"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.

Eddie Izzard, in Translation

Conventional wisdom says it’s difficult to translate a joke. British comedian Eddie Izzard disagrees.  With his Force Majeure tour, he has been performing his stand-up comedy routine in English, French and German and he plans to add Spanish, Russian, and Arabic to the mix before it’s all said and done.

In an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Izzard explained:

“Humor is human. It’s universal,” Izzard says. “I believe there’s no American sense of humor, there’s not a British sense of humor. There’s not a Russian sense of humor, in a national way… I typically slam together images that are quite surreal. That’s my gut instinct as to where comedy lies, comedy that I like. I believe there’s a mainstream sense of humor in every country, and a more ‘alternative’ sense of humor in every country. So, ‘The Simpsons’ can be watched around the world when translated. But they won’t get all the references. In England, we might not get someone (referenced) from American television that we don’t know. The references are national, but the type of humor is either mainstream or alternative.”

According to the Boston Globe, Izzard’s brother Mike is a linguist who has been helping with the translations. Since the comedian is not fluent in these languages, his show has to be scripted with little room for ad-libbing or going off script.

At least one joke did not translate well into German- one in which Izzard compares an aging body to “two weasels, covered in gravy, nailed to the back of a tractor.”  It doesn’t make a lot of sense in English, but in German the rhythm was all wrong, too. Izzard tried alternate translations like “a washing machine filled with rodents” and ” two washing machines filled with frogs that have been sat on by elephants,” but he told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review he never quite got it right.

Still, having his act translated has opened up a lot of opportunities to perform for people around the world in their own languages. He told the Boston Globe he intends to visit 25 different countries:

“I will be touring Germany and the German-speaking countries, and France in French. And I think I can go to some parts of the Caribbean and play in French. And I could definitely play Beirut in French. I think that would work. So I’ve got all these options there. It’s fun. A great adventure.”

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