Laughter shouldn’t be lost in translation

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 19, 2013

With another Winter Olympics starting in Sochi, Russia, in a few weeks, it is time to recall unique moments in Olympic history. Surely on the short list would be the ceremonial torch relay for the summer games held in Melbourne, Australia, in 1956.
As it happens, I was at the time a little Aussie boy dreaming of one day winning Olympic gold in the fidgeting and lollygagging events, which were my strengths. Perhaps in the hope of broadening my horizons, my parents took me to see the torch being carried through the city of Brisbane on its way south to Sydney and then Melbourne.
When the flame arrived in Sydney, the mayor greeted the torchbearer, took the torch and began to read his prepared speech to the waiting crowd. But somebody noticed a problem. The mayor was not holding the Olympic torch but a wooden chair leg with a plum pudding can attached, in which a pair of kerosene-soaked underpants were burning with enough smoke but insufficient ceremony.
Then the real runner arrived with the real torch. The university students who pulled off the hoax had disappeared into the crowd. Thus are great Olympic moments born, thus is pomposity defeated.

Given Vladimir Putin’s ill treatment of gay people in Russia, perhaps the friskier type of students there will recruit transvestite imposters to take part in the curling events — they must know something about curling, what with their elaborate hairdos, and besides, nobody will notice because all eyes will be on the brooms. Failing that, maybe rogue choirs can sing a medley of show tunes instead of all those anthems.
We can only live in hope. As an encouragement, we can contemplate one of the unique moments in the annals of memorial services for great statesmen, thanks to the bogus interpreter for the deaf employed at the ceremony in South Africa honoring Nelson Mandela. In the presence of world leaders including President Barack Obama, the interpreter made all sorts of gestures signifying nothing.
At this point of the column, the question must be posed: What is it about the Southern Hemisphere that makes absurdities seem so natural?
Further, at this point of the column, certain disclaimers must be entered:
(1) This is not an attempt to make fun of Thamsanqa Jantjie, 34, a likely gold medalist for worst interpreter in the world. By his own admission, he has schizophrenia and is violence-prone. But this doesn’t mean everybody who is schizophrenic is violence-prone or given to bogus interpretations in front of large audiences. No, if I wanted to pick on the mentally challenged, I would have the whole U.S. Congress to work with.
(2) This is not an attempt to denigrate the memory of Nelson Mandela, truly a noble soul. It was appalling that someone should mar his memorial service with such antics. Indeed, much of the commentary about this incident has been suitably solemn, citing the alleged security threat, the embarrassment, the affront to dignity and South African national pride.

What has been largely missing is any acknowledgement of just how funny this was. Come on, look past the troubled individual to see the hilarity. Here was pomp defeated by circumstance. It could only have been funnier if smoking underpants were somehow involved.
And I suspect that Mr. Mandela himself might have enjoyed the moment. It’s funny, but all great men (and women) seem to have one thing in common — a sense of humor. For the benefit of my conservative pals, I will note that Ronald Reagan had a great one, and Winston Churchill possessed an extraordinary wit.
As another example, Mahatma Gandhi actually said: “If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.”
Another thought that tends to mitigate the offense of the faux interpreter: This sort of thing happens all the time in the more humble world. Many people wave their arms around and convey gibberish, and not just for the deaf. I have been accused of this myself.
For my money, the main offender is Rush Limbaugh, a gasbag taller than Mt. Olympus. Recently, he asked himself the traditional question, “Is the pope a Catholic?” and decided that no, he wasn’t, he was a Marxist. This is world-class gibberish — a giant slalom that avoided all obstacles such as facts and reality. Mr. Limbaugh may not have made ridiculous empty gestures as he spoke into the hateophone, but it is very likely his cheeks oscillated.
Sometimes it takes a hoax to wave away our human pretensions, for in the end — as was long ago written — all is vanity.
Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.