If you work in the translation or interpreting industry, you can’t fail to have spotted the story this week about a joke that definitely got lost in translation. It all started when The Onion named North Korean leader Kim Jong Un its Sexiest Man Alive for 2012.

Now, you probably already know that The Onion is a spoof newspaper, much like Private Eye in the UK. It only prints satirical stories, such as ‘New Season of Downton Abbey Jumps Forward to Year 2121’.

Unfortunately, Chinese publication People’s Daily missed this point and published the story as fact. Not only that, but it also compiled a 55-page photo spread of images of Kim Jong Un under the headline ‘North Korea’s Top Leader Named The Onion’s Sexiest Man Alive for 2012’.

The fact the original article in The Onion used decidedly tongue-in-cheek language failed to translate to the journalists at People’s Daily. This is despite the original article claiming: “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.”

Since realising its error, People’s Daily has pulled the photo spread and its report on the ‘accolade’. However, it goes to show that even some of the world’s most well-known news providers can get duped by a good joke – and we can too.

The joke’s on you

No date presents more of a risk to journalists than April Fool’s Day, when daily newspapers and even television shows get in on the act. In 1957, the BBC’s Panorama famously fooled countless viewers into believing Swiss farmers were having difficulty harvesting all the spaghetti they had grown that year. Indeed, to work as a journalist on April Fool’s Day means to navigate many potential traps, as businesses get in on the act by releasing press releases filled with hidden hoaxes.

However, The Onion’s Kim Jong Un spoof was hardly subtle, particularly when you take into account how every story on the site is satirical. So maybe the reason People’s Daily failed to see the funny side is because jokes are notoriously hard to translate.

Language Insight has written about this before, while comedian Stewart Lee is another person to discuss this difficulty. Back in 2006, Lee wrote in the Guardian that one reason it is tricky to translate a joke to another language and culture is because of different language structures. Much of English humour relies on the set-up and reveal system, where a story is split into two halves. The listener is led to assume one conclusion by the set-up and the humour comes from the reveal being something else. For example: “A man walks into a bar and says ‘ouch’.”

Lee explains that in some languages, this does not translate. For instance, often to translate such a joke into German would mean moving one of the main words used in the reveal to earlier in the sentence, thereby changing the structure and effect. Another problem is that so much of English humour depends on words having multiple meanings, which again is not the case in other languages.

Something we can all laugh at

Perhaps that explains why Mr Bean is popular all over the world. Millions tuned into watch Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony in July, but the peak in viewing figures was recorded when Rowan Atkinson appeared as Bean playing Chariots of Fire with the orchestra. The humour of Bean is non-verbal and as laughter is one of the major bonding experiences of the human species – and all the great apes – watching him attempt to play along to the Vangelis classic is something we can all appreciate, no matter what language we speak.

Why not share your favourite joke below?