The Chinese Don't Get Dilbert?

Sep 20, 2010
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Dilbert is coming to China again, after a four-year hiatus. Will the Chinese get American humour this time round?




Dr. Lin Yutang, whose Chinese rendering of humour 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 humour 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 humour 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 humour, 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 humour. 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. Two hundred 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 humour was also gone.

Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.

E. B. White once said: “Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” So instead of rationalising 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 humour 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. Humour 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 anymore.

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 humour in them.

Also, I received some comments from readers that Dilbert cartoons are too “cold” for them. I am wondering what “hot” humour is like. Today I read a collection of Chinese ancient jokes to see what the nature of our humour is. 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 humour. 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, Dilbert 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.


This post was originally published on Fool’s Mountain in September 2010.