Translating Humour

Translating Humour

In my last article, I was talking about some of the difficulties of translating children’s books, one of which was humour. As humour is an important ingredient in the universal recipe for writing successful children’s books, but is not used exclusively by them, I’ll try to expand on the difficulties of translating humour, in general.

First of all, humour is different from one culture to another. I mean, what people in one country, region, population, religion, etc. find funny may not seem funny at all to people in another country, region, population or religion. Here’s a good example provided in an article on this theme by Day Translations:

Ask your average Englishman his thoughts on American humor and the chances are he’ll scoff at its lack of subtlety. Ask the same question to an American of British humor and he’ll say it’s too dry and lacks punchlines. Neither the American nor the Englishman can fathom how the other manages to laugh at what seems to them to be unbearably boring and uninteresting jokes. And that’s between two countries that both speak English! Now add on a language barrier and try to imagine how many people will be laughing at your favorite jokes.

Consequently, when translating humour, the translator must take this aspect into account and adapt the joke accordingly, if possible. Otherwise, the target audience may miss the intended meaning, be puzzled by it or even feel offended by it.

Second of all, the rendition of humour from one language into another may be restricted by various factors and conditions. For example, specific references to objects, places or names in the source text, which are included in word plays that do not make sense in the target language, and which cannot be changed to obtain the same effect. Similarly, restrictions such as rhyme, rhythm and length in poems, or puns, drawings, etc. may make the translator’s task more difficult than usual. Thus, translation becomes at times an almost impossible task for translators, who are compelled, to the extent this is possible, to keep both the humour and the informational content of the source text into the target text.

But how exactly do translators do that? And thus we get to the third aspect of this short analysis: the methods of translating humour.

One thing is for sure: this requires a great deal of creativity, from finding correspondents, if any, or similarities, to creating a whole new joke or word play, with some or much of the same effect.

Here are a few paraphrases and excerpts from a very interesting article on this subject published in The New York Times, which may give you a few ideas:

David Bellos, a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton, argues in his book, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything,” that the trick to translating humour is to abandon the idea of perfect fidelity and instead try to find a joke that rings some of the same bells as the original.


As with serious prose, it’s no coincidence that the best translators are among the most enthusiastic readers. “I feel that when the translator is laughing, the humor will manage to get across,” the Greek translator Myrsini Gana said.

(…) However:

No matter how resourceful the translator, though, there are limits to what can be faithfully done to elicit a laugh. “You try to save as much as possible without driving yourself crazy,” said Ingo Herzke, who has rendered Shteyngart into German. But, he admitted, “More often than not you have to let a joke go.”

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