Is Translating Humour As Complex As It Sounds?

By: Cheryl

By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

“I told the audience, ‘President Carter told a funny story. Everyone must laugh.’”

This is an authentic quote from a Japanese interpreter who once worked for Jimmy Carter, former president of the U.S. In 1981, when the president visited a Japanese college to give a speech, he decided to break the ice with a joke. In response, what he received, in his words, was the best response he’s ever had in his life. Later, when he questioned the interpreter about how he was able to communicate the joke so accurately, the quote above was the answer he got.

As funny and astonishing as it sounds, it’s, in fact, a common and sometimes advised practice for interpreters when simultaneously interpreting jokes that are non-translatable. In a WIRED video produced in collaboration with Barry Slaughter Olsen, a conference interpreter and Professor of Translation and Interpretation, a similar example of this “Please laugh” scenario was also given and demonstrated. It seems to be a universal consensus among language professionals that jokes and humour, in general, don’t translate well; and an interpreter must do whatever they need to make sure the conversations flow smoothly.

Contrarily, how do jokes translate when put into written forms? Without the limit of time for information digestion and with the visualization of words spelt out, could humour translation be any different?

The short answer to this question is yes. In an academic paper, “Humor Translation in Persian Subtitled Comedy Movies into English: A Case Study of ‘Lizard,’” the authors mentioned three broad categories of humour: universal jokes, cultural jokes and linguistic jokes. Universal jokes, as the name suggests, are self-explanatory and can be understood worldwide. Cultural jokes are the inside jokes of a specific culture and are hard for outsiders to understand. Linguistic jokes, the category which puns fall, involve differences in lexicon, grammar, expressions and wordplays that are exclusively understandable to the speakers of the language in which the joke was told.

To translate these three different types of jokes, there are a few strategies. The first one is literal translation. Universal jokes, as well as some cultural jokes, can all be translated literally without losing their flavour. The second strategy is called substitution. When it comes to jokes related to a culture that people in the target language will have a hard time understanding, translators need to find an equivalence in the target culture and creatively substitute the joke. The key to substitution is to capture the essence of the original joke, rather than translating directly. For example, places like “Saks Fifth Avenue” can be swapped to an expensive mall where high-end products are sold, and “Twitter” can be substituted with another social media platform where a lot of debates and arguments take place. Linguistic jokes that involve idioms and old sayings can also be substituted with similar sayings (that perhaps contain different metaphors) in the target language.

When there’s no exact equivalence, sometimes translators are allowed to make up a new joke in the target text, such as in the anecdote at the beginning, to achieve a similar effect that the original joke would make. The last strategy, which happens when the translator really has run out of options, is to delete the joke entirely. This happens often when jokes are funny in the original context but are considered taboos in the target culture. When subtitling American stand-up comedians, removing sexual humour is a frequent instance of this sort. For linguistic jokes that are untranslatable, such as translating a misused pronoun or article to a non-gendered language or translating honorifics to a non-hierarchical language, the joke will sometimes have to be omitted.

When it comes to literature, there’s also another route for translators to go. The beauty of literature translation, compared to conference interpretation and audiovisual translation, is that not only are there no more extended time limits in which readers have to be able to understand the text simultaneously with the visuals, but also the vast liberty to add and read footnotes. Footnotes can be used for a wide variety of purposes, from explaining the source language’s culture, to recalling background information that was published in a previous issue, or to spell the words used for puns letter by letter. This use of footnotes is particularly common in translating Harry Potter from English to Chinese. Due to the nature of Chinese being a non-alphabetical language, a wide range of wordplay in the book, from the origin of Lord Voldemort’s name to the Weasley twins’ ear-related jokes, are explained in the footnotes. Though the quality of joke was somewhat impacted, this strategy allows literature to be translated in a more authentic way that’s loyal and respectful to the original copy.

Translation is a miraculous art of human communication. The translation of jokes and humourism bridges people from different cultures all together through laughter, happiness and appreciation for one another. As a reader, do you remember the last translated joke that you read? As a language professional, have you encountered humour translation? What’s your favourite strategy for translating jokes? Let us know!

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