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A "Unicorn Lair" in North Korea?

Last week, the Internet was on fire with the news that North Korean archaeologists had discovered an ancient “unicorn’s lair” near Pyongyang.  Of course, very few people ( I hesitate to type “none”) actually believed that a unicorn’s lair had been discovered. Reactions ranged from outright scorn to, as Hemingway might have put it, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Of course it is. Unfortunately for unicorn enthusiasts the world over, it turns out that the North Korean archaeologists never claimed to have found a “unicorn’s lair” at all. That was merely a translation error.

While the state-operated Korean Central News Agency has been known to tell some fantastic tales, the discovery of a “unicorn’s lair” was a bridge too far even for them. As I09 reported, in the original Korean text of the story, the archaeologists merely claim to have discovered a cave that, in local mythology, was reputed to be the home of an ancient Korean ruler’s unicorn companion.

As Seoul National University history professor Noh Tae-Don explained to AFP:

“An ancient poem says that is the place where King Tongmyong’s unicorn lived and where the king is said to have ascended to the heaven on the unicorn’s back. What they are saying is that they have found a site associated with this legend.”

Additionally, the mythological beast in question was actually not a unicorn at all. Rather, it was a kirin, an antlered , dragon-like creature from Asian mythology. Basically, the kirin is a hodgepodge of different animals, with the body of a deer, the hooves of a horse and the tail of an ox. Since the kirin is sometimes referred to as “the Chinese unicorn,” the confusion is perhaps understandable.

However, as I09 reports, even this much more reasonable version of the story may be stretching the truth a bit:

“The North Korean press release is unclear on exactly what was discovered, whether it was an older inscription marking the location of Kiringul or the cave itself—or whether it is referencing the already documented Kiringul. And if North Korean archaeologists did discover an older inscription in Pyongyang (and, Wang notes, there is always the possibility that their supposed discovery was fabricated), it may be far newer than the press release would suggest.”

Basically, North Korea would desperately like to prove that the ancient Korean kingdom of  Koguryŏ was located on their land, not South Korea’s, and the discovery of a cave that was significant in the mythology of that kingdom would certainly help their case. But as with all the propaganda that comes out of the North, it’s best to take even the toned-down version of this story with a grain of salt. Or perhaps even a handful.

"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.