International Business: Sarcasm is never lost in translation: yeah, right!

Published: Friday, Sept. 9 2011 8:57 a.m. MDT

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Some cultures understand satire and sarcasm better than others. Though residents of the United States and other locales like the United Kingdom encounter such humor in everyday life, the tongue-in-cheek approach is quite foreign to other cultures. In fact, many readers may not recognize or understand the sarcasm in the title of this column, "Sarcasm is never lost in translation – yeah, right!"

Baratunde Thurston, Web editor for the famous satirical newspaper, The Onion, illustrated the intercultural dangers of sarcasm and satire in "A Conversation about Comedy and Politics" in 2010 on FORA.tv, when he told of an article in The Onion titled "Congress threatens to leave D.C. unless new Capitol is built." This article jokingly claimed that congress was threatening to leave the city if it did not get a new building with a retractable dome, as if it were a sports team demanding a new stadium.

"This Chinese business paper (The Beijing Evening News)," recalled Thurston, "a really upright kind of (publication), in theory, plagiarized the story. So that was their problem. They plagiarized something that was fake, and they didn't understand the concept of satire when they were stealing – they stole the graphics and everything.

"So, finally it came about that they realized it was false," continued Thurston, "and they issued a statement (basically) saying 'Well, according to our research, some small American newspapers like to publish lies in order to make money,' which was a fairly accurate description of what we do, so I think it was a win-win, weird situation."

The situation became even more absurd when the editor of the plagiarizing paper tried to defend the article's integrity to a Los Angeles Times reporter, saying, "How do you know whether or not we checked the source before we published the story? How can you prove it's not correct?"

From the other perspective, many wondered how the editors and writers at this Chinese publication could have missed that this article was a blatant hoax. The incident emphasized that, to be understood, satire – like sarcasm – requires significant knowledge of language and culture.

The New York Times and other North American newspapers could have avoided a similar gaffe in 1934 if they had better understood German language and culture before reprinting one of Germany's April Fool's Day pranks as if it were fact. Taking a fake photo and caption from the April 1 edition of the German magazine Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, these papers published a photo that erroneously claimed to show a man named Erich Koycher taking flight with a machine that used only the power of the man's lungs for propulsion. The name "Koycher" was reportedly a play on the German word "keuchen," meaning wheeze or gasp – a clear giveaway for a German reader.

This is not to say that people will never fall for pranks or believe satire when it is presented in one's own language. After all, both satire and sarcasm – though different – involve saying or writing something other than the truth with the intent of humorously conveying an inexplicit message. As discussed previously in this column, humor itself is generally difficult to translate, and satire and sarcasm can be equally as difficult, if not impossible, to properly capture.

Understanding this difficulty, international businesspeople should generally avoid sarcasm in intercultural business conversations and written communications. In some cultures, including British culture as mentioned, sarcasm will be readily accepted and understood, even appreciated. However, other cultural climates will be decidedly less welcoming of it. In some of these cultures, sarcasm is taken seriously and thus tends to be offensive, or the concept of sarcasm does not exist and people simply can not comprehend why someone would say one thing and mean another.

For example, various cultural guides will advise you to avoid sarcasm in Jordan, Sweden, Rwanda, Uganda and Lithuania. Guides at CultureCrossing.net will recommend against using sarcasm in some countries, and country insights at Intercultures.ca will warn against it in others.

Personally, I know there have been times when my business associates in Europe, Asia and Latin America have misunderstood my own sarcastic comments. Those situations were awkward at best, and I hope to avoid repeating them.

When studied and applied appropriately, however, satire and sarcasm can be appreciated across languages and cultures. In contrast with the misunderstanding of an article in China, a different story in The Onion "really resonated" overseas, said Thurston in the same panel discussion on FORA.tv.

"We did a story called 'Mexico killed in drug deal,'" said Thurston. "Everybody, just, 111 million people dead in a massive shootout. And that story was picked up by most major Mexican media outlets."

According to Thurston, the Mexican media properly introduced the story, explaining that The Onion is a satirical organization, and readers understood. In fact, the article generated a lot of interest in Mexico and inspired "thousands and thousands" of reader comments, showing that satire can indeed see multilingual and multicultural success.

I could close this column by sarcastically telling everyone to not worry so much about giving offense and to just use sarcasm wherever and whenever in international business. However, even among English speakers, there may be some who might misunderstand me and follow my advice to their own detriment. As it stands, enough readers will be confused by this column's sarcastic title. For that reason, I will play it safe and suggest that, in general, we all benefit from avoiding sarcasm and satire in the majority of our international business communications.

Adam Wooten is vice president at the translation and localization company Globalization Group Inc. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@globalization-group.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten. Subscribe to the International Business Column via email at http://feedburner.google.com/fb/a/mailverify?uri=InternationalBiz.

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