Humour: A real puzzle for translators

Cultural by essence, humour is not easily translated from one language to another. To maintain the spirit of the original joke, the translator needs to show a great deal of inventiveness.

Marina Ilari
Spanish translator specialized in creative translations and video game localization. She is the chief executive officer of Terra Translations and co-host of En Pantuflas, a podcast about translation.

What makes you laugh? What you perceive as funny can vary depending on unique characteristics such as age and personality traits, but culture and language are also key determining factors. Humour is an integral part of the culture in which it was created and as such, it can be one of the hardest things to translate.

Because humor is often related to language itself – for example puns, regionalisms, wordplay, and cultural references – the literal translation of a joke would most times fall flat or be incomprehensible. To maintain the spirit of a joke, the translator is faced with the dilemma of preserving the original meaning (such as keeping the literal word-for-word translation) or adapting it completely into another language. The idea is that the translator will create something new, but by keeping the emotion and intention of the original content.

Transcreation is often necessary for the translation of humor

Transcreation is often necessary for the translation of humor. However, since wordplay is verbal wit based on the meanings and ambiguities of words, and the way words sound and are written vary from language to language, it becomes challenging for the translator. For example, let’s take a look at the following joke which contains a wordplay in English:

Last night, I dreamed I was swimming in an ocean of orange soda. But it was just a Fanta sea. 

In order to translate this into another language, the translator might have to think about a new joke entirely. They could strive to preserve some element of the original text, for example another joke about a drink, since creating a new pun or a new wordplay might be the only way to make sense of a joke like this.

What do you meme?

Have you ever had someone explain a joke to you, why it’s (supposedly) funny? American writer E.B. White once wrote that “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”

Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process
E.B. White, American writer

This quote illustrates what might happen if the translator opts for explaining the joke in a different language. It could be linguistically interesting, but it ultimately kills the joke. A footnote or an explanation might not even be possible depending on the type of content, such as, for example, subtitles of a movie or the voiceover of a video game.

To add to the translator’s challenge: what happens when the joke is bad? Should the translator transcreate it into another bad joke or create something funnier? This is a common dilemma, and the answer usually lies in the author’s intention. Perhaps there is a reason for the bad joke, making it essential for translators to convey that intention in a different language. On the other hand, if the author’s intention was for the audience to laugh, they must strive to ensure the translation has the same effect.

Nailing the pun-chline

When adapting content that has to do with language itself, the translator must try to preserve something of the original joke. This is especially important if the joke has an image or a sound tied to it, like in the case of multimedia content. 

Let's apply this idea to a scene from the 1984 American action-comedy film Top Secret!, where the two protagonists are approached by someone speaking German. The hero apologizes and says that he doesn’t speak the language, but the heroine responds, “It’s alright. I know a little German... he’s sitting over there.” She points across a crowded restaurant and a very short man in traditional German attire stands up and waves. I used to watch this film growing up with my family and this joke always got me. In English, the phrase ‘a little German’ can mean more than one thing: that you have a passing command of the German language, or that you know someone who is of short stature and of German heritage.

However, how could it be conveyed in other languages when there is an image to match the dialogue? Challenges related to matching the context or text with an image or sound are adaptations that only the most creative and ingenious translators are able to resolve.

Don’t pun-ish the audience

Just as the messenger and the message are important in the translation of humor, so is the target audience. For languages that have different variants or dialects, knowing the intended target audience will determine what terminology the translator can and cannot use.

If they’re translating for a broader audience, the translator will need to avoid using specific colloquialisms or regionalisms. This adds an extra layer of challenge to the adaptation since regionalisms spice up the language and help you connect with a specific audience. The age of the target audience will also need to be taken into account, since translating content for children is considerably different than translating for an older audience. For example, we would not be able to use inappropriate language or intricate vocabulary.

Making a joke work for a specific target audience requires inventiveness and resourcefulness. Humour is commonly related to language itself: the way words are written or sound, and the way they mix together. Additionally, each culture has its own unique sense of humor that is tied to its history, traditions, values, and beliefs. Oftentimes, this means that only people from a specific culture are able to understand a joke or find it funny. Finding the right words to preserve humor in a target language really is an art form and a massive challenge for the translator.

Translation: from one world to another
April - June 2022
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