Putting the 洋 in 洋蔥

By Lucas Klein, published

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?


# 1.   

In case anyone needed more evidence that much of the humor of this Onion issue is based on language, and our associations with and sensitivity to it, I just noticed this quote, from the article whose headline claims: "China Strong":

As of press time, the brute and inexpressive English language could not convey the full magnificence of China, nor its excellence in every arena, nor the protective warmth of the red sun that shines forever on its borders, nor the innumerable glories of its Great Leaders.


Lucas , July 20, 2009, 7p.m.

# 2.   

Holy crap, 鱼完美 has a website!! This is brilliant.

Eric Abrahamsen, July 21, 2009, 3:08p.m.

# 3.   

If there are any non-Chinese speaking readers following this thread, I want to point out Lucas' clever title: Putting the YANG () in YANGCONG (洋蔥):

The Chinese word for "onion" - as in the round, white, layered thingie you put on hamburgers - is yangcong, or "western scallion". Chinese onions - what we in the west call "scallions" - are just cong or dacong (big cong) in Chinese.

So Lucas' title can mean "putting the WEST back into the WESTERN SCALLION" or, if you prefer, "putting the WEST back into the WESTERN ONION".

Trust me, it's a good title. Way funnier in Chinese. Probably way funnier than it was before my attempt to explain it.

Whoops. Sorry, Lucas.

Cindy M. Carter, July 21, 2009, 5:57p.m.

# 4.   

The Onion and their brilliant Yu Wan Mei Amalgamated Salvage Fisheries and Polymer Injection Group website is clearly poking fun at bad translation and certain conventions in Chinese biz-society-gov't-internet-media, but it's done so well and so knowledgeably, I doubt anyone - at least anyone with a sense of humour - will be offended. I predict this will become a big thing in mainland China, and may inspire some even more irreverent spin-offs. How can you not love these bits (from the Fisheries website, above):

  • Yu Wan Mei Loyalty Bracelet Show your loyalty to Yu Wan Mei and its line of products in a high-fashion way! The bracelet looks so nice for men or women—even the GPS chip inside is designed with an eye for style. Do not remove the Loyalty Bracelet.

  • Yu Wan Mei Miscellaneous Flavor Paste Any meal or food can be a better meal with the magic touch of the Miscellaneous Flavor Paste spread on it! It is strongly recommended that you buy two, because of the compelling power of this product.

Also note the list of their (purported) subsidiaries:

SmarTack: Pixelated Pushpins For GPS Maps / Tian Slag Import & Export / Industrial Dye And Pigment Recovery / Children's Adhesives / Mr. Yum Purveyor Of Large Seasonings

This website was so hilarious, in both Chinese and English, that it poked my eyes out and punctured my spleen.

Seriously...the sockets of my eyes are empty and I've got way too many red blood cells running through my veins.

Cindy M. Carter, July 21, 2009, 6:20p.m.

# 5.   

I've just spent the last half hour rolling on the floor laughing - what a beautiful, careful piece of ridiculous comedy!

It's not just racist drivel, I think. I agree with you that language reigns supreme in this bizarre project, and I would suspect that the people who'll find this funniest might actually be bilinguals of all kinds, especially Chinese-Americans with decent Chinese. I mean, did you notice the secret messages in Chinese in the rolling "newswire"? One says:


and there's another that says:


...it goes by so fast I had to take a screenshot to read it!

All hail America's Finest News Source And Salvage Fishery.

长舟丫, July 21, 2009, 7:40p.m.

# 6.   

It's a step beyond translationese, I think. The type of state media it's parodying has adopted the forms and patterns of infelicitous translations to be used natively by people writing original English-language Chinese media. I think that lends itself more readily to parody than poor translations themselves would.

The conglomerate's website actually seems more reminiscent of Japan Inc. parodies in the 80s and 90s than of recent Chinese outward looking corporate propaganda.

jdmartinsen, July 22, 2009, 2:08a.m.

# 7.   

And the Taste Stick - the scientific version of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans...

Anna Chen, July 22, 2009, 7:51a.m.

# 8.   

Well, either the writers at The Onion decided they needed an escape route to next week's issue, or else their sale to Yu Wan Mei really didn't work out.

In an article entitled Why Did No One Inform Us Of The Imminent Death Of The American Newspaper Industry?, the purported CEO of Yu Wan Mei claims that he had thought that Yu Wan Mei "was moments away from resounding triumph, from expanding once more and growing in both size and influence." Then he writes, "But now, desolate unhappiness."

With these quotations, it's pretty clear that the writers are still playing the in-translation joke. Throughout their reports, and especially in the copy of the Yu Wan Mei webpage, the writing laid out that particularly Chinese conglomeration of single-party dictatorship and big business capitalism (leading one writer to claim that China was run by "an extreme version of the Republican Party").

But in this installment, there's a bit too much emphasis on tropes like this:

Great shame must now consume those who kept silent about the 87 percent decline in newspaper readership nationwide. Great shame must now consume those who did not open their lips before our dealings were done, and allowed the industrious and cherished Yu Wan Mei Group to sink itself like a granite stone.

Sure, they throw in some Chinese-centered quips into the mix, such as

Honorable men—trusting titans of Chinese industry who valued their advisers as their own sons—were told of the high price one could charge for the free press, of the brand loyalty and reader subservience such a venture would bring.

But to my mind, all this talk of shame and honor makes me think they're confusing their image of China with an image of Japan (cf. JDMartinsen's response, above). And why? Because we can't keep our images of different Asian countries and cultures straight? (the same lame fact seems to be why we have the same racist slurs for Koreans as we do for Vietnamese). In this article, I find it a bit harder to agree that they're making fun of racism as much as perpetrating it.


Lucas , July 24, 2009, 8:08p.m.

# 9.   

I think it's less a case of "all Asian countries are the same" and more that the demands of satire require a recognizable target. Chinese government propaganda is fairly well known because of the Olympics and the responses to all of the quality crises over the past year or two, but I don't think there are many ready models of Chinese companies embarking on international acquisitions. (Lenovo maybe, but I don't remember much rhetoric from that situation. And most of the rest of the major cases, like CNOOC, have been arms of the government.) Japan is pretty much the only model for foreign capital taking over the US. And as a bonus, its government-speak hasn't made an impression at all.

Here's the thing: Hu Jintao had the whole country going on about shame and honor just a few years ago, and there continues to be debate over the proper attitude of the wealthy toward corruption and greed. Shame was a big part of the fallout of the milk scandal last year, and of the donation controversies following the earthquake. But none of that penetrated the American consciousness, so "shame" still conjures up Japan.

So suppose The Onion actually wanted to satirize the Chinese version of shame (and I'm not saying that's what they're doing in this case). If it inevitably elicits familiar images of Japanese corporate culture in the minds of most of their readers, are the parodists still to blame for blurring the distinction between Asian countries?

jdmartinsen, July 25, 2009, 1:43a.m.

# 10.   

or rather, "satire of language requires a recognizable model," in the first sentence.

jdmartinsen, July 25, 2009, 2:02a.m.

# 11.   

Oh, yes, the 八榮八恥... I'd forgotten about that.

I think your question is a great one, over whether parodists are to blame for blurred distinctions on the part of the audience. It's really another version of a question we should be more familiar with, about intent and reaction.

But I'm not here to lay blame to The Onion; I'm just kind of interested in how things play out. And what I see here is that tropes of Chinese culture are not as legible to mainstream America as tropes of Japanese culture, and as a result certain Japanese tropes end up standing in for Chinese tropes (because they provide a "recognizable model," even if an inaccurate one). It's not racist per se, but racism does play into it.

Anyway, we seem to have a very complicated system here beneath The Onion's humor: government, capital, and cultural tropes that may or may not be accurate or understandable to The Onion's readers. What I like about it all, though, is that linking all these strands together is the representation of language in translation, which I think is a testament to the potential power in what we as translators do.


Lucas , July 25, 2009, 4:10p.m.

# 12.   

Found this post trying to find a decent translation for Yu Wan Mei...

While I find most of the comments and the article sounding very erudite (not speaking any Chinese myself, either Mandarin or Cantonese), I think part of the point being missed here is the current debate (in America) by the various news organizations WRT "stealing content" by Google, Yahoo, etc. Taken from that particular viewpoint, the whole angle of Chinese -> English -> Chinese becomes even more hilarious.

While I'd definitely agree with many of the points and parallels being made about Japan Inc., I see this more as "we started here, went here...and then the floodgates opened." I swear, the people at the Onion must be the kind of people I love to work with--like kids (in terms of enthusiasm) with quite a bit of brains. In a lot of ways, it's like Trey and Matt @ South Park--"I have an idea, let's see how far we can take it".

Either way, it's funny as all hell. And thanks for the help with translation (though you didn't really give one but gave me enough to go on).

Tom, July 26, 2009, 11:06p.m.

# 13.   

Hi, Tom--

Yu Wan Mei, written 鱼完美, would probably best be translated as "Fish Perfection." It's conceivable--albeit rather weird--as a name for a Chinese brand (probably not a company), but it doesn't exactly mean "Amalgamated Salvage Fisheries and Polymer Injection Group."

Aside from that, though, I think it's a great observation that "stealing content," or even intellectual property, is a live issue in this issue of The Onion, and one that becomes all the more intricate when you throw in the question of translation. I guess the question of ownership becomes all the more ripe for humor when you start asking what it means to own something of a language.


Lucas , July 27, 2009, 3:22a.m.

# 14.   

Like the best of the Onion, this recent parody was done with just enough "inside knowledge" to be funny "both ways" -- ie to people who know a little about the subject and to people who know nothing.

I'm reminded of the seminal "God Answers Crippled Boy's Prayer: No, Says God" headline. Funny if you know nothing about religion, even funnier if you were brought up in a religious household. It's not just a slur.

Similarly this is funny for the know-nothing never-been-to-China American college student which is clearly the primary audience, but it's done with enough care to be funny to those of us who've lived here.

I will admit my first reaction was "this reads just like the China Daily of the late 90s"...

Shannon, July 27, 2009, 6:46p.m.

# 15.   

Haiyan Lee wrote up a nice piece on this called Brought to You by the People's Republic of The Onion for The China Beat.

Matt, July 28, 2009, 7:53p.m.

# 16.   

Who can resist the lure of Yuwanmei? Here are some possible translations, sound-alikes and piss-takes.

Yuwanmei (鱼完美)

Consummate Fish

Impeccable Fish

Ultimate Fish (this moves us away from the original, but it's a great band name.)

Sound-alikes for Yuwanmei--

鱼丸美 Great Lovely Balls of Fish

愚顽美 America: Ignorant and Stubborn

愚晚美 America: Your Ignorant Pupil

Total mockeries--

玉腕美 Gee, You Have Such Lovely Pale Jade Wrists

YOU完美 You Rock (Alt text-message translation: "U R D Bomb.")

Cindy M. Carter, July 28, 2009, 8:04p.m.

# 17.   

"愚顽美 America: Ignorant and Stubborn"? "愚晚美 America: Your Ignorant Pupil"? What are these? I can tell you that these are not Chinese to English... nor English to Chinese... no matter how hard you try.

Chinabirds, August 20, 2009, 9:29a.m.

# 18.   

I do try very hard...particularly when it comes to maintaining a sense of humour.

Cindy M. Carter, August 22, 2009, 12:53p.m.

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