Transcript

238:

Lost in Translation
Transcript

Originally aired 05.30.2003

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/238

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Alex spoke Russian, lived in Russia for a year, worked with Russian refugees in Chicago for two years. And his Russian teacher thought that he only needed one thing to make his life complete.

Alex Blumberg

She thought I needed a Russian girlfriend. She thought that only Russians would be able to stand up to me the way that I needed to be stood up to, or something. I don't know.

Ira Glass

Our American women are just too soft.

Alex Blumberg

I don't know what you-- I truly don't know. But anyway, that's the thought she had.

Ira Glass

So she kept trying to fix him up with Russian women. And this one night, she had him come out with a whole bunch of people, including this woman Elena, who was going to be his date.

Alex Blumberg

And so I meet them for dinner. And we're at the sushi restaurant, and we're all eating, and everybody's telling stories, funny stories. And I'm sitting across from my date. And my Russian teacher is turning to me and saying, you know, tell them this story! Tell them that story! And so then I tell them this story and that story, and everybody's laughing, except for my date.

And so we leave the sushi restaurant and we go to this club. And we're all dancing. Like, my Russian teacher's dancing, and all of her friends are dancing, and everybody's sort of like, you know, exchanging partners, and it's sort of this fun scene. And everybody's dancing except for my date, who's just sitting at the table and sort of nursing a drink.

Ira Glass

And looking--?

Alex Blumberg

And looking bored. Really bored.

And so, you know, I keep on coming back from the dance floor, and saying, are you sure you don't want to dance? You want to dance? And then she will sort of smile bitterly, and just shake her head, and-- and so then somebody else will drag me out.

So finally I come back and I sit down, and I'm sitting next to her, and I'm trying to strike up a conversation. And you know, something about like, I guess you don't like dancing, or something like that. And she sort of looks out at the floor, and there's people having a great time all around. And she sort of like nods her chin towards the floor and she's like, "This is an American dance number."

And I drove away thinking, well, that was a horrible date. Like, neither of us enjoyed each other. And that was a disaster, pretty much. Like, we were not going to be seeing each other again.

I get to Russian class the next week, and my Russian teacher says, "hey, so are you going to call Elena? She said she had a great time." And I was like, I was floored by that. I was trying to figure out what that could possibly have meant, right?

And so I was like sort of mulling it over in my head, because it was really fascinating to me. And I realized that I have a very sort of like clear and perhaps culturally informed idea of what a great date is. And it has to do with the idea of, like, what it means to fall in love. And I realized that in my head, what I think about as a great date is what sort of you see in the movies. Like sort of the "falling in love" montage of the movies.

You know, you go on a great date. It often involves a boardwalk. There's a great deal of sort of like, throwing your heads back in laughter. You might chase each other around a tree.

Ira Glass

There's the splashing of water.

Alex Blumberg

Splashing of water is almost always involved.

And I think for her, and this is something that I always noticed when I was in Russia, I think that for her, it's totally different thing. In Russia, and in Russian literature, there's a lot of talk about the soul and soulmates. And I think for her, like, falling in love means finding the one person on the planet who understands the misery of life as deeply and fully as you do. And they can talk to you about it.

Ira Glass

And so when she acted all depressed on their date, she was not actually blowing Alex off like he thought at the time. She was flirting.

So Alex decides to ask his Russian teacher about this theory, that Americans and Russians have completely different views of what it means to fall in love. And I have to say, he's a little bit nervous to try this out on her, because he's worried that maybe it's insulting or stereotyping Russians. But he explains the theory to her.

Alex Blumberg

And she totally agreed. She was like, that's absolutely right. You're right. And and then she just went on a rant about Americans. And she was like, Americans, they have no understanding of what it's like to fall in love. And like, Americans, I never understand, why do you say, "he makes me laugh?" Why is that so important? "He makes me laugh?" Every American I've ever met, all they say, when you ask them how the relationship is, and they say "he makes me laugh" as if that's the greatest thing in the world? What's so great about "he makes me laugh?"

She just, you know, went off on like, something that I have actually said many times. Like, I just want somebody who makes me laugh.

Ira Glass

Some days seems like every story in the world is the story of cultural misunderstanding. Between people of different countries, Muslims and Christians, blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats, men and women, Spanish speakers and Anglos, adults and children, rich people and poor people. And so today, in this era of misunderstandings abroad and at home, we bring you an hour of stories about what gets lost in translation.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today in three culture-bridging acts.

Act One, The Chasm Between Comedy and Music. In that act, two brave people step into that chasm. Drop into that chasm. However you put it.

Act Two, Star of Bethlehem. We bring you the story of the most important, most respected newsman on television in the town of Bethlehem, who does a program that is unlike any news show that you have ever seen.

Act Three. Translating For the Very, Very, Very, Very, Very Tall. In which we have, for a change, on our program a story that gets us close to someone so famous that you may have actually heard of him if you follow pro basketball in the tiniest way. Stay with us.

Act One. The Chasm Between Comedy And Music.

Jonathan Goldstein

Starlee and I talk quite a bit about chops. Comedic chops. Pacing, placement of the zinger. When to employ whimsy and when to employ wit. Chops.

Back when we worked in adjoining cubicles, we'd kill time by arguing over what was funny and what wasn't. Blowing cigar smoke in a baby's face? Not funny. A baby smoking a cigar? Funny.

We were like Borscht Belt comedians without the borscht, the belt, or the audience. But the fact that we weren't knocking them dead at Grossinger's every night didn't keep us from coming up with titles for our showbiz bios. Starlee's book was going to be called The Woman Behind the Chops, while I intended to call mine Sir Chops-a-Lot.

Why, just the other day, I was giving young Starlee a quiz. What's the most important thing in comedy? I asked her.

Starlee Kine

I have to say--

Jonathan Goldstein

Timing.

Chops.

So finally, Starlee and I, after years of talking about comedy, actually decided to go out and create comedy. We were going to take it to the stage and tell jokes for an audience at this karaoke bar. We were going to exchange the tweed vestments of the armchair humorologist for the rainbow-striped suspenders of the practitioner. We wanted to see if we had what it took.

The karaoke bar is called The Hidden Cove, and it had catalogs of different comedy routines, all from the late '80s, early '90s. Starlee had already looked through them. She decided she was going to do a man-bashing routine called "Men are Perfect-- Jerks." We talked about the proper delivery.

Starlee Kine

Men are perfect. Jerks. How was that?

Jonathan Goldstein

Too deadpan. Like, imagine yourself walking away from the mike and then coming back to the mike, turning your head and saying into the microphone, "Jerks!"

Starlee Kine

OK. Men are perfect-- jerks!

Jonathan Goldstein

That's not bad. I'd give it maybe a little bit more pause.

The difference in our comedic approach is vast, as is our approach to life. At the office where Starlee and I used to work together, people whose names she didn't even know would seek her out, bringing her homemade bread, presenting her with souvenirs from their vacations, and even setting aside her favorite caramel taffies from the communal office candy dish. I, on the other hand, had made the effort to learn the names of their children, grandchildren, and in one case, their pet hamster, Mr. Jinglepot. For all of this, I got nothing.

Starlee had concerns about the caliber of the jokes on the karaoke machine at the bar, how stale they might be. I explained to her that the material, no matter how cliched or boorish, did not matter. A true humorist, I said, could stand on stage and get laughs while reading an eviction notice. It was all in the delivery. It was all about chops.

When we showed up, we learned that The Hidden Cove is a very popular and beloved karaoke bar and it was filled with patrons who came there every week to sing. This was the first week of the Iraq war, and the regulars, just like everyone else, had wanted some diversion, a night away from the news. They took their karaoke very seriously, too. One man was hunched over a tattered notebook that he brought from home in which he had neatly penciled the code numbers of his favorite karaoke songs, row after row of them.

As people got on the stage to sing and dance, there was a general feeling of warmth and beery encouragement in the air. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. And when we asked them about the comedy routines on the karaoke machine, no one could recall ever having seen them done. Even the owners of the bar weren't quite sure what we were talking about.

We finally found a lone page of comedy karaoke material and we signed up to go on. I was after a woman singing a karaoke classic.

Singer

One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you!

Jonathan Goldstein

My routine was called "My Parents Hated Me." My strategy was to deadpan my way through, following each punchline with my patented hapless look.

Jonathan Goldstein

I tell you. I had one hell of a childhood. I'm not saying my parents didn't love me, but my bath toys were a radio and a toaster.

Nothing. Complete joyless silence.

Some things just don't translate to the karaoke stage. A karaoke machine, for instance, has no instinct for comedic timing. It just keeps scrolling down at the same pace. This means that sometimes you have to wait for a punchline to a joke for several awkward moments after having delivered the setup. It was messing up my chops.

Jonathan Goldstein

When I got lost, a cop helped me to look for my parents. "Do you think we'll ever find them?" I cried. The cop said, "I don't know. There are so many places they could hide."

As I walked off the stage, no one in the audience would meet my gaze. Still, given the circumstances, I didn't think I had done that bad. Next up was Starlee.

Starlee Kine

Hey, how about a little male-bashing?

[AUDIENCE ENCOURAGEMENT]

Ira Glass

Starlee pulls out all these moves. She shrugs her shoulders as if to say, what can you do? She breaks free of the staccato rhythms of the karaoke screen and makes the material her own. She even does this thing where she points your toes inward to make herself look littler, and thus cuter. She was like a pigeon-toed puppy taking its very first steps.

Starlee Kine

Where's the best place to hide money from a man? Your forehead.

Ira Glass

She was winning over the crowd and getting laughs. My laughs. They took to her in the same way people in the office did.

Starlee Kine

Thank you!

Jonathan Goldstein

I decided to head back up on stage. I was warmed up and the audience was a little more familiar with my work. Plus, I chose a better routine this time. Earlier I had self-deprecated myself out of laughs. Now, armed with a new selection of material from the karaoke machine, celebrity-bashing jokes from 1992.

Jonathan Goldstein

I hear Cher named her daughter Chastity in memory of her preschool years.

Not only were these jokes old and dated, but they were also tasteless and offensive.

Jonathan Goldstein

Did you hear about Roseanne Arnold's new soap opera?

Still, I soldiered on, unaware that the grandest failure of timing in the history of comedy was about to unfold.

Before I play you this next bit of tape, I should say, in my own defense, that a karaoke screen holds a weird, hypnotic power. You can't help reading whatever rolls down the screen, and you only figure out the meaning of the words you speak as they are tumbling out of your mouth. And then it's too late.

I'm going to play you the tape now. Please remember, it's not my fault. Don't judge me.

Jonathan Goldstein

What's the difference between Ted Kennedy and the Iraqi army? Ted Kennedy has at least one confirmed kill.

[BOOING]

I don't write this stuff!

[INCREASED BOOING]

Let me just reiterate. This was during the first week of the Iraq war, and things were not going as easily as America had hoped. American soldiers were dying, and there was no end in sight. A few days earlier or a few days later and my words would not have stung in the same way.

It was not even clear what the audience was booing. It was like they just didn't know what else to do. Perhaps they were booing the sheer extraordinary coincidence at all. Here was this leftover joke from the first Gulf War being told for the first time in over a decade, and being told the very week we had gone back to war with the same country. It was like I just delivered a punchline after a ten year pause.

Stupidly, I still somehow believed I could redeem myself. Instead, what rolled down the screen next was the second most tasteless joke from 1992.

What's Mike Tyson's definition of foreplay? Jesus, that's--

[BOOING]

At this point, the owner actually turned off my mike.

Jonathan Goldstein

Thank you!

I've always held the greatest gift an entertainer can receive to be laughter that turns into applause. You know, that moment where a wave of laughter climaxes and breaks apart into the kind of appreciative clapping that says to a performer, we can no longer laugh because our sides are hurting with the pain that is too great, so now we will switch to clapping. God bless you, funny wise man.

Now, instead of laughter turning into applause, I was experiencing boos turning into applause as I slunk off the stage.

Jonathan Goldstein

There wasn't an aspect of that applause that was sort of-- that they were kind of with me, that they were sort of, hey, you're all right? Like we both just went through a bad situation--

Starlee Kine

Are you kidding?

Jonathan Goldstein

A little. I mean, because a little, I have to admit that a little bit, I kind of felt like there was sort of sympathetic applause. A little bit.

Starlee Kine

Oh, you're crazy. You're so crazy. I can't believe it. You're in total denial.

Jonathan Goldstein

No, I mean, I just wanted to run that by you. Because I thought maybe that was possible.

Starlee Kine

No. Trust me. They were against you.

Jonathan Goldstein

So I think what this whole experience has taught us is that certain things just don't translate.

Starlee Kine

Really?

Jonathan Goldstein

Yeah. I mean, karaoke is best served for music. I think that's the lesson that we've both learned from this experience. That it's better to stick to, you know, songs and music, like "These Boots are Made for Walking," and leave comedy off the karaoke stage.

Starlee Kine

I would have to say, I disagree.

Jonathan Goldstein

Oh, do you?

Starlee Kine

Comedy translated just fine when I went up.

Since karaoke night, I was so pumped up from my success--

Jonathan Goldstein

Oh really?

Starlee Kine

Yeah. That I thought up some new titles for my book. Do you want to hear them?

Jonathan Goldstein

Uh, sure.

Starlee Kine

OK. My Chops, My Life. Chopzilla, The Chop That Was Heard Around the World, Queen Choptifa--

Jonathan Goldstein

Is this your idea of a victory lap?

Starlee Kine

I'm funnier than Jonathan.

Jonathan Goldstein

That's nice.

Starlee Kine

The Kid Stays In the Chop, A Chip Off the Old Chopping Block, Li'l Chop, It's Lonely Near the Chop, They Call Me Choppy--

Ira Glass

Jonathan Goldstein with Starlee Kine. Or is that the other way around?

Act Two. Star Of Bethlehem.

Nancy Updike

Because he's translating, Nasser Laham is reporting things that have never been reported in the territories before. Things that in the normal course of events are not even talked about in public.

When Yasser Arafat slapped the former head of security for the West Bank, stuck a gun in his face, and said, "I'm going to kill you," Nasser's translation of an Israeli TV report was the only Arabic language broadcast to mention the incident. When an Israeli newspaper published an expose about corruption in the top leadership in Bethlehem, Nasser was the only one who picked the story up, and he broadcast his translation in spite of a flurry of increasingly threatening phone calls from the leaders involved. Soon after, they were all ousted.

And even though the story came from a newspaper in Jerusalem, which is only 15 minutes away from Bethlehem, most likely, no one would have heard about it if Nasser hadn't told the story.

Nasser Laham

There is no comparing between the Palestinian newspapers and the Israeli newspapers. Because our newspapers are, I mean, very bad. It's hard. It's hard to take the truth from your enemies, on the Israeli side. Not from the Palestinian leadership.

Nancy Updike

All Palestinian media-- newspapers, radio, television, except for private television stations like Bethlehem TV-- are tightly controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Take the way the Palestinian papers covered the recent power struggle between Arafat and the new prime minister, known as Abu Mazen, whose appointment was supposed to be the first step toward a new peace process.

Nasser Laham

In the period of Abu Mazen government, they didn't include anything about Abu Mazen. They start to search for Saddam Hussein and the SARS.

Nancy Updike

So they were writing about the SARS virus rather than Abu Mazen?

Nasser Laham

Of course, yeah.

Nancy Updike

Why weren't they writing about Abu Mazen?

Nancy Updike

You know. You know, Nancy. I keep the newspapers in my house for the history. To say it in 20, 21, 22 [UNINTELLIGIBLE] when all the newspapers in the world, they talk about Abu Mazen, the Palestinian newspaper, they didn't do that.

Nasser Laham

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Nancy Updike

Whenever there's a suicide bombing of any size in Israel, Israeli TV goes into nonstop crisis coverage, and Bethlehem TV carries this live, with Nasser translating for hours. You see emergency workers running stretchers with burned and bloody people to ambulances. I watched with a translator of my own. You'll hear Nasser's voice in Arabic, then my translator in English.

Nasser Laham

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

You been at the cafeteria, yes?

Nasser Laham

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

We were sitting.

Nasser Laham

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

I heard explosion.

Nasser Laham

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

And she's talking while she's shivering.

Nancy Updike

Nasser interjects these kind of details when he's translating-- she's shivering as she's talking-- because he wants his viewers to know exactly what's happening. They can't hear her voice shaking, so he tells them.

Nasser Laham

If the Israeli knows what's happening in the Palestinian lands with details, and the Palestinian knows what's happening in the Israeli cities with details, trust me. The decisions would be different.

Nancy Updike

Do you think that watching the coverage of a suicide bombing, do you think it makes Palestinians watching it more sympathetic to Israelis?

Nasser Laham

No. I think that the question is wrong. Your question is wrong. Why? Because they saw before. Big chance they saw. Anyone can open the Israeli television and saw the pictures. But they didn't understand what they are talking in the television with the Hebrew. This is my work. To translate emotions, facts, numbers.

Nancy Updike

In fact, plenty of the details Nasser translates have got to stir outrage rather than sympathy. Nasser's producer told me that one of the reasons Bethlehem TV decided it was important to follow Israel's continuous coverage after a suicide attack is that Israelis speak then without filters. Politicians openly called for what's known as "transfer"-- the removal of all Palestinians from the territories. Ordinary Israelis call for revenge, say the peace process is hopeless because Palestinians are all terrorists.

Nasser translates it all without hedging. Palestinians never use the words "terrorist" or "suicide bomber." They say "shahid"-- "martyr." But when Israel TV says terrorist, Nasser does too.

I'd wanted to meet Nasser ever since I saw this book he published about Arafat, which is so strange and provocative that it's not in any Palestinian political category so much as orbiting all of them. The cover of the book is red with a picture of Arafat smiling, and the title is The Truth, the Whole Truth About Yasir Arafat, The Man Who's Led Fatah and the PLO for 37 Years. On the back it says, "In this book, I put between the hands of the reader what has never been said before about the man who led one of the greatest and longest liberation movements in the world. With all modesty, I present the reader with information in opposition to what Palestinian, Arabic, Islamic, Western, and Israeli research and study have determined about this man.

When you open the book, it's empty. All the pages are blank, except the very first page, where Nasser invites the readers to fill the book with their own opinions. "I'm confident that you'll have something to write," he says "because every person views President Arafat as he wishes."

Half the Palestinians I show the book to get really angry. The other half burst out laughing, at least in part due to shock. You just don't see this kind of joke-- an absurdist prank-- in the Territories, where the situation is so dire, where everyone feels like the entire world is against them and their leader.

In general, Nasser's sense of humor is pretty dark. One time, he was telling me how much the Arab world hates Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon He offered this prescription for fighting al-Qaeda and achieving world peace.

Nasser Laham

If Sharon supported al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden, maybe all the Middle East will be against al-Qaeda. It's a good idea. Try that.

Nasser drives to work in the morning in his beat up '84 Opel hatchback, a car so crappy it's like a giant neon sign saying, I am not on the take. He turns on the TV and Israeli army radio and starts looking at the breaking news in Israel over the internet.

He lights a cigarette. He smokes all the time and in this way that makes you feel like everyone else who smokes is just messing around. With every drag, he takes all the smoke in in a big gulp. He smokes each one down into the filter is about to melt. I've never seen him eat.

Nasser taught himself Hebrew in prison from an Arabic Hebrew dictionary he asked his parents to send him. I should mention that so many Palestinian men have been to prison that it's almost a given, especially men around Nasser's age, 36, who were young activists at university during the first intifada.

As soon as he learned Hebrew, he started teaching other prisoners. He's taught it ever since-- to friends, relatives, students, businessmen. It's sort of a compulsion.

His crusade to teach and translate Hebrew raises a question. What good is it, in a violent conflict that's been going on for decades, to speak your enemy's language? What can it change?

Nasser reads and enjoys Israeli novels. He listens to Israeli pop, has Israeli friends, mostly journalists. He's an idealist. He believes that learning the language of the other side can be the first step toward understanding them, toward peace.

A 28 year old named Mohammed with a big, sad face, a guy Nasser taught Hebrew to, tells me this story about being in an Israeli hospital, in a room full of Israeli kids, when he was 16. Mohammed asked the kid in the bed next to him, in Hebrew, "So what are you in for?" "Car accident," the kid said. "And you?" Mohammed said, "I was shot in the leg by an Israeli soldier."

Mohammed

They asked me, why they shot you? Are you one of the terrorists? Are you Hamas? Are you jihad? And I said, no. I'm not Hamas. I'm not jihad. I'm a student. I go to my school. It wasn't a war. It was nothing. I mean, six in the morning. There was no clashing. No throwing stone. Nothing, nothing.

And he was, yeah, I feel, like, sorry. We are sorry. I'm sorry. They said. I told him that you don't have to say sorry because you are not the one who shot me. And he was just, [INAUDIBLE]. [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

His mother, because she can every day to come to the hospital. My mother, she can't, because there's a checkpoint. But his a mother, she can come every day. And she was bringing food to me, also. [UNINTELLIGIBLE], food, shaving machine.

Nancy Updike

She brought you a razor?

Mohammed

Yeah. She give me her phone number. If you need anything, just call. We are here. They asked me a lot of times to come to visit. And I hope, when I can.

Nancy Updike

Not everyone Nasser taught Hebrew to is so hopeful about it.

Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Nancy Updike

Nasser taught this guy in prison. He says speaking Hebrew helps if you want to have a personal conversation with an Israeli, gets to know their life. But when it comes to politics, knowing the language doesn't make any difference at all. The same walls are there, just more clearly.

Still, if your only two choices or violence or talking, Nasser chooses talking. He and Mohammed are part of a group of people who do training for community leaders in nonviolence and what they call "compassionate listening--" how to listen to someone you really, really disagree with. Nasser is against suicide bombings, feels that the Palestinian people have a right to resist, but that the armed resistance is not working at all.

Given all this, given his politics, I was surprised by some of the things I saw on Bethlehem TV. One day there were hours of song celebrating martyrs to the Palestinian cause, including suicide bombers. Another time, I saw an unforgettably baroque video celebrating Saddam Hussein.

[SINGING IN ARABIC]

Picture a plump man in a long, blue tunic smiling, singing, and pumping a machine gun up and down in time to the music. Behind him, a crowd of men in uniform is moving their guns and dancing in time, also. They're holding a large picture of Saddam Hussein in front of them. Then Saddam himself appears onscreen in a fedora, firing a pistol in the air and smiling. Then the Iraqi army is jogging, followed by anti-aircraft guns shooting, and soldiers marching, and tanks moving against the sunset, and mosques, and more of Saddam in the fedora.

This was April. The war in Iraq was long over.

When I ask Nasser about it, he tells me not everything on the program reflects his own political views. People call and request these videos all the time, so he plays them. But then he also broadcasts stuff they don't request.

Nasser Laham

Look, Nancy. Yesterday I translated all the speech about the Holocaust. And the people asking, why? They are our enemy. I said, we have to know also they are suffering. We have know a lot about the Holocaust. They're surprised, but I know that they trust me, because I was in the Israeli prison six years, because I am living in the [SPEAKING ARABIC] camp, refugee camp, because I am a Muslim, because I am poor, not rich-- they trust me. They said, OK. If you say that, we will know a lot about the Holocaust.

Nancy Updike

By the time he was done, Nasser translated several days of Israel's annual commemoration of the Holocaust. Rest assured this doesn't happen on any other Arabic language station.

I spent a day interviewing people around Bethlehem about what they think of the show.

Man 2

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

It's excellent. He's a good journalist. It's fantastic.

Man 3

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

It's very good, because they give us the opinion of the people who are in Israel.

Nancy Updike

Almost everyone I talk to watches the program and loves it. People say they do get information there that they can't get anywhere else. One man told me that when the second intifada started, the only way you could find out which Palestinians were wanted by the Israelis and why was by watching Nasser's translation of Israeli TV.

Nancy Updike

Did you ever learn something new about Israelis that you never knew before?

Woman

Yeah.

Nancy Updike

Like what?

Woman

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

That there are some writers or journalists that are on our side of the Palestinian problem--

Woman

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

--against their government.

Woman

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

It's good to know that there are Israelis who are with us.

Man 4

I saw a very poor Israeli family in the program of Nasser. You know, they are very bad economically. More than us. They have maybe bread to eat. This was a new thing for us.

Nancy Updike

Bethlehem, where the TV station is, is a dusty, broken down, depressing place. Most businesses are dead or on the ropes. No parks, no pools. In the summer, people often have running water only once a week, or even every two weeks. Israeli army vehicles roll through practically every day, sometimes to demolish a house, and the neighbors pull chairs onto their roofs and sit watching the destruction, since most don't have jobs. There are 12 Israeli settlements within 10 miles of Bethlehem, and they're growing.

Nasser told me that when he was at work one day, he looked up at the television and saw his own kids, his 11 year old twins, on TV, throwing stones at Israeli tanks and soldiers. He was alarmed. Kids have been shot and killed throwing stones.

He talked to them about it that night. "Why are you throwing stones?" he said. "Because they're the enemy," they told him. "Who told you that?" he asked. "The kids at school," they said.

I asked him if he told them to stop throwing stones, and he said of course. Three, four, five times he told them. And then they started lying and saying they hadn't thrown stones when he knew they had. He doesn't know what to do. When he talks to friends, Israeli journalists, on the phone at home, his 11 year old daughter Beirut says, "I heard you talking Hebrew. Don't talk to those people."

Nasser has been trying to teach his kids Hebrew, so I interviewed the four of them. None of the kids see learning Hebrew as a bridge to peace the way their dad does. For them it's way more utilitarian. It helps you talk to soldiers, they say. Maybe it can get you out of a bad situation.

Nancy Updike

What words and phrases do you know in Hebrew?

Translator

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Nasser's Child

[SPEAKING ARABIC AND HEBREW]

Translator

[SPEAKING HEBREW] in Hebrew, which is in Arabic [SPEAKING ARABIC], which is soldier. [SPEAKING HEBREW]. Good morning. Please, which is [SPEAKING HEBREW]. [SPEAKING HEBREW], OK. [SPEAKING HEBREW], come here. [SPEAKING HEBREW], dumb. And the baby, [SPEAKING HEBREW].

Nancy Updike

Why do they know the word for dumb?

Translator

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Nancy Updike

Beirut's twin brother Marcel, a tiny boy with a large retainer in his mouth, jumps in.

Marcel

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

The soldiers are saying this to the kids, and the kids are saying this to the soldiers.

Nancy Updike

When I talked to your kids yesterday, they definitely said that the reason that they wanted to know Hebrew was to know the language of the enemy, and--

Nasser Laham

Yeah, that's right.

Nancy Updike

Does it worry you that your kids aren't getting to meet Israelis at all, and that for them, it is the language of enemy?

Nasser Laham

Of course I am worried. I'm very worried. I'm worried also because they are throwing stones against the Israeli tanks. I'm worried I don't want them to do that. You can imagine. You are sitting in your office writing and worry about them. What if the soldiers shooted them? What can I say? What can I do? How can I live? What can I say to the others if one of them has been killed?

They're not just the tanks, the soldiers who are shooting. Why they are not in the same schools? Why? Why they are not in the same pool to swim? My kids don't know the Israeli people. They don't know the kids in Israel. Someone stop that.

Nancy Updike

He takes a drag of his cigarette and smiles.

Nasser Laham

Maybe you can. Try.

Nancy Updike

Nasser speaks Hebrew and he's teaching his kids, but actual Israelis are a world away, and he can't convince his own children, a genuine captive audience, not to hate them.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike in Jerusalem.

Coming up. Start a show in a karaoke bar, end a show in a karaoke bar. No matter how little it has to do with the last story and the last act, can we do it? Dare we do it? Answer is in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public International when our program continues.

Act Three. Translating For The Very, Very, Very, Very Tall.

Jesse Hardman

My earliest memory of my cousin Colin is fighting with him over a Fernando Valenzuela baseball card. We were both seven years old, both way into sports and pretty competitive. Mainly we'd play basketball. If you ask me, I'm a little bit better than he is. Don't ask him.

After graduating from college, Colin headed straight to Taiwan and stayed there for almost three years, just knocking around, trying to figure out what he wanted to do with this life. He took classes, worked a few jobs. He also played a lot of basketball with locals at nearby gyms. This left him with a very specialized, but seemingly a marketable vocabulary.

Jesse Hardman

Slam dunk?

Colin Pine

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jesse Hardman

[UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Colin Pine

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Jesse Hardman

Weak side defense?

Colin Pine

In Chinese, I just say the side without the ball.

Jesse Hardman

When I caught up with Colin two summers ago, he was working for the US government in a dead end job, translating Chinese documents. He was determined to start being practical. The words "law school" forced their way out of his mouth. You could tell he was hitting the career default button. Then an old friend stepped in.

Colin Pine

And she had this piece of paper with a job description. "NBA player seeks full-time interpreter. Looking for a native English speaker, fluent in mandarin Chinese, interested in basketball." It was like, yeah, right.

Jesse Hardman

Two weeks later, my cousin had made the jump from owning baseball cards to working for one. Sort of.

Announcer

Now, FOX 26 Sports with Keith [? Guggans. ?]

Sports Anchor

Hi again. Yao Ming in Houston for what, 24 hours or so? The hoopla includes plenty of wide eyes and lots of curiosity seekers, as if they'd never seen a 7'6" Chinese millionaire before.

Jesse Hardman

It turns out that Colin's new job wasn't with some benchwarming experiment. Yao Ming is the starting center for the Houston Rockets. And if you haven't heard of him, congratulations. You officially know nothing about sports in America. He's the biggest story out of the NBA this year. The first foreigner ever to go number one in the NBA draft. His style of play is supposed to revolutionize the game the same way that Michael Jordan's did. Add to this, he has the hopes and dreams of a billion emerging NBA fans in Asia riding on his shoulders. And Colin met him for the first time the same day the rest of America did.

Announcer 2

Yao Ming.

[CHEERING]

Colin Pine

You know, at the airport at first, there weren't that many people, and all of a sudden, you get this whole lobby. It's just crowded. And the people are surrounding him, and you know, I had to get up and translate right away. He had to give a few brief statements to the crowd. And we had never met.

Reporter

Speaking through interpreter Colin Pine, Ming says he's anxious to get on the court and work on his game with his new teammates.

Colin Pine

After waiting such a long time, it's like opening a door and having a breath of fresh air.

I think my heart was about to burst through my chest. And I'm up there with the lights on me, with Yao Ming sitting next to me, and then-- I've heard of instances of people who had to do translation in situations like that just choking. Just not being able to say anything. I'm floating above the ceiling, looking back at myself doing this. Just for me to get through the first time, I was pretty happy.

Announcer 3

Fans, it's time to stand up, make some noise, and get ready to meet your Minnesota Timberwolves.

Jesse Hardman

Early in the season, I catch up with Colin at a game in Minnesota. My first chance to see his new life from the inside.

Colin Pine

Yeah, you're right here.

Jesse Hardman

We stand in a nondescript concrete hallway near the visiting locker room. Players are walking by, ribbing Colin and smacking him on the ass. Superstars like Glen Rice and Steve Francis, Colin's idol since college. Guys I'm used to seeing on TV.

Colin disappears into the Rockets' locker room. A few minutes later, he reappears with his new boss, Yao Ming.

Yao is 7'5". Colin's my height, 5'9" in shoes. Yao slouches up against the locker room wall. Colin leans in next to him. A crush of TV cameras, microphones, and notepads descend on the pair. Lots of the reporters are from Asia.

Colin Pine

Wait! Excuse me. Hey, wait, wait, wait! Excuse me. Let me translate, please. Thank you.

Jesse Hardman

It's a month into the season, and media fascination with Yao's story is bigger than anyone imagined. Yao is the only player who reporters want to talk to before and after every game, regardless of how he plays.

The questions tend to be the same in every city. Questions about adapting to the NBA and life in America. What do you do in your spare time? Have you sampled the local cuisine? And of course--

Reporter 2

Does he see himself as a role model to other Asians in America?

Jesse Hardman

For the most part, Yao feeds them straight sports cliche. One day at a time. I'm still learning the game. But every once in a while, he'll give them an answer that leaves reporters scratching their heads. Like this question, when the reporter asks, what's it like to play against Minnesota star Kevin Garnett?

Yao Ming

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Colin Pine

He seems like a spider, [INAUDIBLE]

Reporter 2

Spider?

Yao Ming

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Colin Pine

He's got strong arms and strong legs. Spider. [SPEAKING CHINESE] Yeah, like a spider.

Jesse Hardman

The bulk of Colin's translating work is just getting Yao through these daily press conferences. Yao speaks enough English to communicate with coaches and players during games and practices, but Colin sits with the team courtside, just in case.

Jesse Hardman

You sit right there, behind the bench and the red seats like that?

Colin Pine

They don't need me that much.

Jesse Hardman

So what do you do most of the game?

Colin Pine

Watch and cheer and try not to say too much. I've got to be careful. I'm a very enthusiastic fan. But I need to maintain a professional demeanor, I suppose.

Jesse Hardman

Fast forward two hours. Fourth quarter. Rockets down by six with a few minutes to go.

Colin Pine

Oh, come on!

Jesse Hardman

So much for professional demeanor.

Colin Pine

Argh!

Jesse Hardman

Colin's up out of his seat, looking like he wants a piece of the ref. But if anything, this actually helps him fit in with the team. Here's backup center Kelvin Cato and backup point guard Richie Norris.

He gets mad when calls go bad like we do. He's just-- he's a basketball player that can't play. He's sitting on the bench.

He's one of the boys, he's one of the guys now. You know, he works here, he's with us, he's part of the team now. So we love him to death. We go, I'm just happy you're here.

Jesse Hardman

And it's not just the players who glow about Colin. A Rockets executive tells me that most NBA translators are just linguists with no feeling for the game, but Colin's made it way easier for Yao.

Even the press loves him. Sam Smith is a veteran basketball beat writer for the Chicago Sun-Times.

I've been around a lot of international events with the Olympics, with translators, and he's been absolutely the best and most efficient and effective interpreter I've ever been around. You know, more than most guys in that situation. You could tell Colin not only is close to Yao, but they like each other. They're comfortable with each other and they trust each other. And that's a situation you never see.

Colin Pine

Yeah. We're going to go to Burger King right now. Right.

Jesse Hardman

Where's his dad?

Colin Pine

I don't know. Here, talk to Yao Ming. I'm going crazy here.

Jesse Hardman

Here's what most of my cousin's glamorous job looks like up close. Usually he and Yao are nowhere near a basketball court. Usually he's not even translating. Right here, Colin is trying to get Yao to the DMV so he can take his driver's test. It's part of Colin's job to be Yao's driving instructor.

The problem today is, a National Geographic film crew wants to tag along. Colin can't find Yao's dad, who's also taking the test, and Yao is hungry. Colin literally can't go 10 minutes without having his cell phone ring, and it's never for him. Yao's agents, people from the Rockets, from the press, from the companies Yao endorses, even Yao's parents-- they all get to him through Colin.

Colin Pine

Hey Angie, it's Colin. I just wanted to find, when is a good time? When am I going to be able to give you this stuff? After the game, or? Like, the tea, and I have something I need to give you, and I think I have a check from Yao Ming or his mother--

Jesse Hardman

Here's something else. Colin lives with Yao in a huge house, in a gated community, in a Houston suburb, together with Yao's mother and father, who keep a tight leash on their 22 year old son. Originally, Colin was supposed have his own place, but the Yaos invited him into the house early in the season. He thought about it and decided it made sense, since he'd be spending almost every minute with Yao anyway.

Colin Pine

It also felt like, you know, they were being very nice in offering, and I thought I didn't want to offend them by turning them down. But it made sense. It just made a lot of sense.

But I mean, I'm 29, and I'm not accustomed to living with a family. Sometimes I think that his mom looks at me as a little kid. I know she worries if I don't eat enough, or you know. And it's really sweet. It's nice. But it's a little strange.

Jesse Hardman

It'd be strange to move back in with your own family at 29, let alone a Chinese family you just met, which doesn't speak English, and whose shortest member, Yao's mom, is a half foot taller than you.

Colin doesn't like talking about his home life with the Yaos. That's private. So private that he never has anyone over to visit, friends or family. He can't even invite me in for a beer.

Colin Pine

No, no, no, no, no, no no, no, no, no.

Jesse Hardman

Two days after Yao passes his driving test, I tag along with him and Colin as they head home from practice. They sing along to the radio together. They finish each other's sentences and tease each other in a mixture of English and Chinese.

Yao Ming

You know, before I met him, I think Colin is maybe 40 years old people. When I saw them, I think, oh, my God. It's a young boy. Maybe younger than me. But I ask him, he say 28. I said, 28? He looks very young!

Jesse Hardman

Does Colin have any annoying traits? Does he not clean up his room anything? Does he hog the Nintendo?

Colin Pine

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Yao Ming

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Colin Pine

He can't beat me, so I'm the one who's always hogging it.

Jesse Hardman

Their bond has been formed through an intense mutual experience. The world of the NBA is foreign to both of them.

Colin Pine

There were lots of times, especially on the road, you know, we'd have dinner in a hotel room, and we'd talk. And we'd say-- I would get stressed out over a press conference or something, and I'd tell him, you know, this is why I'm stressed. And he'd do his best to help me after that.

And it was harder for me to help him, because you know, the pressure on him was so much greater. I mean, for instance, was it the second Laker game in LA? We lost in overtime, and he fouled out. And he was really upset. And I did my-- I said, if you hadn't-- he had a great game, though. And I said, if you hadn't played well, we probably wouldn't have gotten here. Gone into overtime.

The only thing I can do is just be an ear. Be somebody, you know, who says, I understand. And then mean it. Because I got to see it firsthand.

Jesse Hardman

Three fourths of the way through the basketball season, I catch a Rockets game at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It's a packed house, despite the fact the New York team, the Knicks, suck.

Almost a third of the crowd is Chinese, many of them attending their first NBA game. They're here because of Yao, who's now a full-fledged phenomenon. He's only been in the US for four months, but he's already the new face of Apple Computer, Gatorade, and Visa.

To the surprise of the normal Knicks crowd, Yao's army comes ready to scream, and many have made homemade signs proclaiming their love of Yao.

Reporter 3

What's your sign say here?

Fan

Yao Ming, The Next Big Thing.

Reporter 3

What's so exciting about him?

Fan

Honestly, I feel very proud. I plan on opening a basketball camp in Pakistan in the future because of this. And I want to, like, open the doors for Pakistanis to get into the game of basketball.

Jesse Hardman

That's right. Pakistan. This is the power of Yao Ming. He's united the Asian mainland with the Indian subcontinent.

Just to see how far his celebrity extends, I ask this 22 year old fan about my cousin.

Jesse Hardman

He's got a translator. What do you think of that job?

Fan 2

Well, I actually have a sign for him right there.

Jesse Hardman

What does it say?

Fan 2

Right here. "Move over Batman and Robin. We have some new heroes in town, Yao Ming and Colin Pine. Citizens of Houston have no fear. Ming and Pine are here."

I'm just a huge fan. Colin Pine-- he's Yao's right hand man right now. I mean, he's the one that's doing all the talking for Yao in English. So we get Yao's word through him.

Jesse Hardman

Is he a celebrity?

Fan 2

Oh, definitely. When you're anyone around Yao, it's a celebrity. I'll tell you that much.

Jesse Hardman

I'm floored by this. And my question of the night becomes, who's Colin Pine?

Jesse Hardman

You guys know who Colin Pine is?

Fan 3

The interpreter.

Fan 4

Yao Ming's translator.

Fan 5

We actually ran into Colin Pine in Chinatown in Houston at a tiny karaoke bar. Colin Pine was singing perfect Mandarin.

Jesse Hardman

One woman knows so much about him, that she could have written this story.

Fan 6

Well, he worked in the State Department, and he applied online and didn't think he would get the job, and was shocked when they called, and basically he was told he had to be here like yesterday. And he was excited because he was a huge Steve Francis fan.

Fan 7

Before I think he was translating documents with the US government. He must be the luckiest man in the world right now.

Fan 8

That guy's got the best job in the world.

Fan 9

I'd like to have his job.

Jesse Hardman

In my very informal survey, 50% of the crowd knows my cousin my name. One Chinese-American coed who carries a sign saying, "I'm single and bilingual-- hey Yao, you and me, let's mingle" tells me my cousin's hot. Colin's heard it before.

Colin Pine

I've had girls pass me cards. Not often. It's not like-- the players get it all the time, I'm sure. But consciously and subconsciously, there's part of me that is really wary of the whole thing. You know, I want somebody to like me for the witty, intelligent, charming person that I am.

My friends are like, this job is so wasted on you.

Man

You're up.

Colin Pine

Oh, it's me again.

[SINGING IN CHINESE]

Jesse Hardman

On a warm spring night, Yao, Colin, and I are out at a Chinese karaoke bar. Yao just passed his driving exam and he wants to celebrate. He never goes out. This is a really big deal. He's out of the house and his parents aren't around.

The club sits in a stucco Chinese mini mall in a cookie cutter Houston suburb between a nail salon and a takeout place called The Fancy Noodle. Everyone has a couple of beers, but this is definitely the G-rated version of an NBA night out.

Colin Pine

[SINGING IN CHINESE]

Jesse Hardman

Colin loves karaoke. He sings a Chinese love ballad with an English chorus-- "I Only Want To Be Your Friend." Yao, appropriately enough, responds with the Backstreet Boys hit, "Larger Than Life."

Colin Pine

[SINGING]

Jesse Hardman

Yao later tells me this night was the most fun he's had in America.

Jesse Hardman

Five years from now you're going to be veteran in the league. You'll be superstar. And you'll speak English, and you won't need an interpreter. So who will Colin Pine be to you then, in five years?

Yao Ming

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Colin Pine

Still friends.

Jesse Hardman

Still friends. Do you think you'll hang out still?

Colin Pine

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Yao Ming

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Colin Pine

If you don't mind, and you don't mind me stealing your girlfriend, then it's OK.

Ira Glass

Jesse Hartman.

Credits.

Starlee Kine

Hey, how about a little male-bashing?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.