Putting the 洋 in 洋蔥
By Lucas Klein, published July 20, 2009, 1:38p.m.
I've been a casual follower of Chinese - English and English - Chinese translation issues involving The Onion (America's Finest News Source) ever since a 2002 article about American Congresspeople wanting to move from the Capitol building was re-printed in the Beijing Evening News 北京晚报.
Then there was the report from the Onion News Network about China becoming "the world's number one producer of air pollution": "It is a very proud day for my country," says the ambassador from China.
And now The Onion reports that it has been sold "To The Chinese."
I suppose we could look at this issue from any number of angles. The biggest question to me is whether the humor of The Onion in this case comes from mocking American prejudices and fears about China, or whether it contributes to those prejudices and fears about China--or is it trying to have it both ways? (I think these are the questions that, on the level of race relations in America, prompted Dave Chappelle to leave his show).
I think we could argue that for a long time. But what I'd like to mention here on Paper-Republic is the language issue, and how The Onion represents the Chinese language, and what that has to do with translation.
I'll probably have to think about this more, and leave some of the pontificating or conclusion-reaching to the discussion that I hope takes root in the comments section, but I want to make some observations:
First, we seem to be free of "Charlie Chan-style" broken English. That suggests that we're in the realm of presenting proper translation rather than presenting bad speakers of English.
Second, the way that ideology is presented through language is patent: look at the English of the "Publisher Emeritus" in explaining his sale of the paper.
Third, translation and ideology seem to come together in representations of "translationese," or in this case that form of writing that comes out of hasty Chinese - English translation, which seem to base their humor (and I do find it funny) on a presentation of a foreign (in several senses) ideology in an otherwise recognizable language. Take a look at the web page for Yu Wan Mei 鱼完美, or Amalgamated Salvage Fisheries and Polymer Injection Group, the Chinese company that is supposed to have purchased The Onion. To me, it reads like certain kinds of contemporary American avant-garde poetics, maybe even Flarf.
But then the translatability, or commensurability--or what one scholar has called "fungibility"--of all languages (or at least Chinese and English) enters the equation, too. Click on 简体中文 on the Yu Wan Mei site, or view "China's Andy Rooney Has Some Funny Opinions About How Great The Chinese Government Is", and, if you know Chinese, see what happens when something written in English to represent Chinese translation is then "back"-translated into Chinese for effect. As for that effect, for most of The Onion's audience, random Chinese-sounding noises could have sufficed, but The Onion bothered to go through the trouble of having Chinese speakers write and record a Chinese "source" text against which to write the English "target" text. I for one find the effect very confusing: I want to laugh at what's going on in the English, but what's going on in the Chinese (strange misuses, obvious Americanisms--in the Rooney segment particularly--conducted in Chinese, and so on) throw me into a spin. It's all very complicated.
And, to get back to the question about the ethics of this, I wonder about whether this all can help us get past some of our cross-cultural misunderstanding and prejudice of each other or not (and it is "each other": one Onion report, again focusing on language, reports, "Potato-Faced Youngster Lauded For Memorizing Primitive 26-Character Alphabet"). In the 1980s critic Li Tuo 李陀 spoke a god deal about how the language of Obscure Poetry 朦朧詩 broke through the Maoist ideology of what he called Maospeak, or the Mao Style 毛文體. Is that what The Onion is doing here, or is it doing the opposite? Or is it trying to have it both ways?