While living with the Swedish owner of the only Irish bar in Guatemala, ‘Johan’ mentioned that first thing he ever remembered finding funny was the Swedish Chef. To the undiscerning eye the Swedish Chef might appear to be a joke at the expense of Swedes. But as a child ‘Johan’ had understood the Swedish Chef for exactly what Jim Henson intended it to be – a joke about the things that translate oddly in transcultural and translinguistic exchanges.
For those of you who have never experienced the Swedish Chef it is perhaps best to watch a snippet before going any further:
The Swedish Chef is primarily a slapstick take on TV chefs. Central to each sketch is his inability to successfully cook the dishes (largely consisting of a still-living animal or vegetable puppet that gets the better of him and survives death) while he sings a song which ends each verse with ‘bork, bork, bork!’ This is conducted with unconventional cooking equipment which he generally throws around while cooking. He speaks in what is best described as Chef-speak – a nonsensical Swedish strewn with occasionally identifiable English words making it near comprehensible in a way that replicates that uncanny feeling of nearly understanding what’s being said while listening to people speaking another language.
‘Bork’ in this context is just a word that when said in a heavy comedic Scandinavian accent sounds funny. But the repetition of ‘bork’ over and over again makes you question what it means. The fact that this is gibberish lends it the meaning an unknowability that gives the word ‘bork’ an ineffable charm. It is a word that is purely nonsensical, but in a loving way that points towards a childish joy in the fact that people speaking other languages sound funny. The Swedish Chef is not a joke about Swedes being funny but about the liminally alien nature of other cultures being funny. Similar comedy can be seen in The Simpson’s Bumble Bee Man (a riff on the cross cultural oddness of El Chapulin Colorado from Mexican TV).
Occasionally such humour can lead to accusations of racism. The more articulate accusations thrown at Sasha Baron Cohen’s comedy foreigner Borat closely echo the criticism Chinua Achebe made of Joseph Conrad – “To use me as a symbol may be bright or clever, but if it reduces my humanity by the smallest fraction I don’t like it” (Achebe interview with Caryl Phillips 2003).
But as a child ‘Johan’ saw Henson’s sentiment in it’s totality: in recognising ‘that’s what Americans think Swedes sound like’ came the recognition that there is something profound lost in cross-cultural translation. I would add the anthropological addendum that trying to minimise this loss is profound, interesting and very often funny in itself.
It is for this reason that this blog has the syncretic name ‘The Golden Bork’ – one part Frazer’s The Golden Bough married with an equal part nonsensical Muppet-Swedish. Here we take ‘bork’ to mean the ineffable, light-hearted funny side of cross-cultural exchange – while Frazer stands for something loftier.