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Can humour ever translate into other languages?

In China, puns have recently been banned on the grounds that it breaches the law on standard spoken and written Chinese. The country’s media watchdog have argued that puns make promoting cultural heritage more difficult and can encourage “cultural and linguistic chaos”. The ban has drawn criticism from activists who argue that puns are an intrinsic part of Chinese heritage.

Although banning puns seems incredibly harsh, it did get us thinking. The use of wordplay, puns and humour can be dangerous, particularly for businesses who are translating content into another language.

Why marketers need to care about translating humour

How does humour work abroad? It’s a question that marketers everywhere have to ask themselves before launching an international campaign.

Humour can be a particularly useful tool for businesses trying to portray their brand in the best light. A study by market research firm Lab42 revealed that 71% of consumers found funny ads the most memorable. Communicating through humour, especially language-focused humour such as puns, can be incredibly complicated in foreign markets.

With an international audience it can be very very difficult to gauge what will be offensive, what will be effective and what will translate into something completely nonsensical. As KFC found when they launched their marketing campaign in China. Hungry consumers were not informed that KFC’s fried chicken was “finger lickin’ good”. Instead, they were implored to descend into self-cannibalism by a campaign which told them to “Eat their fingers off”.

Translation mistakes are all too common when businesses assume that foreign customers will hold supposedly universal beliefs that turn out to be anything but. Even nations that share a language have different cultural reference points. A commonly used example is the UK and the USA; although English is the predominant language in both nations, humour doesn’t always translate well across the pond.

Someone who has made audiences laugh on both sides of the Atlantic is comedian Ricky Gervais, who told Time magazine that it’s hard to know why some comedy just doesn’t translate. He states that “There’s a received wisdom in the U.K. that Americans don’t get irony. This is of course not true. But what is true is that they don’t use it all the time.”

Can humour ever be translated?

Despite these translation disasters, it is possible to be funny in two separate languages. A master of this is the comedian and polyglot Eddie Izzard.

Izzard has toured in several countries, delivering his show in English, French, German and Spanish. He plans to tour in Russian and Arabic in the future.

In this clip the comedian contemplates how jokes translate and points out that certain jokes don’t work in different languages. For example, a joke in which he uses a Yorkshire accent doesn’t work in French for obvious reasons. However, the joke: “Caesar, did he ever think he’d end up as a salad?” works equally well in both German, English and French.

They say that one sure way to kill a joke is by explaining it. However, it is important to understand why something is funny when translating. The reason this Caesar joke worked is because people in Germany, France, and the UK all share the same reference points, and know that Caesar is both the name of a Roman Emperor and a popular hors d’œuvre.

International marketing is slightly more complicated. The University of San Francisco won plaudits in 2012 for a humour-laden advertising campaign that bragged of “academic standards steeper than this hill.”

It was delivered for residents of San Francisco who were well aware of the local terrain. It worked well, but the campaign wouldn’t work if aimed at international students. Humour relies on a shared understanding of cultural references. To market abroad, you often have to adapt the humour, or decide on far more neutral content.

Translation services are vital when translating humour

Although it can be an undertaking fraught with difficulties, studies have found that most humour is translatable. Eddie Izzard argues that the idea that nationality has any effect on sense of humour is a fallacy. However, two kinds of humour prove particularly difficult, ‘cultural-specific humour’ and ‘language-specific humour’. Even Eddie Izzard has each show transcribed by a translator in order to avoid any cultural misunderstandings.

Wordplay, puns and jokes can be exceedingly difficult to translate. Many companies have been stung because they’ve tried to do translation on the cheap. However, you shouldn’t be deterred from communicating in different languages.

Working with a native-tongue linguist with an in depth knowledge of local culture is the best way to ensure the humour isn’t lost in translation. Our professional translation service can help your business communicate in foreign markets and make sure that if your audience is laughing, it will be for the right reasons.

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