Who Wants You to Be a Millionaire

by Translation Guy on June 25, 2010

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.


  1. Frizzlsnits says:

    An estimated 80 percent of the private enterprises and commercial banks in Russia’s major cities are forced to pay a tribute of 10 to 20 percent of their profits to organized crime…crazy

  2. Living it says:


  3. Marshall says:

    This guy is a moron

  4. tracker690 says:

    Who knew that the Russians were so mean?? Well, I kinda did already… but this is worse than what the KGB usually do!

  5. Idka says:

    Here’s one Frenchmen that needs to stop drinking his fine wine.

  6. Mike R says:

    Ah! Ils parlent français! Je ca veux voir plus tard…. je vais à l’école en quelques minutes.

  7. Gordon says:

    That picture isn’t the Frenchmen, who is this guy?

    • Ken says:

      The photo is an American contestant who recognized (and resembles) Munch’s “Scream.” No relation to the story.

  8. Emily Ross says:

    What the…!?! How can that many people be that stupid? No way!

  9. Lucas says:

    Oh mon dieu! Il est tres stupide! Meme ma soeur sait cela!

  10. Olivia Hussy says:

    You mean the Earth is not at the centre of the Universe? When did this happen?

  11. Ryley says:

    See! non Americans can be stupid too!

  12. Mia says:

    I thought Greece was always at the centre of the Universe! :-)

  13. Cindy L says:

    … and Latin

  14. Sam says:

    I see some of the people speak the French language here.

  15. Gene B Lyon says:

    I’m totally loving the new way

  16. Execute him and all the people who knew things were going wrong, and flat out decided to continue drilling in the face of eminent disaster all in the name of GREED! BP will NEVER be able to compensate for he most catastrophic environmental disaster of modern times, let alone the huge loss of livelihood for thousands of families, and the lives of millions of wildlife. I used to be one of those who subscribed to the “drill baby drill!” idea, but that’s over. Govt. and big buss.Just can’t be trusted to do the right thing. The GREED will always get in the way.

  17. Svanberg is a swedish businessman, not an english teacher. It’s rude and very bad taste to make fun and take advantage of some else’s bad english. What if people from England and US started to make comments in french, spanish, chinese, or swedish…

  18. Boycotting BP hurts the service station owners more than the BP company. Our economy is just now getting better and we don’t need to put more Americans out of business. There has to be a better way to handle it.

  19. Who knew that the Russians were so mean?? Well, I kinda did already… but this is worse than what the KGB usually do!

  20. If he had said “The little guy,” nobody would be squawking.

  21. You know what makes me so angry, is that WE “Americans” gave Haiti 100 MILLION dollars, while China only gave 1 MILLION,. Am I the only one that see’s this pattern?? Don’t get me wrong, I think its absolutely HORRIBLE what happened to those people, and their families,. I would not want to go through all that pain and suffering, I do not wish any harm on anyone. All I am saying is why don’t we have fundraisers on American Idol, or commercials asking for donations, or on iTunes for every purchase, etc. etc. etc, but instead of giving it to ANOTHER country, give it to OUR country. To the homeless and hungry on the streets, to the efforts to clean up this spill, or to re-build homes from 8 YEARS ago from hurricane Katrina that still need help!! We NEED to take care of OUR people before we start over-extending ourselves to other countries. PERFECT EXAMPLES!! Katrina: NOBODY helped us, Oil Spill: NOBODY is helping us! Yet we are the first to always help others (yes that is a good moral, but our country needs help!) Just expressing my thoughts, it is an OPINION, and I know that there will be some that do not agree, but just hear me out, I am in-titled to an opinion, as are you and I am NOT forcing this point of view on you, just putting it out there, Thank you for your time.

  22. But but but what about haiti?

  23. He should do a charity fundraiser where people donate to provide relief to gulf residents in return for him saying more hilariously stupid things on national TV. I want to hear him say with that deep heavy Swedish accent “stupid is as stupid does”!

  24. wow nice topic here discussed by you people , thanks buddies for sharing such good news.

  25. irraduasp says:

    Very Interesting!
    Thank You!

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