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You have to feel a little sorry for those fellows over at the Beijing Evening News. Here they are a global laughingstock, and they still don’t get why. But was it altogether their fault? Those of us who have tried and failed to comprehend humor, let alone satire, in a foreign language are privately thinking, “There but for the grace of God go we.”

To recap what happened: First, the popular state-run paper published a “report” gleaned from the Internet that the U.S. Congress was threatening to leave Washington unless it got a brand-new Capitol building, complete with a retractable dome and luxury boxes. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was quoted as saying that the Capitol was “no longer suitable for a world-class legislature. The sight lines are bad, there aren’t enough concession stands or bathrooms, and the parking is miserable.”

It seemed like a good story. Unfortunately, the Evening News’ reporter, having missed the stadium-size gag that cast Congress as a baseball franchise, also failed to note (a) the story’s source, a well-known American satirical tabloid called the Onion, and (b) the fact that no other major newspapers or wire services appeared to have detected it. The Evening News ran the story straight, until, within hours, its gaffe was exposed by a Los Angeles Times correspondent. All of a sudden, the Evening News was the story.

It doesn’t end there. Told that it had been taken in by a none-too-subtle spoof, the paper at first tried to maintain its dignity. It refused to run a correction and challenged the Los Angeles Times reporter to prove that the original story was fake. Only after the entire international journalism community had fallen down laughing did the Evening News’ editors huffily, reluctantly, admit a week later to having published a story containing “factual inconsistencies” about the state of the U.S. Capitol.

But it wasn’t their fault! It was the Onion’s fault! “According to congressional workers, the Onion is a publication that never ceases making up false reports,” the Evening News solemnly explained to its readers. Why, just last week it was telling people that the U.S. government had issued life jackets to all Americans. Later it reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had added a “fixin’s” food group, including “fried onions, cheese sauce, and bacon-smothered mushrooms,” to the USDA Food Pyramid, out of deference to the nation’s current eating habits.

Who can tell which of these stories is true and which false? They might be true, mightn’t they? And if they aren’t true, why does the Onion publish them? The Beijing Evening News knows why: “to trick people into noticing them, with the aim of making money.” Clearly, the Onion is a dangerous and seditious publication, deliberately sowing confusion in the minds of its readers, not to mention the minds of innocent foreign news editors unused to such deviousness.

It’s an amusing tale, certainly, and it’s easy to mock the Chinese editors’ earnest incomprehension of the Onion’s mild satire. Too easy, perhaps. The truth is, satire has historically met with just such a reaction. Think back to Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal of 1729,” still the gold standard in English satirical writing; in it, he advised the famine-stricken poor of Ireland that if their children were becoming burdensome they should eat them. Swift, who was satirizing English hardheartedness, was naturally seen as a monster of cruelty and depravity by many of his liberal-minded English readers.

And that was by people reading him in his own language. It’s a quantum leap from that to trying to grasp satirical or comic intent in a foreign tongue. Remember those passages from Voltaire’s Candide that you had to translate in school? With your nose in the dictionary, all perspective lost, did you actually distinguish Candide’s insane optimism from the philosophy Voltaire was satirizing? Then there were Aristophanes’ so-called comedies. In translation at least, they weren’t exactly laugh-out-loud funny, were they? Nor is it just a literary phenomenon. The communication barriers are ubiquitous in daily life, too, fouling up everything from cross-cultural jokes to foreign reporters’ jobs.

Of course the Evening News reporter should have known better, but it’s easy to see how the mistake happened. Not only was the man obviously unfamiliar with the Onion, both its genre and its history, he didn’t read the Capitol spoof in the print edition, where he might have been alerted to its satirical nature by layout, typeface, ridiculous headline size and so on. He read it online, where the quantity of information can be so overwhelming that stories often seem to blur into one another. There is admittedly less excuse for his editors. Still, it might not do to laugh too hard until we can be sure we would catch on to a similar spoof in Chinese. The Beijing Evening News should try its hand at one sometime. It might find a whole new audience.

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