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Joke Translation Is No Laughing Matter

By Alison at Accredited Language
Posted on Friday, July 8, 2011
Category: Translation, Translation

Joke translation is so difficult that it tends to make for more confusion than laughs.

Translators and interpreters attempting to convey a joke from one language into another have a huge number of pitfalls to watch out for. Some types of humor simply don’t translate well into other languages, as one journalist discovered when he tried to share a joke with the Dalai Lama during an interview.

The journalist’s joke was simple enough to a native English speaker: The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop and says, “Make me one with everything.” But the joke didn’t translate so well, leaving the journalist embarrassed and the Dalai Lama questioningly waiting for a punch line he assumed must still be coming. Even with the help of the onsite linguist, the joke’s interpretation didn’t work.

Pitfalls of Joke Translation

Wordplay is one element that makes jokes difficult to translate. This Wellerism (named after Samuel Weller from Charles Dickens’s “The Pickwick Papers”) is a good example: “‘We’ll have to rehearse that,’ said the undertaker as the coffin fell out of the car.” It’s necessary to grasp the double meaning of [rehearse/re-hearse] for the humor to come across here — and it’s unlikely that this kind of clever wordplay can be preserved in another language.

Another problem stems from the cultural references that are often a key component of jokes. Referencing English-language television shows, pop stars or political figures can make for a great joke — but it’s going to fall flat in a translation to another language if the listener isn’t familiar with the reference! So how can joke translation conquer such pitfalls?

Ways to Successfully Translate Humor

To get around cultural references, translators and interpreters may be able to localize the joke by finding a suitable equivalent in the target language’s cultural sphere.

Wordplay jokes are a bit trickier to translate. It’s unlikely that the joke can be preserved without lengthy explanation, and one of the surest ways to kill a joke is to try to describe why it’s supposed to be funny.

In some cases, it’s best to simply skip the joke or find a different joke altogether that will work for the target audience. There’s no point in using a joke translation if it’s going to require footnotes and a primer on popular culture.

Since wordplay and references don’t necessarily make it across the language barrier intact, substituting a joke for a completely different one in the target language is usually a good compromise.

Types of Humor That Don’t Translate

Certain types of jokes also just can’t survive in other languages. I wanted to tell some Italian friends of mine a very simple knock-knock joke recently — and was surprised to learn that they (though they both speak English very well) had never heard of a knock-knock joke! I spent about ten minutes explaining the English-language knock-knock phenomenon and demonstrating with examples before I could even tell the joke.

Sarcasm and irony are also tricky: use of these humor tactics can differ from one culture to the next, and — in some cases — can even be lost on audiences altogether. If you have ever personally experienced any barriers to humor or joke translation, tell us about it in the comments!

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