"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.

A Latin Translation of "The Hobbit"

Peter Jackson’s long-awaited first film installment of “The Hobbit” premiered in New Zealand on Wednesday, and there was much rejoicing amongst the geeks of the world.

However, for fantasy lovers who also speak Latin, there was another reason to rejoice this week. On Tuesday, the first-ever Latin translation of “The Hobbit” was released. Titled “Hobbitus Ille,” the translation was done by classicist, author and Latin teacher Mark Walker.

Why Latin? Here’s what Mr. Walker had to say on the subject, taken from an excerpt from the foreword reprinted on the Huffington Post:

“There is, as anyone who has taken the trouble to study Latin knows, a curious gap in the available reading material. On the one hand are simplified stories for classroom use, on the other the glories of high Latin literature — but remarkably little in between… This is where the Latin Hobbit comes in. It is nothing more or less than a novel — but a novel now in Latin. Which is to say, it is a Latin text whose principal aim is to be read solely for the pleasure of reading….”

The translation was obviously a labor of love. Mr. Walker even went so far as to translate the songs in the book into Latin, using classical Latin meters appropriate for the mood of each song.

According to a press release issued by the publisher, the novel ” follows the Cambridge and Oxford Latin conventions” and is therefore “ideal for school use.”

This does look like it would be a lot of fun for children and teenagers, and a great way to motivate young Latin students.

One caveat: Translating a novel is no easy task, and a lively debate over some of Mr. Walker’s word choices is currently raging on the book’s Amazon page, with one reviewer declaring it “bad Latin.” If that’s the case, hopefully a revised second edition will be released in the future.

Photo Credit:AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Nick Bramhall

Survival Spanish

Hola from Costa Rica! I’ve spent the past week here, and consequently I’ve had the opportunity to sharpen my embarrassingly rusty  Spanish skills. I was astonished at how much of the language came back to me — and also at how much was lost to time. If you’re traveling to a Spanish-speaking country, here’s a list of words and phrases you might want to memorize before you go, along with some that I wished I’d taken the time to relearn before my plane touched down in San Jose.


  • “Por favor.” Please.
  • “Gracias.” Thank you.
  • “De nada” or “con gusto” You’re welcome.
  • “Buenas dias” or just “buenas”– “Good day,” used as a greeting.
  • “¿Como esta?” How are you?


  • “¿Donde esta…?” Where is?  If what you’re asking about is plural, use “¿Donde estan?”
  • “Puente en mal estadio.” Bridge in poor condition.” We saw a lot of these signs on the way to our rural mountainside resort.
  • “El taxi.” Taxi.
  • “Gire a la derecha.” Turn right.
  • Gire a la izquierda.” Turn left. 
  • ” Un plano.” A map.
  • “¿Por favor, puedo usar los servicios sanitarios?”  Please, can I use your bathroom? (Also, muchas gracias to the wonderful Costa Rican woman who let a pregnant gringa she’d never met into her home to use her bathroom!)

Food/ Restaurants

  • “La propina” The tip. In Costa Rica, this is generally  included, though you may tip a little extra if the service was exceptional.
  • “La cuenta, por favor.” Check, please.
  • Soda : A restaurant serving inexpensive Costa Rican staples.
  • “¿Acepta usted tarjetas de crédito?” Do you accept credit cards?
  • “Quiero…” I want…


  • “Habla ingles?” Do you speak English?
  • “Habla español?” Do you speak Spanish?
  • “Lo siento, solo hablo un poquito de español.” I’m sorry, I only speak a little Spanish.
  • “Hable despacio, por favor.” Speak more slowly, please.


  • “Quisiera hacer una reservación/ Tengo una reservación.” I would like to make a reservation/I have a reservation.
  • “¿Podria llamarme un taxi, por favor?” Could you call me a taxi, please?
  • ¿Tiene el hotel acceso a Internet? Does the hotel have internet access?
  • “La llave.” Room key.
  • “El aire acondicionado en mi cuarto no está funcionando.” The air conditioner in my room isn’t working.

Can you think of any other essential travel phrases? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by LeafLanguages

Welsh Language in the News

For a language that was once in decline, Welsh has been in the news quite a bit lately. Here’s a quick summary of what’s been keeping it in the headlines:

Welsh Language Bill Passed and Signed

The Official Languages Bill, designed to ensure that English and Welsh are treated equally by the Welsh Assembly, was passed by the Assembly in October and became law in an official ceremony in Cardiff on Monday, November 12th.

Schoolchildren (Maybe) Punished for Speaking English

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Welsh schoolchildren were often punished with the “Welsh Not” system for speaking Welsh in school. But is the shoe on the other foot now?  According to anonymous statements made on the website BiLingo, children at Welsh schools in Ceredigion have been published for speaking English.

However, the BBC was unable to find out anything more about the accusations. Keith Towler, children’s commissioner for Wales, has said he will investigate them. In the meantime, representatives of the school district advised parents to bring any concerns to the school.

Welsh Road Sign Translation Fail

In the Vale of Glamorgan, a set of road signs put up by contractors for  Network Rail contain some amusing errors. For example, according to the BBC, one sign uses the word “adloniant” to mean a diversion or detour. Unfortunately, that word only means “diversion” in the sense of entertainment.

Meanwhile, another sign uses the word “acses” for access. Alas, that word doesn’t exist. Sorry, folks- you can’t just make up “Welsh” words by rearranging letters.

A Network Rail spokesperson told the BBC:

“I’ve told everyone who’s inquired that we’re looking into it, and if there’s been a genuine mistake then we’ll fix it.”

Meanwhile, Chris Franks, Plaid Cymru councillor for the Vale of Glamorgan, said the signs are just one more indication that the Welsh language gets no respect:

“You’d just hope that the companies and authorities involved would take more pride in their professionalism, as ultimately they’re the ones who end up looking silly. It’s disappointing that these contractors failed to take adequate care; it does indicate a lack of respect for the language.”‘

Common Idioms in Translation

An idiom is a common figurative expression with a widely-understood meaning; for example’ “the Devil is in the details.” English has at least 25,000 of these phrases. Since idioms aren’t meant to be taken literally, they present a special problem for translators.  Sure, you could translate them word-for-word, but the unless the expression is understood as an idiom in both languages, you’ll only confuse your audience.

Instead, a translator needs to know if there is an equivalent idiom in the language the text is to be translated into. If there’s an equivalent phrase that expresses the same idea, the translator can just substitute it for the English version, as long as the tone fits and is appropriate. If not, another phrase that accurately conveys the intended meaning must be used.

Here are some examples of common English idioms, “translated” into their equivalents in other languages:

It’s raining cats and dogs

  • Irish: “Tá sé ag caitheamh sceana gréasaí.” Literally, “It’s throwing cobbler’s knives.”
  • Greek: “Βρέχει καρεκλοπόδαρα” “It’s raining chair legs.”
  • Danish: “Det regner skomagerdrenge.” “It’s raining shoemaker’s apprentices.”

Kick the bucket

  • French:Manger des pissenlits par la racine .” “To eat dandelions by the root.”
  • Danish: “At stille træskoene” “To take off the clogs.”
  • Latvian: “Nolikt karoti” “To put the spoon down.”

When pigs fly

  • Spanish: “Cuando las ranas críen pelo.” When frogs grow hair.”
  • Thai:  “Ton sē wēn pit.” “When the 7-11 is closed.”
  • French: “Quand les poules auront des dents” “When chicken have teeth.

The early bird gets the worm

  • Italian: “Chi dorme non piglia pesci.” “He who sleeps doesn’t catch any fish.”
  • Swedish: “Först till kvarn får först mala.” “First to the mill gets to grind first.”
  • German: “Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund.” “Morning has gold in its mouth.”

It’s all Greek to me

  • Italian: “Per me è arabo.”  “It’s Arabic to me.” 
  • Greek: “Íne gia ména kinézika.” “It’s Chinese to me.”
  • Turkish: “Olaya fransız kaldım.” “I am French to the conversation.”

Translation in Your Own Voice

At a presentation in China, Microsoft recently demonstrated an improved machine translation technology that allows for real-time translation in your own voice. Using the system, Microsoft’s Chief Research Officer Rick Rashid was able to give a presentation in Chinese in his own voice, even though he doesn’t speak the language.

How does it work? Prompted by the attention his presentation generated, Rashid wrote a blog post to explain the technology behind the system:

“In my presentation, I showed how we take the text that represents my speech and run it through translation- in this case, turning my English into Chinese in two steps. The first takes my words and finds the Chinese equivalents, and while non-trivial, this is the easy part. The second reorders the words to be appropriate for Chinese, an important step for correct translation between languages.”

To more accurately perform the first step of the process, Microsoft is using a technique called Deep Neural Networks, which it says mimics the patterns of the human brain to make speech recognition more accurate. One caveat: the Deep Neural Networks technology may be better at recognizing words, but it’s still no substitute for the brain of a skilled interpreter. As Rashid wrote:

“We have been able to reduce the word error rate for speech by over 30% compared to previous methods. This means that rather than having one word in 4 or 5 incorrect, now the error rate is one word in 7 or 8…Of course, there are still likely to be errors in both the English text and the translation into Chinese, and the results can sometimes be humorous. Still, the technology has developed to be quite useful.”

While this technology is amazing and will definitely have its uses in the future, I doubt it will replace the knowledge and understanding that a trained translator brings to the job any time soon. What do you think?

A Welsh Translation for Sherlock Holmes?

82 years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s death, there’s no doubt that his famously logical detective has left a mark on the world. The Sherlock Holmes stories have inspired countless adaptations and have been translated into 76 different languages. However, they’ve never been translated into Welsh…until now.

The Deerstalkers of Welshpool, Sherlock Holmes society based in Powys, plan to translate “The Legend of the Speckled Band,” a locked-room mystery that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle considered to be his finest story featuring Holmes.

Roy Upton-Holder, the society’s founder, had long dreamed of translating Holmes into Welsh. As he explained to the BBC, encouragement and an offer of support from across the pond finally prompted him to act:

” I had an email from a Sherlock Holmes fan in Texas who is a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the largest Holmes society in the USA. He asked if we were thinking about translating a book into Welsh and why didn’t we do something about it. He said he’d give us $100 towards it.”

However, according to Levy Gruffudd, a Welsh publisher interviewed by the BBC, the high cost of translation and presumed low demand have kept the popular detective stories from being translated into Welsh thus far:

“Most people would be interested in reading the original in English. It would be feasible to translate a book, but the costs would be very high. It might even be in the thousands of pounds, depending on the number of pages.”

So, how does Mr. Upton-Holder plan to get around these obstacles? By crowdsourcing the translation to local university students. He told the BBC:

“Since then I’ve contacted Aberystwyth University to see if someone there could help with the translating and we’ve thought about asking Welsh A-level students if they’d like to take on the translating as a school project. One of our members has recently retired from the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth and he speaks Welsh, so he could help check the pupils’ work.”

That should help keep costs down, and I’m sure it would be a great experience for the students. Potential problems stem from the fact that literary translation is a highly specialized form of translation. It’s not enough to correctly choose words that mean the same thing in both languages. To be successful, you also have to capture as much as possible the tone, feel and rhythm of the original work.

Still, it’s an interesting experiment and definitely one worth watching.

This Elephant Speaks Korean

There’s no doubt that elephants are intelligent. Aristotle once called them “”The animal which surpasses all others in wit and mind.” They have the largest brains of any land mammal, and have exhibited such human-like behaviors as holding funerals for their dead, painting, playing music and counting. They’ve even outsmarted human researchers in some intelligence tests!

Now, scientists have confirmed that a male Asian elephant at a Korean zoo has learned to “speak” Korean. Well, 5 words of it, at least. The elephant, called Koshik, has a spoken vocabulary that consists of the following words: “annyeong” (hello), “anja” (sit down), “aniya” (no), “nuwo” (lie down) and “joa” (good).

When it comes to communicating with other intelligent species, the main limitation is in their ability to vocalize human words. That’s why apes have to be taught sign language or how to use a computer. So how does Koshik do it? According to a paper published by the scientists:

“To create these very accurate imitations of speech formant frequencies, this elephant (named Koshik) places his trunk inside his mouth, modulating the shape of the vocal tract during controlled phonation. This represents a wholly novel method of vocal production and formant control in this or any other species.”

His method works- Korean speakers can readily understand what he is saying. Scientists believe that he learned to vocalize Korean words because he spent much of his youth as the only elephant in the zoo.

Researcher Angela Stoeger-Horwath told Live Science,

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Koshik’s drive to share vocalizations with his human companions was so strong that he invented a whole new way of making sounds to achieve it.”

However, researchers don’t believe that Koshik actually understands the words. It seems he’s just using his talent to bond with his trainers, rather than to communicate.

Salty Language from the Dalai Lama?

Pop quiz time: Which of the following statements is NOT an accurate quote from His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama:

  1. “Love is the absence of judgement.”
  2. “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”
  3. “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
  4. “Anger or hatred is like a fisherman’s hook. It is very important for us to ensure that we are not caught by it.”
  5. “Just F@!# it!”

If you selected quote number five, you win. Give yourself a cookie!

However, students at Brown University of Rhode Island who rely on closed captioning might have come away with a different impression of the spiritual leader, after an error in transcription for his speech there last week. According to the Brown Daily Herald, after delivering a speech about the importance of peace and breaking the cycle of violence, the Dalai Lama “turned to humour again in his conclusion, urging the audience to spend their time thinking and discussing — or, if they had been unaffected by his words, “just forget.”

Unfortunately, perhaps due to his accent, the person transcribing the speech misheard that last bit, typing  it instead as “just f@#! it.”

Obviously, when transcribing videos for closed-captioning, it’s important to pay close attention to what you’re hearing. especially when the speaker has an accent or speaks another language. While amusing, this incident also underscores the importance of using a reputable company for captioning and carefully proofreading transcriptions before publishing them.

Of course, this was a live video, so there wasn’t a chance to proofread. And we should spare some sympathy for the transcriber, as apparently he’s not the only one who misheard. According to NBCNews:

“Some in the audience also believed the Dalai Lama, who has a strong accent, had used a profane phrase. Questions have arisen previously over the same comment in other venues.”

Photo Credit: Some rights reserved by *christopher*

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