Os Jedi or Os Jedis?: Translation, Authority, and S-Wars in a YouTube Comments Thread

As I was planning a Cinema unit for a Portuguese class, I came across the song “Luke, eu sou seu pai” on YouTube. The tune, written and performed by the Brazilian rock band Os Seminovos, is a seemingly innocuous Star Wars parody/homage. When I scrolled down below the video, however, I was surprised at the extent and aggressive tenor of the comments, which number (at press time) 1703. Perused in reverse-chronological order, I resolved to find the source of this battle of the Guerra nas Estrelas. What could have inspired such vitriol?

The controversy, as it turns out, arose from an offending line at the end of the third verse, in which Darth Vader implores Luke Skywalker: “Não vá no papo daqueles Jedis imbecís” (“Don’t get fooled by those imbecile Jedis”). The ‘s’ at the end of the plural ‘Jedis’ is what awakened some viewers’ ire. In Portuguese, all plural nouns traditionally end in ‘s’, unlike in English, where certain foreignisms like “samurai” can have a null plural marker. [well size=»well-normal»][small][1] English: compare The Last Samurai to Seven Samurai (no S in the plural). Portuguese: O Último Samurai versus Os Sete Samurais (S in the plural).[/small][/well]

Multiple commenters vigorously defended the purity of Portuguese morphology – ‘Os Jedis’ – while others deferred to the neologizing jurisdiction of the Star Wars franchise – ‘Os Jedi.’

[well size=»well-normal»][small][2] George Lucas  supposedly modeled ‘Jedi‘ after a word like ‘samurai.’ Wikipedia refers to “Os Jedi (pronuncia-se jedai)”, maintaining the number ambiguity of the Lucasian coinage, but adds the obligatory Portuguese plural-marker to “Os Samurais.” [/small][/well]

At last, the irresistible force of Hollywood had met the immovable object of linguistic normativity. Something had to give, right?

In one particularly illuminating exchange between two fans whose usernames have been omitted for anonymity (pending IRB authorization), the debate ultimately boiled down to mutually-exclusive definitions of ‘cultura.’

For the ‘Jedi’ warrior, the location of culture is in a galaxy far, far away:

[blockquote]“Jedi se escreve JEDI mesmo no plural, Jedi no plural sem ‘S’ fica estranho pra quem não tem cultura” (“Jedi is written just JEDI in the plural, Jedi in the plural without ‘S’ sounds strange to those who have no culture”).[/blockquote]

To which the ‘Jedis’ protested, citing more local cultural authority:

[blockquote]“sei que é horrível ver como tem gente sem cultura que não conhece os grandes nomes do Brasil” (I know how horrible it is to see people with no culture who don’t know the great names of Brazil”).[/blockquote]

Is resistance futile? Others responded with an appeal to the authority of grammar:

[blockquote]“Estamos no Brasil. Aki, toda palavra no Plural sendo substantivos ela tem que ter um ‘s’ no fim…” (“We’re in Brazil. Here, any word in the Plural being nouns must have an ‘s’ at the end…”)[/blockquote]

A certain polemicist went so far as to claim that the song was in fact an “homenagem aos analfabetos do brasil tambem …” (“an homage as well to the illiterate of Brazil”), perhaps ironically implying that those who cry ‘Jedis’ don’t even know how to read in the first place. Along the same lines, one especially prolific and resolute voice defended the morphological autonomy of the Star Wars Universe, and those institutionally-authorized translators, the legendistas. To select a relatively profanity-free post,

[blockquote]“Cara na própria legenda é JEDI sim, mesmo sendo mais de um. Me passa seu e-mail que te mando o PrintScreen da Tela. E aprende a escrever seu [omitido].” (“Dude right in the subtitle it says JEDI, even if there’s more than one. Give me your email and I’ll send you a Printscreen. And learn how to write you [omitted]).”[/blockquote]

Still others staked out a middle ground, repurposing Mário de Andrade’s dictum that, in Brazil, there are “duas línguas da terra, o brasileiro falado e o português escrito” (“two tongues of the land, spoken Brazilian and written Portuguese”):

[blockquote]“Sim se fala Jedai, mas se ESCREVE JEDI” (“Yes you say Jedai, but you WRITE JEDI»).[/blockquote]

A final (minority) camp tried to defuse the tension with irony:

[blockquote] “Ô português bom hein?” (“Oh proper Portuguese, am I right?”). [/blockquote]

[blockquote] “Os Seminovos : Tomem cuidado com o Latino” (“Os Seminovos: be careful with Latin”).[/blockquote]

At first, I was tempted to dismiss the hostility and name-calling as just one more ‘comment apocalypse,’ all too familiar for those of us who have unwittingly fallen down a Buzzfeed rabbit hole. Beyond mere internet trolling, however, ‘s-wars’ such as these reflect a critical ideological polemic regarding the mechanisms, modes, and repercussions of translation.

The defenders of the s-less ‘Jedi’ would agree with those who celebrate translation for its role in linguistic extension and perfectibility. Cicero embraced the new expressions furnished by translated texts. Much later, Walter Benjamin praised translation as a mechanism by which languages evolve towards a “purer linguistic air.” Human language just got ever so much purer, all thanks to George Lucas.

On the other hand, those on the S side of the Force understand the stakes of translation from English as a (or is it an?) hegemonic lingua franca. Cultural critics observe that translation, occurring within charged fields of often asymmetrical power configurations, can construct linguistic – and social – hierarchies. Bourdieu and Wacquant protested the «macdonaldization of thought;» is this the macdonaldization of language? With that in mind, the inclusion or exclusion of a mere pluralizer implies a great deal of significance. After all, why should ‘Jedi’ be granted a special exception to a rule that is obligatorily applied to words like ‘samurai?’

Well, jury’s still out. To date, I’ve only read the most recent 700 comments. I hope to continue this line of research and publish a full monograph shortly.

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