In literature classes, one of the most difficult things to explain to Chinese speaking students is the difference between “irony”, “satire”, and “sarcasm.” Apparently distinguishing these is not always easy even for native speakers, but on the Chinese side, virtually every English-Chinese dictionary translates these as one thing: 諷刺. Yet the differences are vast.
This came back to me very sharply when my fiction class this semester read the stories “Gift of the Magi” and “The Diamond Necklace”; my question for the reading response began: “These two stories are both ‘ironic’ as we discussed in class…” One student’s response was 這兩個故事說不上是諷刺。比較像是 surprise ending，就是會覺得解果怎麼會是這樣，滿意外的…鑽石項鍊比較偏向諷刺，但是智者的禮物反而沒有諷刺的感覺，覺得有點可愛，好笑.
Naturally the student gets full credit for not cravenly surrendering her reasoning powers to the teacher, but as I said in my comments on the homework: “I said ironic, not 諷刺.” This is what “failure to communicate” really looks like.
Afterthought: Actually, now I’m wondering whether I got this wrong. Is the Gift of the Magi not ironic? We can at least say that, even though Jim and Della’s gifts to each other were useless in the end, they were not totally in vain. The gifts they chose revealed how much they cared for each other, and Jim, for one, took consolation in this. In “The Diamond Necklace”, however, the revelation of the necklace’s true value at the end destroys whatever consolation Mathilde has found. Does this make it more ironic?
In fact, even “The Diamond Necklace” was not ironic to some students, just silly: “Why didn’t Mathilde just tell Madame Forestier the necklace was lost instead of wasting ten years?” Good point. [That’s sarcastic, guys.]