You could never lose Mr Bean in translation

Kim Jong-un
Red-hot Red Flag action with Kim Jong-Un

From Thursday’s paper: Satire does not cross language barriers easily – as the bizarre Kim Jong-Un case proves

This week a Chinese newspaper, the People’s Daily, noted that the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un had been named “the Sexiest Man Alive For 2012” by The Onion, a US website. The Communist Party-affiliated paper’s website quoted glowing reports of “his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame” – and to celebrate his victory, they published a collection of photos, showing him squinting sexily in the sun, sitting sexily astride a horse, and in various other sexy poses. What it failed to notice is that The Onion is a spoof website.

It would be easy to say this shows a failure of humour. How can you not spot the joke, given that the previous winners of the award included the Unabomber and Bashar al-Assad?

But it’s unfair to single out the Chinese, and not just because the Kim Jong-Un photo gallery was probably put together by a time-pressured 24-year-old on the web desk. Jokes are always being lost in translation: in September, another Onion article headlined “Gallup Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad to Obama” was reprinted as fact by an Iranian news agency.

We don’t even need the language barrier. This year, a British tourist made a dreadful joke on Twitter about “digging up Marilyn Monroe” ahead of a flight to America, and was met at LAX airport by a gang of hard-faced Homeland Security agents who searched his bags for shovels.

Live television makes these misunderstandings particularly awkward. An Australian reporter once tried out a joke about the Dalai Lama going into a pizza shop and asking that they “make him one with everything”. Unfortunately, the joke’s audience – the Dalai Lama – was nonplussed, and the clip went viral on the internet.

The comedian Stewart Lee has written about the problems of translating jokes, with regard to a nation we think of as especially humourless: Germany. It has no culture of stand-up comedy; this is, says Lee, because of how the German language works. Much British humour relies on the pullback-and-reveal, in which the teller sets up an assumption for the listener, then subverts that assumption at the last moment. “I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like Grandpa,” the opening might go. “Not screaming in panic like the guy in his passenger seat” is the reveal – the joke being that Grandpa was not, as you assumed, in his bed.

The German language, says Lee, is not set up for that: its less flexible structure makes it harder to hide the important bit at the end. Similarly, German compound words are unhelpful for the double meanings of English innuendo or misunderstanding-based comedy. It’s not that Germans lack a sense of humour or that we have a particularly good one, it’s that the two languages work differently. And if Germans don’t understand us, it’s not surprising that English-language jokes translate badly into Chinese.

In some respects, Chinese humour resembles ours. It has lots of puns, and the Chinese comedies known as “Duikou” use a joker and a straight man, in the style of Morecambe and Wise. But the cultural references simply don’t translate. One joke  in which a woman stands up and sits down repeatedly on a bus hinges on the fact that because Mandarin can be read left-right or right-left, “Stopping at the next bus stop” is easily mistaken for “When the bus stops, stand up”.

But while the cultural specifics differ, humour is everywhere. The anthropologist Donald Brown compiled a list of “human universals” – traits that appear in every culture, from barely contacted Papua New Guinean tribes to New York stockbrokers. Among the 200 or so he found was laughter – and its roots go deeper. In surely one of the most enjoyable pieces of research ever carried out, the primatologist Davila Ross and her team tickled apes, including gorillas, orang-utans and chimpanzees, and found that they responded similarly to human infants: laughter predates humanity.

And, in fact, the things that make most of us laugh are pretty similar, and always have been. Bodily functions never get old: the oldest joke recorded, from 1900 BC, read: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” Chaucer, 3,000 years later, amused readers of The Miller’s Tale with a fart “as greet as it had been a thonder-dent”.

Physical humour translates much better between cultures than do spoken jokes, which is why Mr Bean is globally popular in a way that Blackadder will never be.

Of course, one thing that we all find funny is other people’s embarrassment. Which is why the People’s Daily’s discomfiture – the paper huffily took down its article when the mistake was revealed – has become an international story. Whatever we think of German humour, they would certainly know what word to use for laughing at the misfortune of others.

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