Translating Humor

Translating Humor: Achieving the Universal Chuckle

Category: Language, Translation Services

Here’s a challenge for all of you who speak more than one language.  Pick one of your favorite jokes in your native tongue, one that usually gets a good laugh, and recount it in another language without embellishing the humorous elements. Limited success? Not a surprise. Humor is so very hard to translate.

If you’ve ever watched a subtitled comedy in a movie theater with natives, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I remember watching an American comedy in a movie theater in Bordeaux a few years ago, and feeling rather sheepish when my hysterical, resounding laughter met total silence.  Finally, towards the end of the film, I had grown so embarrassed (it seemed I was distracting quite a few individuals from enjoying the film), I attempted to stifle my cackling with a scarf, to no avail. Now one could deduce from this scenario that I have a very strange sense of humor, but (luckily) the film was a huge success in the States, leading me to believe that it’s more of a lost-in-translation issue. I walked away from the cinema with two observations: that the level of (American) English in that movie theater was modest at best, and that the subtitles were poor renditions of American humor.

The “funny factor” is the result of a complex mélange of cultural and linguistic references (customs, taboos, allusions to local persons, places and things) using idioms, jargon and codes that the out-of-towner will find hard to decipher. Humor tends to be loaded with references to aspects of the source culture that often don’t have equivalents in the target language. What tickles the funny bone of an American may not even make a Frenchman from Bordeaux crack a smile. And even within a given language, local culture has an impact on what is considered funny — which is perhaps why “The Office” has both an English and American version. So when attempting to translate humor, is it more important to stick to the literal content of the message, or can a little artistic license be employed in the hope of achieving the intended effect — teasing a chuckle out of the target audience?

Let’s consider three types of jokes: universal (subjects that are incongruent, unexpected, exaggerated, etc), cultural (ethnic jokes, etc.), and linguistic (puns).

  1. Universal humor needs the least amount of adaptation. The oldest known jokes date back to 4,000 years ago and are so visceral that they would still get a laugh in most cultures today (favorite topics included body odor and physical ailments). Just as certain gestures and facial expressions seem to make a baby smile in any country, these basic, often bodily themes are an unwavering source of laughter across the globe.
  2. Cultural jokes, while often outrageously hilarious, are usually inappropriate and offensive and should, in general, be avoided in the context of both dinner parties and your ad campaigns, whether for domestic or international markets. Unfortunately, two of the richest sources of humor – politics and religion – fall into this category. Humor that is deeply rooted in culture does present numerous translation challenges but we’ll skip over that here as this humor is not relevant.
  3. Puns are probably the most difficult to translate; they are also the most prevalent in ad campaigns and creative marketing material. For example, imagine the following pun on a billboard advertising computer e-learning software: “Talking to her about computer hardware, I made my mother board.” It just so happens that in English, “board” and “bored” are pronounced the same way (homophones). I venture to say that the majority of Americans would get this pun; many would even find it mildly funny. However, if I were to translate this into Italian, bored would be written annoiata and motherboard scheda madre; the sentence still makes sense but it has completely lost the funny factor. So how can a translator reconcile these differences and create an equivalent phrase that conveys roughly the same meaning while remaining humorous?

The most important element to consider is the desired outcome – which is a clever, witty message that makes readers  (or listeners) laugh and also strikes a memory chord so that they will remember the product or service advertised.  Finding the words to do this in the target language can be tricky, but with a little artistic permission, an equivalent can usually be crafted. Because of the ‘crafting’ part, this can be considered transcreation — the content in the culturally and linguistically-adapted message is not just a massaged version of the original copy — it is fresh and original.

Due to the technical challenge of translating humor, two linguists are often required to come up with the new message – the first would be an expert  and native in the source language, and the second, an expert and native speaker of the target language (though ideally the linguists would speak both languages). The icing on the cake would be that both linguists also have an acute sense of humor.

So as you are looking to go global with an ad campaign, website or marketing message of any sort, make sure your translation US partner is committed to preserving the inherent humor in your slogans and creative copy across all target languages. It may take a gifted team of linguists, language leads, translators, editors, reviewers and testers to make your message funny across the globe, but with the right resources, you can rest assured that the chuckle will not be lost in translation!

Photo Credit: Tommy Wong