Humor: did we lose it in translation?

Posted by Athena Parthenos

A common saying states that laughter needs no translation, but how about what triggers the laughter itself? That spark, that special harmony poses one of the greatest challenges for a translator: the translation of humor.

As much universal as individual, and at the same time linked to a specific culture or language, humor has to be translated while taking into consideration many aspects. Will the reader understand the joke? Will the target reflect that same sparkle of the source text? Is there a cultural boundary, and how do I get rid of it?
That’s why, coming across a pun or a joke, some translators may quiver. A supposedly impossible task stands in front of them: translating humor while maintaining as much as possible of its content and, at the same time, generate an effect similar to the one it would provoke in the source language culture.

On the same note, every translator grows up with a famous anecdote that becomes almost like a nightmare: the one about Jimmy Carter’s joke and the Japanese interpreter. In case you’ve never heard of it, here’s a recap: notoriously, during a visit in Japan, president Jimmy Carter opened his speech with a joke. After that, he waited for the translator to announce the Japanese version, and he was amazed by how quickly the interpreter was able to re-tell the story, provoking a huge reaction from the crowd. Carter was curious to meet the interpreter and ask him what was the key to the success of the joke, and the interpreter responded, “I told the audience: President Carter has told a very funny joke, please laugh now”.

Obviously, a translator’s mission has to be the exact opposite of what the Japanese interpreter did. The recipe in order to achieve that mission? A lot of patience and creativity (and possibly coffee, a must have in this industry).

Such ingredients are required the most when translating the so-called “cultural jokes”. With this kind of jokes, we have two options: either keep the cultural context, or replace it with a localized variable. If you want to maintain the cultural flavor intact, you have to understand the risk you’re taking because the reader might not get the joke, therefore it’s a very delicate matter of balance. On the other hand, if you want to replace the joke with a newly invented localized version, the task will require a lot of cleverness in order to instill the exact same tone of the original one. Regardless of the option you choose, there’s only one important mantra to keep in mind: don’t kill the joke by over-explaining it. Footnotes and explanations may seem useful for cross-cultural purposes, but it’s better to avoid them, otherwise we would sacrifice the joke itself and its humorous effect.

Personally, I doubt that one translator could follow just one of the above-mentioned strategies. The spectrum is just too ample to be able to choose one option and stick with it; it wouldn’t make any sense because every single joke implies many different factors. Some involve universal matters, while some others may be exclusive for just one nationality, therefore the translator has to act on a case-by-case basis. There can’t be a philosophy of choice behind our actions and once again we must prove the flexibility of our mind.

When translating a joke, the stakes are as higher as ever, because that’s where the real talented translator kicks in. There’s nowhere to run, and the good quality of the translation depends solely on the creativity of the translator. Do you think you could have what it takes?

author: Vanessa Cornacchia, translator @ Athena Parthenos srl

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