in Language & Culture

“A dyslexic man walks into a bra.” If you told this joke, some would chuckle immediately, while others might gaze at you with a blank stare. While joke telling and humor can be difficult enough to master in one’s native language and culture, the task becomes exponentially more problematic when translation comes into play. Jokes typically require a certain level of cultural understanding, and when your audience comes from a range of different cultures, much can be lost in translation. In today’s Simply CSOFT, we’ll take a look at the intricacies of cross-cultural joke telling and how it is affected by cultural and linguistic specificities.

Language of Laughter

A well-known saying goes, “humor does not travel well.” It is so difficult to translate due to its reliance on cultural context and “insider knowledge.”  For example, in the entertainment world, comedians who rely heavily on parodies often fall flat in front of international audiences due to their references to popular social, political, and sports celebrities from their home countries. Another example of a culturally-based joke-telling style is the use of idioms. Idioms are tricky because understanding them is based not solely on interpreting the words themselves, but requires a cultural understanding to decipher their meaning. Consequently, translation often fails because of one of two factors: perplexing references or clumsy explanatory footnotes.

On the linguistic side – closely linked to culture – it is important to look at the style of joke telling and the role it plays in translation. Traditionally, in British and American-style humor, puns andpeelback-and-revealhumor are popular; the vital aspects of the joke are not revealed until the end of the sentence. However in Germany, for example, this style of humor is difficult to translate due to differences in grammatical structure. The composition of German compound words and sentence structure make it nearly impossible to mimic this joke-telling style. Linguistic differences also throw a wrench in translation when plays on words and sounds are used. Take for example, this excerpt from the sitcom, Friends, which uses a mondegreen (a word or phrase that is often misheard) to play on the possible confusion of “omnipotent” and “I am impotent.”

Monica: Hey, Joey, what would you do if you were omnipotent?

Joey: Probably kill myself!

Ross: Joey, uh…OMnipotent.

Joey: You are? Ross, I’m so sorry.

If this joke were to be translated, especially into a language where ‘omnipotent’ had a completely different pronunciation, it would require so much explanation that the joke would cease to be funny.

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So it seems there is no perfect science to translating the language of laughter. Ultimately, it involves practice, some luck, and the ability to create an environment of humor and levity. The best translations of humor are often transcreations, when the “perfect translation” must be forfeited, and instead replaced with a joke that conveys the same meaning as the original but in a way familiar to the local culture. In the end, as a translator, the realization that sometimes you simply have to let a joke go is the key to holding on to one’s own sense of humor.


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