Anyone who has ever tried to translate a joke into another language in their everyday life knows how hard this task can be. Sometimes, it can be so difficult that we just end up giving up and maybe try to explain why it’s funny. That's a shame: now the fun is all over.
Now imagine you’re a professional translator or an interpreter and you’re faced with the challenge of conveying humorous messages in another language: you really need to find a solution.
But let’s take a little step back and try to have a look at why translating humour can be so difficult. And why interpreting it can be even harder.
Firstly, we tend to see humour as a culture-based phenomenon: cultural references, puns, wordplay and regionalisms are hard to understand without a thorough knowledge of the source language and context. In addition, even something not as obvious as a joke, such as an ironic tone, can be very complicated to render.
Secondly, beneath the surface of chucklesome content lies the author’s very specific intention. Whoever translates the message needs to grasp it very well if they want to avoid any embarrassing slipups.
A solution to this can be transcreation: no matter how badly translators or interpreters want to save as much of the original as possible, sometimes a total change is needed for the joke to be funny in the target language too. In the case of cultural references, a “quick” fix is to find an equivalent reference in the target language but… does it always work? When the cultural context of the original is very well known, such as the United States in Friends, replacing cultural references could be anomalous. Could you imagine one of the characters making a joke about one of your country’s politicians? It would seem totally out of context, even if you’re watching it dubbed.
Another technique, the opposite of transcreation, would be explanations: keeping the literal meaning of a hilarious sentence at the expense of the actual fun. As you can imagine, this technique is not very widely used.
In written texts, an added challenge is when wordplay is associated with images and videos. In audiovisual translation (for dubbing and subtitling), high levels of creativity are fundamental to maintaining the humorous purpose.
As for oral speeches, especially when interpreting in simultaneous mode, translating humour requires very quick thinking, a deep understanding of cultural specificities, experience and creativity, all at the same time. Anyway, let’s face it: sometimes it is indeed impossible. But good interpreters often have a few tricks up their sleeves. A well-known example is the Japanese interpreter who interpreted during President Carter’s visit to a college near Osaka. If you’d like to know more, this anecdote is worth being heard directly from the horse’s mouth.
This brief overview about translating humour was based on the books and articles listed below. If this article has piqued your curiosity, you can read more by clicking on these links:
Humour: A real puzzle for translators | The UNESCO Courier
The Challenges of Translating Humor - The New York Times (nytimes.com)
The Importance of not being earnest; humour across frontiers: make laugh(ter) not war - UNESCO Digital Library
Translating Humor Is A Serious Business – American Translators Association (ATA) (atanet.org)
Nolan, James. Interpretation: Techniques and Exercises. Multilingual Matters Ltd, 2005.