Translation: What the Biblical Tower of Babel can teach us about Netflix

We typically talk about distribution of copyright contents in terms of technology, from ink and parchment to digital transmission. But if distribution is about how to get contents to the widest population, then there is an additional factor: how to communicate these contents to a polyglot public. Here, the issue is more cultural and political than technological. Against that background, consider the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel and what it can teach us about the streaming of Netflix contents.

The King James Version of Genesis, 11:1-9 (of course, itself being a translation), recounts the following:

11 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.

3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.

4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.


The majority understanding of this Biblical account is that the Almighty, profoundly disappointed with the hubris of humans, scattered them across multiple locations, leading to a multiplicity of languages. Having been punished for their collective desire to reach the heavens, and with no linguistical intervention (i.e., the absence of the ability to translate from one language to another), the geopolitical power of the collective was forever diminished.

There is, however, a minority reading that confers an upbeat construction to the events. Rather than lament the absence of a universal language and the inability to leverage the power of the collective, the events of the Tower of Babel are seen as laying the groundwork for multi-culturalism. The aftermath of the dispersion from the Tower of Babel was in fact positive. In a particularly radical retelling, Daniel Gordis argues that--
…. a close literary analysis of the text reveals it to be an eloquent argument in favor of the ethnic-cultural commonwealth—a precursor of sorts to the modern nation-state—as an indispensable condition for human freedom and self-realization.
The problem with linking the Tower of Babel to the modern nation-state is that it still leaves a large overhanging dark cloud: Distinct, vibrant languages and cultures may have developed, but such flourishing did not necessarily translate into geopolitical stability. Two 20th- century world wars are testimony. Particularly, in Europe, the post-war ethos has been an effort to integrate the continent from the horrors of those events, to take the lessons from the Tower of Babel at their best, rather than their worst.

In a surprising way, Netflix in the EU is one such effort, where the linchpin has been the power of translation. In particular, The Economist (April 3rd, 2021 and entitled in the on-line version, “How Netflix is creating a common European culture” and, in the print version, “Netflix Europa”) describes how Netflix has upended the country-by-country balkanization of European television viewing. As noted--
Moments when Europeans sit down and watch the same thing at roughly the same time used to be rare…. Now they are more common, thanks to the growth of streaming platforms such as Netflix, which has 58 million subscribers in the continent.
But is not simply the fact of such trans-European streaming, but the linguistic scope of its reach. In the past, a successful program in one language in the EU might then be translated into English and, perhaps, several other major languages. But that is “oh so yesterday”.

Today, Netflix offers dubbing in 34 languages and subtitles in several more. [This beats the translation apparatus of the EU itself, which works to make contents available in the Union’s 24 official languages.] It means that a police drama written in Luxembourgish, (a form of Moselle Franconian language part of the wider group of West Germanic languages), is now available via streaming in multiple languages.

All of this gives proof paid to the observation made by the Italian author, Umberto Eco, that the language of Europe is translation.

Why is this important? Jean Monnet, perhaps the father of the now- EU, was reported to have one observed: “I were to do it over again from scratch, I would start with culture.”

Economic integration is certainly crucial but, as has been observed with increasing intensity, cultural integration may be equally important. Being dispersed from the Tower of Babel and left to our distinct national cultural and linguistic devices is hardly a formula for integration, no matter how glorious the resultant cultural outputs. It is the ability to make contents created in one Member State available in all other EU Members that facilitates the potential for cultural integration.

Still, the great bugaboo is whether this linguistic leveraging across the EU is just a ruse, whereby Netflix makes American-sourced contents available on a multi-lingual basis, the result being cultural hegemony rather than European cultural sovereignty. The Economist seems unworried about this.

First, streaming companies are required that 30% of their viewing catalog derives from the EU, and not to then simply bury these contents in a “digital cupboard”, but to genuinely promote them. Second, whatever risk posed by pushing out non-EU-sourced contents to viewers throughout the Union is more than compensated by the fact that Netflix enables Europeans to watch the same contents at the same time. In the words of the article—
If Europeans are to share a currency, bail each other out in times of financial need and share vaccines in a pandemic, then they need to have something in common—even if it is just bingeing on the same series. Watching fictitious northern and southern Europeans tear each other apart 2,000 years ago beats doing so in reality.
This would seem a welcome result, whatever your understanding of the Tower of Babel.

By Neil Wilkof

Each of the two pictures is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional work and is in the public domain.

Translation: What the Biblical Tower of Babel can teach us about Netflix Translation: What the Biblical Tower of Babel can teach us about Netflix Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Wednesday, April 28, 2021 Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. Sitting here on the last stop before Antarctica (New Zealand) it's wonderful to select European and in fact world Netflix content so professionally dubbed as a really attractive alternative to Hollywood.

    ReplyDelete

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