Does comedy work in translation?

Published 30th October 2017
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translation - by Lingua Translations Does the translation of a joke work as effectively as the original?

How often have you sat there and felt completely lost when everyone else is laughing at a funny joke, because the punchline has gone over your head? Probably everyone can say that they have experienced that feeling at least once before.

In an article featured in the Telegraph in August several comedians described their experiences of doing their comedy shows abroad. Some had done so in English speaking countries, which although straightforward to a certain extent, still carried its own problems. The main issue with many translations is whether they are relevant to the target audience. The same is true of comedy. Certain things are universal – it is a pretty safe bet that a dog chasing its tail, or a cat gearing up for a fight against the furry feline in the mirror are likely to raise a few laughs, regardless of which language you speak, but what about more culturally relevant jokes, puns and so on?

Comedians draw on past experiences for many of their jokes, sometimes these are events that people from countries different to the comedian’s own homeland can relate to – politics, international relations, stereotypes, for example – but then there are the jokes that it is more likely only someone who grew up in the same context as the comedian will understand. References to an English children’s’ TV show might be lost on someone from Germany or even America for example and therefore the humour could easily be lost in too. Without the cultural relevance, certain jokes just do not transfer from country to country. The same is true when we try to replicate comedy in translation. Literal translation is not enough because often part of the comedy is the way words work together and play off each other. These same connections may not be present between ‘equivalent’ words in other languages. The key is therefore to find a way of making the same point but in a way that is culturally relevant to the target country. Is this ever truly possible though?

Eddy Izzard, one of the comedians in the Telegraph’s article, learned enough French to present his show abroad, however he found as he worked with script writers and French speakers, that many of his jokes had to be dropped or heavily edited because there was no suitable translation of them. It is of course always possible just to work out equivalent words in another language but that is not translation! It needs to be idiomatic in the target language. This is not always the case in translation, for example with literature some translators believe expressing the original document, no matter how awkwardly, in the target language is the main concern. Others feel that a ‘natural’ idiomatic sounding expression is always the priority. Comedy translation is almost certainly grouped with the latter.

What do you think? Can comedy truly be translated?

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