The art of humour translation

Humour is a notorious area of difficulty in translations, as any translator will tell you. So much of humour is derived from double meanings and wordplay, small and subtle cultural references and so forth, which can often mean that it is (or can appear to be) simply untranslatable. This is not hard to understand since a great deal of humour has to do with the language itself, the way one word sounds like another or calls to mind certain associations, which belong strictly within the universe of that language and the culture related to it.

The challenge of translating jokes

But while this may be the case with this particular category of humour, that of double meanings, word-play and so forth, there are of course other forms of humour that may work very well if translated into another language. These forms might include anecdotal or situational humour, which, in theory anyway, ought to consist of universal elements that any human being, speaking any language would be able to relate to and therefore find funny. Of course, there is no guaranteeing whether or not a joke or anecdote will be funny, as humour is entirely subjective. But at least we know that this type of humour is translatable and that we have a good shot of getting across the inherent funniness.

Again, the appreciation of the material might crash into cultural barriers or simply the fact that the recipient has a poor sense of humour! But, from the point of view of the translator, the good news is that it can be translated and at the very least, understood.

But in the case of the first category of humour, what is the answer? For example, imagine the project in question was the translation of a US comedy movie for the Latin American market, either for subtitles, dubbing or both. A huge amount of the humour simply won’t come across and even attempting it would probably be a waste of time and energy. But there is a solution, albeit a little complicated and tricky. In this case, the skills and knowledge the translator possesses of both languages and cultures would be absolutely vital. Since there are usually no direct translations for such things, an effective strategy would be to look at the type of humour and the overall context and style of the writing, and then look for something similar that would work in the target language. So, in this case a great translation job would consist of a skilful combination of direct translations, that work with little to no alterations in meaning, and other material introduced in a more creative manner localised for the audience.

Unintentionally Funny Translations

Ironically though, some of the most hilarious material comes from mistranslations that are entirely unintentional. Take this example of Pepsi slogan translated for the Taiwanese market. In English it reads: ‘Come alive with the Pepsi Generation’ and in Chinese: ‘Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead’! Overselling the product a tad there, perhaps.

Or how about this example from a Norwegian bar, ‘Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar’.

As these examples show, it is often easier to be funny when we don’t intend to be and grimly unfunny when the intention was to amuse. However, while, unfortunately, there may not be any magic formula to make translating humour easy, here at BigTranslation, our team of native translators do possess both the translation skills and the cultural knowledge needed to effectively and convincingly convert humour from language to another. Even where no direct translation is possible, we will ensure that your company is only funny in the way it intends to be! Talent and creativity is something we always prioritise, and we know our translators are capable of putting this to great use on your texts.







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