The Translation of Humor and Its Challenges

Whether you want to admit it or not, most of us love a good pun. Puns can be hilarious. In fact, we even frequently use the word “punny” to describe puns that make us chuckle. While this made up word may be hilarious to fluent English speakers, it would leave countless people around the globe scratching their heads, even if it was translated into their native tongue. This not-so-funny issue brings us to the translation of humor and its challenges. 

Why the Translation of Humor Is So Difficult

Humor touches many areas of our lives. From entertainment to advertisements to business relationships. Because movies, products, video games, and educational tools can have a global reach, the translation of humor is often necessary. 

Humor presents a challenge as it is often tied to very niche cultural and linguistic contexts. Some humor is universal, but some is very culturally dependent. This can leave translators with the task of translating humor that is impossible to translate without risking reducing the intended meaning of a joke. 

The Top Challenges

Word play is one of the main challenges that translators face, as many jokes rely on it, yet word play can be lost upon translation into a different language. As mentioned earlier, puns present a particular challenge. Puns use words that sound or are spelt similar, but may have different meanings to humorous effect. For example, the below pun is funny to native English speakers, but would be lost in translation as the word “knights” is being replaced for the word “nights”. In another language, these two words may not have a similar enough spelling or sound to make this joke work. 

Q: Why was King Arthur’s army too tired to fight?

A: It had too many sleepless knights.

There are four types of puns that can cause difficulties in the translation of humor. 

  • Homonymy: identical sounds and spelling
  • Homophony: identical sounds and different spellings
  • Homography: different sounds and identical spelling
  • Paronymy: slightly different spelling and sound


Puns are not the only roadblocks translators may encounter. Allusion, verbal irony,  subtle uses of humor, and cultural references can all fall flat after being translated. Cultural references can cause particular difficulty as pop culture figures, books, movies, or everyday phenomenons may be misunderstood by a foreign audience, making a direct translation not the most advantageous path forward. 

How Translators Overcome These Challenges

For translators tasked with translating humorous text, there are steps they can take to get the job done well and keep the laughs coming. When it comes to jokes that have a cultural divide, a translator may invent jokes that cater to the new target-culture. This can be more effective than simply translating the original joke. Similarly in cases of word play humor, a translator may have to rewrite the wordplay in a way that works in the target language. To successfully translate a joke, it is more important to capture the essence of the original joke than to directly translate it. 

The translation of humor is not a quick and simple task. It can require multiple drafts and countless edits to nail the intended tone and effect of the original jokes. However, it is the role of the translator to bridge differences between cultures and languages. With the proper skill set and work ethic, translators can get their job done and elicit a laugh or two in the process.


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