Lost in Translation

The words ‘black bastard’ caused a heated discussion among ad folk this weekend. Wouter Boon explains why it disappointed him.

A big storm passed Amsterdam this weekend. And I’m not talking about the one that pushed over trees as if they were toothpicks. I mean the heavy back and forth between Dutchmen and (mostly) English-speaking expats about the words ‘Black Bastard’.

Just a quick summary for those who had better things to do than read advertising blogs; Black Bastard is a Dutch BBQ brand with a name that refers to both the BBQ’s colour (it’s black) and its target group (the archetypical tough BBQ man).

Unfortunately the brand didn’t realise that these words in this specific combination in the English language form a well-known, very derogative term for black people, similar to ‘nigger’ or ‘coon’. The name was thus born in a mix of naivety and an unfortunate coincidence.

When Dutch cheese brand Old Amsterdam subsequently used the name in one of its promotions – also unaware of the racist meaning – English-born Amsterdam based expat Nicolette Lazarus told the brand on Facebook what ‘black bastard’ means for native English speakers. As soon as the cheese maker – who sells its cheese beyond the Netherlands – understood this second meaning it very quickly and thus professionally apologized and promised Lazarus not to use the name anymore.

Then, when Amsterdam Ad Blog wrote a piece about it, a perfect example of a Babylonian confusion ensued in the comment-sphere underneath it.

The Anglo-Saxons couldn’t imagine that the Dutch didn’t understand the racist meaning of Black Bastard and accused them of being backward and racist – thus overestimating the Dutch knowledge of the English language.

The Dutch in their turn, who only saw an innocent combination of two words, accused Lazarus – and those taking sides with her – of wanting to exclusively claim the word ‘black’. In fact, they even accused Lazarus of being racist because she saw racism where it didn’t exist; “For crying out loud: it’s a black BBQ!”

What made the Babylonian confusion quite ugly though is that people became really aggressive – and ironically even racist. On Facebook and Adformatie (who more or less copy-pasted the article) people called Lazarus ‘nigger’ and told her to go back where she came from.

What really surprised me is that even advertising people couldn’t or wouldn’t understand the valid arguments against promoting a ‘black bastard’. The worst example; when Simon Neate-Stidson (Strategy Director at Blast Radius and Lazarus’ partner) clearly explained on Adformatie that black bastard “is a common term of abuse aimed at black people” Jan Bennink (columnist of Adformatie and de Volkskrant) simply told him: “go fuck yourself”. Old Amsterdam, according to Bennink, did nothing wrong, so apologizing to those who felt offended made the cheese brand a bunch of “cowards”.

In Lazarus’ first comment on Facebook she made the comparison with the Black Pete discussion (in this column seen through the eyes of Irish-born The Stone Twins). An apt comparison, since in that discussion many Dutchmen also have a really hard time to look at ‘Zwarte Piet’ through the eyes of a foreigner. It’s our ‘innocent’ tradition, so mind your own fuckin’ business, they say.

As the editor-in-chief of a blog that tries to make Amsterdam look good in the international advertising arena, I find this all quite sad.

I perfectly understand that the average Dutchman can’t see the nuances in a discussion about cultural values – and in this specific case the translation of two words. However, from people working in advertising I really expect more. Listening and trying to understand other (sub) cultures is an essential part of our work. And communicating eloquently about them even more.

So let’s be a little bit more open-minded in understanding other people’s points of view. And at the very least have a grown up discussion about it.