- Little Mosque on the Prairie and the Paradoxes of Cultural Translation by Kyle Conway
On January 9, 2007, a pilot for a sitcom aired on the national Canadian Broadcast Corporation's television channels about a mosque housed in an Anglican church in a mythical town called Mercy, Saskatchewan. It raised not a few eyebrows in post 9/11 Canada. The show featured ordinary Muslims in humorous situations as they adapted to rural Canadian culture. The response was amazing: 2.1 million viewers tuned in. The show became the topic of conversation across the country and in boardrooms and eventually ran for six seasons.
Conway strives in this book to understand and analyze the obvious success of the series, and he hopes to identify a way of using Little Mosque to probe the larger issues of cultural [End Page 321] translation. He finds the most helpful tool to be what he terms "saleable diversity." He argues that the concept allows us to comprehend how television programming becomes an actor in a nation's social and cultural negotiations specifically when dealing with minority populations.
Conway does not see this as a straightforward process, and that is why the title also includes the notion of paradox. The series plainly had to shift focus in order to remain fresh and interesting, and that placed demands on the production team, as did the necessity of dealing with several contradictory notions. For example, the series initially was about Muslims who espouse distinctive religious convictions, yet the audience probably had little knowledge of those convictions, so how should the show make doctrinal distinctives available without preaching? Then again, how much did the series rely upon an open-mindedness on the part of the audience? The failure of the series to appeal to other national audiences, like the United States, France, or Norway, says something about the cultural expectations of the audience in any successful series of this sort. Should each episode have returned to stasis, or should it have implied answers in the following episodes?
How viable, then, is saleable diversity as a conceptual formation? Can it be applied for analysis to other cultural relations problems? At one level, "saleable" does have the advantage of statistics—both a plethora of critical reviews and audience numbers demonstrate that element. On the other hand, diversity has so many referents that it is difficult to see how it can always be used as an evaluative grid. For starters, can members of the group see themselves reflected in the characters? This is the rub: the more the diverse group is made relatable to a common culture, the less the group is unique.
And as a filter, it doesn't seem able to determine whether we are talking of religious or cultural diversity … and are they the same thing? Perhaps this is why Conway gives secure place to paradox in his application here.
Conway's study of Little Mosque may not have solved all the conundrums of cultural translation, but it has pointed a way to begin to sort out some of the basic issues, and to place them in a framework that gives substance to larger issue of cultural translation.