Wick Communications

Lost in translation

In Uncategorized on 30 Nov 2012 at 10:29 am

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By now you probably saw this breaking news from The Onion:

The Onion is proud to announce that North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, 29, has officially been named the newspaper’s Sexiest Man Alive for the year 2012.

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.

I’m sure you instantly took it for the joke that is. But what if you didn’t? What if, say, you were an editor at The People’s Daily, the semi-official English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party?

The Chinese editors took the whole thing seriously. They ran with The Onion report and included 55 – 55! – photos in a slideshow that captured the supreme leader of the Chinese ally in all his appeal. It showed him reviewing troops, riding a horse (actually he was sitting on a horse while staring thoughtfully at the middle distance), sharing a laugh with people who weren’t laughing. I’d share the link, but the killjoys at The People’s Daily took it down after it became clear they had been had.

There is a point here. Obviously, there is a cultural misunderstanding involved in the Sexiest Man Alive thing, but I think this particular international incident points to the limits of written humor. You have to know it’s a joke to call it funny. In the case of The Onion, its domestic audience gets the joke. That is clearly not always the case overseas. …

Many, many (many) times I have told our online commenters that their attempts at written humor missed the mark, not because they are lost in translation. The most obvious reason is that humor is hard. Everyone thinks they are funny; few of us really are. It is also partly because writers, as opposed to, say, George Carlin, don’t have the benefit of physical cues. Readers can’t see the smirk or the raised eyebrows or other tips that the comedian is making with the funny.

So remember Kim Jong Un next time you want to write something satirical. Before putting pen to page, ask yourself if the audience will get the joke.



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