Sep 08

Dilbert in China

Written by berlinf on Wednesday, September 8th, 2010 at 10:07 pm
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Dr. Lin Yutang, whose Chinese rendering of humor as 幽默 became the standard translation of the word, once said that “it is terribly serious when our rulers do not smile, because they have got all the guns.”

Dr. Lin believes that if humorists come together in world conferences discussing serious issues confronting the world, wars could be avoided. Here is an optimistic picture he presents for us: “You will find George Bernard Shaw shouting that Ireland is wrong, and a Berlin cartoonist protesting that the mistake is all theirs, and Heywood Broun claiming the largest share of bungling for America, while Stephen Leacock in the chair makes a general apology for mankind, gently reminding us that in the matter of stupidity and sheer foolishness no nation can claim itself to be the superior of others. How in the name of humor are we going to start a war under these conditions?”

Dr. Lin’s conclusion may be too simple and too naïve, therefore it should be appreciated mainly as humor rather than a real political proposal, otherwise voters of nations should choose circus masters to run countries. I think Mao and Stalin both have a wicked sense of humor, but what difference does it make? I think one of the hidden assumptions of Dr. Lin Yutang is that people appreciate and understand each other’s humor. I don’t think that is always the case.

I was recently contacted by a web site to write an article for some translations of Scott Adam’s Dilbert books in China. Instead of one, I gave her three articles, one called “Dilbert Coming to Work in China,” another “Dilbert Laid off in China”, and a third piece a dialogue between Dilbert and myself on why he left China.

What happened was that in 2006, I was asked to translate Dilbert Cartoons into Chinese for the Chinese website of the London-based Financial Times. 200 cartoons later, the editor told me that they would not run any more of the cartoons. I was told that the reason was that Scott Adam’s agency charged them too much for royalties. However that was a time when Financial Times’ Chinese web site was starting to become rather well known in China, attracting a lot of advertisers. I don’t think that financial pressure is the real reason. The cartoons probably failed to capture the hearts of Chinese readers as much as they do the Americans. If they really had attracted Chinese readers, I am sure the site would have done whatever they can to invest in it. So, about two hundred cartoons after I wrote the preface “Dilbert Coming to Work in China”, I wrote “Dilbert Laid Off”. And I moved on to the translation of serious novels, and my sense of humor was also gone.

E. B. White once said: “analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” So instead of rationalizing about the reasons that led to Dilbert’s lukewarm reception in China, I created a dialogue with Dilbert in which I explained to Dilbert that the difficulty for the Chinese to appreciate his humor is the differences in cultural backgrounds. For instance, one of the cartoons obviously has a reference to the “yellow brick road” from Wizard of Oz. I doubt that the average Chinese readers know much about Wizard of Oz, let alone the reference to a particular detail in the book. In the beginning of my translation, I resorted to the use of footnote to explain where these references are from and what they meant. That was a pretty dumb idea. Next time I would rather put a footnote on my T-shirt, than putting it at the end of a cartoon. The annotation simply causes the abruptness, incongruity, and wit in a joke to be gone. Humor works likes a waterfall. There has to be a flow of thought that was suddenly interrupted by a free fall or quick turn into another direction. If you annotate, you messed up the flow and it was no longer funny any more.

Also, I found that there are Chinese bloggers and publishers who interpret Dilbert too seriously, trying to promote Dilbert cartoons as a way to achieve professional success. For instance, what kind of pitfalls to watch for in the cubicle, how do you deal with insane-chicks kind of colleagues, how do you manage Asok kind of interns, how do you respond to Catbert the evil Human Resource guy, etc. Though there were also people who did this in the US, but mostly I think Dilbert cartoons are meant to be ironic. There is a lot of playful curiosity and light-hearted satire about office politics. If one takes these more serious than they were intended, then it is difficult to appreciate the humor in them.

Also, I received some comments from readers that Dilbert cartoons are too “cold” for them. I am wondering what “hot” humor is like. Today I read a collection of Chinese ancient jokes to see what is the nature of our humor. Most of them have to do with word plays, stupidity, sex, politics, and also I found there are also many jokes about hen-pecked husbands (which dominate Chinese Central TV’s short comedies). So far, I don’t see how different these are from American humor. But there are differences. There are more jokes from ancient China related to scholars such as Su Dongpo,and Ji Xiaonan. I don’t find as many jokes about Emerson or Chomsky. I also found that we Chinese were traditionally good at pranks. I always thought that fortune cookie is one of the best pranks in history, for if you go to China you won’t find any.

In America, I noticed that Americans use some rhetorical devices that are less common to the Chinese readers, especially irony and understatement. But here I risk dissecting that poor frog again.

Now, obviously, Dibert is coming to China again after four years, during which we have had the Olympics and the World Expo, events that must have increased interaction between Chinese and other peoples. If such exposure does not change people more fundamentally, I hope it helps Chinese and Americans and other peoples to become more relaxed towards each other – no matter what is happening between Hu and Obama– and can now both enjoy a good Dilbert cartoon. I wish Dilbert better luck this time.

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9 Responses to “Dilbert in China”

  1. Rhan Says:

    I think “cold” here mean not funny, I share the same feeling and most of the time, I could only catch one or none at all of Dilbert humor publish in our English paper every Tuesday. I think the reason is both culture and knowledge. Seem like I appreciate Japanese humor more than those from the west.

    I grow up reading Lao Fuzi (老夫子) and I can’t really tell the difference between joke (hot?) and humor (cold?). Among the many Chinese, I think Taiwanese joke is metaphor while Hong Konger is more direct (except perhaps Stephen Chow), while Mainlanders lacks sense of humor and seldom tell jokes, but improving.

  2. berlinf Says:

    I like the cartoons from Taiwan as well, especially Cai Zhizhong’s stuff. In mainland China, more jokes are related to politics or sex (荤段子)。 The latter, I believe, is the cause to the recent campaign against vulgarity, during which the crosstalk commedian Guo Degang was among those being targeted.

  3. miaka9383 Says:

    Dilbert in China could be interesting. But its dry office humour (aka cold jokes). I would be interested to see how dilbert address the Chinese Office situations. Because I can certainly relate to the Dilbert Cartoons daily

  4. Arsent Says:

    I’m sorry but Dilbert just isn’t funny anywhere.

  5. Gerovital Romania Says:

    I tried reading Dilbert because all my coworkers read it and they find it very funny. I didn’t.

  6. Berlin Says:

    People are on different wavelenghts due to nationality, language, professional backgrounds, etc. So I am not surprised that Dilbert does not make some people laugh. Not all cartoons make me laugh either.

  7. Wukailong Says:

    I wasn’t very interested in Dilbert until I actually began working in a corporation myself. Some of the things are really spot-on, and the classic with Ratbert using the argument “what would you think if Hitler killed you” to win all online debates is a great parody on internet culture.

    I read a Chinese cartoon yesterday about a couple. It’s really funny if you know about local culture, otherwise probably much less so. Humor is really a very local thing, it seems.

  8. oldman Says:

    Pretty surprised to learn that Dilbert survived for 200 runs. Western humour and Chinese humour are light years apart. OK, I’m exaggerating, only an ocean in between.

    An important observation, due to the ‘face’ issue, Chinese people do not self-ridicule. In western culture, office workers would poke fun at oneself or each other over coffee. Subsequently, while reading a Dilbert comic, one can often relate it to office experiences. I don’t think Chinese in China practice that.

    Another point, there is relatively lesser ‘political correctness’ ideology in Chinese society (for now anyway). Guo-de-gang 郭德纲 is a rather high profile comedian in China. He often makes fun, and audience laugh at his jokes of short or unattractive women. My point is, they laugh at different things.

    Pardon my ignorance, I don’t understand berlinf’s “…obviously, Dilbert is coming to China again after four years…”.

    Speaking of Hu and Obama, I don’t think the Chinese political leaders would laugh at the Dilbert – president jokes. For that poor frog, I too, wish Dilbert better luck next time, if only it will be in my foreseeable future.

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