if perhaps over-stated. i was aware that the services existed, but was (obviously) perplexed as to the whys and hows of it.