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"Onion’s" Satire Lost in Translation

Jokes and satire are often quite difficult to translate. So, perhaps it’s not all that surprising that a leading Chinese newspaper recently found the joke was on them when they quoted an article from “The Onion”, a satirical American online newspaper, as fact.

It all started on November 14th, when The Onion announced the winner of its “Sexiest Man Alive” award: newly-minted North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Someone over at China’s People’s Daily apparently thought this little tidbit was written in complete and total sincerity:

“With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true. Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper’s editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and, of course, that famous smile.”

According to The Onion’s article, that week’s print edition was to include a 16-page photo spread of Kim Jong-un. Not to be outdone, The People’s Daily posted an apparently serious article on Kim’s “victory,” complete with a 55-page photo spread showing the young dictator on the back of a horse, at a military parade, wearing sunglasses as he waves to adoring crowds, and so on. The article and accompanying photo spread are gone now, but The Atlantic still has screenshots.

For someone not familiar with The Onion, such a mistake is perhaps understandable. As Kevin Sites, a journalist and associate professor at Hong Kong University, explained to Voice of America:

“Their satire is so finely honed. It’s very sharp. And, in fact, in some cases – maybe not in this one – it’s nuanced and not everyone gets the joke around the world,” said Sites.

A South Korean online newspaper also printed the story. However, they noted in the original Korean-language version that it was, in fact, satire. Unfortunately, that observation didn’t make it into the English-language version of the story, leading readers to think that they had also been duped.

This is not the first (and probably won’t be the last) time that a foreign news source translates a story from the Onion without translating the sarcasm behind it. According to Wikipedia, the list of countries in which news organizations have fallen victim include China, Iran, and Bangladesh, Denmark, Russia, Italy, France…and the United States.

Sometimes, it seems, sarcasm doesn’t translate even when you speak the same language.

Translate your Brand Name in Chinese

For companies looking to expand into Asia, one of the hardest steps is choosing the right name. Chinese in particular lends itself to plays on words, and it’s common for names to have multiple meanings that can either help a brand or damage it. The result is that a company name that seems simple and straightforward in English can have undesirable connotations when translated phonetically into Chinese.

For example, this story on CNN.com recounts the struggle that US-based law firm Kobre & Kim LLP went through to find a Chinese version of their name. While the Chinese character for “Kim” means “gold,” finding the right characters to approximate “Kobre” was harder. Eventually, the company decided on a combination of characters that means “Plentiful Knowledge and Victorious in Our Pursuit of Gold.” Read more

Chinese Translation of Finnegan’s Wake Sells Out

“Finnegan’s Wake,” the last novel written by Irish author James Joyce, is one of the most critically acclaimed novels in the English language. It’s also one of the most perplexing and difficult to parse. Consequently, most of the general English-speaking public has not even attempted to read it.

But, as IrishCentral.com reports, while Finnegan’s Wake may be one of the more obscure English classics, it’s huge in…China?!? Read more

Chinglish

Language barriers and mistranslations are fertile ground for comedy. Chinese translations of English seem to be particularly vulnerable to gaffes, possibly due to a shortage of fluent English speakers and a corresponding over-reliance on translation software.

As an aside, it should be noted that English speakers have their own problems when it comes to translating Chinese characters. Also, at least our Eastern brethren’s translation failures seem to be confined to signs and menus as opposed to permanent tattoos. You can always change a sign! Read more

Chinese Translation Services: A Beginner’s Guide

Is your business looking for Chinese translation services? The potential benefits are tremendous:

Chinese translation can also help you reach communities of Chinese speakers closer to home.

But while the potential benefits are real, the potential pitfalls are, too. To avoid mishaps, read our beginner’s guide to Chinese translation services for businesses.

What language do they speak in China, anyway?

If you answered “Mandarin,” then you only get partial credit. Mandarin (often called Standard Chinese or Putonghua), is an official language in China, Taiwan, and Singapore.  But it’s not the only language people speak in China. Far from it. According to Ethnologue, there are 299 living languages spoken in China today.  Around 70% of the Chinese population speaks Mandarin, although the government would like to increase that to 80% by 2020.

The bottom line? It’s important to know your audience.  Depending on the content you’re translating, the medium you’re using, and the audience you’re trying to reach, Mandarin may be sufficient. But in some areas, like Hong Kong, it’s important to show respect for local languages like Cantonese, too.

And referring to standard Chinese as “Mandarin” is, in itself, a bit of an oversimplification. “Mandarin” also refers to a group of dialects used across northern and southwestern China. When spoken, these dialects are not all mutually intelligible. Read more