Translating humour

Published 27th September 2011
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Translating Humour – less than humorous!

Pick one of your favourite jokes in your own language. Now try to recount it in another language you know without modifying the humorous elements. Having problems? Don’t worry; humour is notoriously hard to translate. In fact, it’s said that humour, along with poetry, is one of the most difficult genres to translate. This is because of the complexity when transferring the required humorous elements from one language to another, especially between languages ​​that belong to very different cultures.

Sometimes a joke is simply impossible to translate since it completely loses its meaning out of context. This would be the case with jokes referring to any typical aspect of a community, or using words with several meanings in the language of origin, or word games. All we can do in these cases is to look for something at some point that will make a similar impact on the TL audience.

But humour is especially tricky to translate not only because languages work in different ways, but also because of the fact that different people and different cultures find different things funny.

At this point, we must be especially careful when it comes to cultural differences, particularly those topics or aspects of life that are funny in some countries and /or cultures, but that might be considered inappropriate, or even distasteful in others, which would meant that the joke completely loses its appeal. A clear example of this is the case of religions. In Western cultures it is common to make jokes in which God is named, while any kind of joke related to this issue would be considered as a grave offence in Islamic countries.

So, how should we translate jokes? If we choose to remain as faithful as possible to the original, we risk losing the element of humour. Another solution could be the use of an explanation, but it is likely to ‘kill’ the joke. If we decide to create a new joke, then the original comic’s voice might be lost. Is it actually possible to create an equivalent phrase in the target language that conveys the same original meaning whilst remaining humorous?

There are numerous studies about this issue, which generally all come to the conclusion that, when translating humour, it’s vital to first study the culture of comedy or humorous jokes in different countries. More importantly, however, they also demonstrate that the quality of this type of translation depends on the creativity of the translator. What’s sure is that translating humour is a very challenging task that definitely tests the research skills, understanding and interpretation of any good translator.

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