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Translation Humour

The Tricky Art of Learning how to Translate Humour!

Humour is rooted in everyday communication and plays a vital role in many art forms from literacy to mass media. However, one of the main problems for translators and interpreters is the complexity of humour. Humour is often tied to specific cultural and linguistic contexts. Humour has various levels of applicability at universal, cultural and individual levels. Translators often face the task of having to translate seemingly untranslatable humour, while not reducing the intended meaning of the joke. In 2011 when an Australian news anchor interviewed the Dalai Lama he attempted to introduce the segment with a joke, “The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop and says, ‘Can you make me one with everything?”. An interpreter was standing at the side giving the Dalai Lama some help. However the joke was met with a blank face and confusion. The video has since racked up over 2 million views on YouTube.

This conveys just how hard it can be to translate humorous anecdotes into different languages.  Although humour is common place in everyday life, it is much more complicated as a theoretical concept. Different scholars in varying disciplines from psychology to sociology have attempted to define humour but the results are contradicting and no universal definition has been set. However unlike the field of literacy where there is a need for fine grain categorisation, linguists have often accepted broader definitions of humour. For example whatever makes you laugh or is felt to be funny is humour. Complications usually arise in two differing areas, cultural references and word play. Cultural bound humour often causes problems by losing readers in cryptic allusions or filling the text with explanatory footnotes. Gary Shteyngart the well-known American author explains “nothing is worse than killing your own joke by over explaining it” and then goes on to explain that in an increasingly English speaking world “the best solution may be to let your jokes stand out”. However, David Bellos, a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton suggests the key is to abandon the idea of a strict translation and instead find a joke or expression that has a similar meaning to the original.

Raphaelson-West a language professor argued in her journal article, “On the Feasibility and Strategies of Translating Humour” that there are three general categories of jokes. The three categories include linguistic jokes, cultural jokes and universal jokes. She states that linguistic jokes are the hardest to translate, while universal jokes are the easiest to translate. Take for example the expression “punny as hell” and compare it to the idiom “funny as hell”, of course “funny” and “punny” rhyme. In order to translate this joke you would need an idiomatic expression about humour which contained a word which rhymed with a word which means something about puns or language. Comedian Dan Antopolski award winning joke, “Hedgehogs – why can’t they just share the hedge?” is a great joke but extremely hard to translate into other languages due to the dual meaning of the word “hog”. Unless the translator was highly skilled the humour of this joke could easily be lost and replaced with mind numbing confusion. Cultural jokes are seen as more widely translatable. Imagine there are three countries, X, Y and Z. If country X and country Y both have relations with country Z it is possible for countries X and Y to share similar jokes about country Z. Finally universal jokes are common instances of humour that transcend cultural boundaries.

Translate Humour

Humour is considered a talent related skill as it is hard to teach and even harder to learn. Secondly people have varying tastes in humour. Thus the translation of humour can depend very much on the comedy taste and understanding of the translator. No matter how resourceful the translator, though, there is always limits to how much of the joke you can save. “You try to save as much as possible without driving yourself crazy,” said Ingo Herzke, who has rendered Shteyngart into German.

Luckily at Global Voices we have a sense of humour and so do our translators. At Global Voices we help transcend ideas across borders and cultures. With over 5 years’ experience our linguists have become natural at fluently translating humour and jokes into different languages.


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