Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Who Wants You to Be a Millionaire
June 25, 2010 - By: - In: Translation - 27 comments

In France, the sun revolves around the earth. This according to the audience of Qui veut gagner des millions, the French version of the game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Regardless of the country it’s shot in, the show follows the same insufferable format: contestants answer multiple choice questions that get harder and harder as more money becomes at stake. If contestants are stymied, they can use one of three lifelines: call a friend, narrow down the answers, or ask the audience.

Recently, a contestant named Henri sailed easily enough through the first few painfully easy questions, but his boat got hung up on the anchor chain when he was asked, “Qu’est-ce qui gravite autour de la terre? (What revolves around the earth?)” The choices: A) The moon,  B) The sun, C) Mars, D) Venus. (A note to readers: Stay with me on this. I don’t want you jumping ahead to see if you got the right answer and spoil the narrative flow of this post. Oh Damn! I just did it myself with this comment. Sorry. Now, where was I?)

Right, Henri couldn’t decide, so he asked the audience to vote for the right answer. Wisdom of crowds and all that. Just one problem. It was a French crowd.

As the audience voted, the camera panned over a sea of faces brimming over with Gallic disdain for Henri’s failure. As the tallies were posted, the host observed that the results were “quite divided.”  Only 42% voted for the moon, and 56% voted for the sun.

Ori and Rom Brafman, from whom I cribbed this story out of their book Sway, argue that the audience chose the wrong answer not out of astronomical ignorance, but out of a fundamental sense of French fairness. The audience reached a collective decision that it would be unfair for such an imbecile to win a million dollars and, therefore, Henri had to be stopped. And that is what happened when he followed the advice of the audience and was booted off the show, much to the amusement of those who had deliberately provided the wrong answer.

But before readers start posting rude remarks about the French (too late, since our metrics indicate that commentors who like to write rude remarks about the French usually read only 350 words of a post before they start typing anyway), consider the Russian version of the show, where would-be millionaires have learned to avoid the kindness of strangers, since Russian audiences often deliberately provide incorrect answers to sabotage a contestant reaching out for help. A Russian historian, Geoffery Hosking, speculates that this behavior is born from the long history of communalism in Russia, which existed long before the commies took over, when individual responsibility was a collective chore, and those who rocked the boat made everyone else tipsy. Russians see the would-be millionaires on the show getting rich off the backs of audience members, so why help them along when you can take them down a peg or two?

American values are the opposite, and resentment against the rich is probably a lot less common (unless you got rich off BP).  American “Millionaire” audiences give the right answer indiscriminately because that’s just fair. Or at least that’s what’s fair in the USA.

Interesting to note that, while perceptions of what is fair vary from culture to culture, punishment is a human universal. Cross the line and, well, you’ve crossed the line.  Punishment is swift, sure, and gleefully given regardless of what language you speak.

What does this have to do with translation? Just that translation doesn’t always translate. If our core values are different, then the message, no matter now meticulously communicated, may create quite a different impression when the audience views things differently. Marketers take note, or you may find yourself on the wrong side of an irate audience.

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