Translating Jokes

Translating humour is hard. There’s no other way to put it. I’m sure there are volumes of academic writing on the subject. I’m not talking about the humour that comes from (mis)translations – I’m talking about translating jokes.

It all started when a tweet alerted me to a joke going around the Chinese interwebs titled A village with only one restaurant. It took me a while to see the joke, the humour and finally the deeper revelations about safe communication between users in an aggressively censorious atmosphere – euphemism and humour become primary in the criticism of the powers that be.

Villager: Why can’t we have more than one restaurant?
Waiter: Our village is in a stage of development where more than one restaurant can lead to chaos, so we only have one restaurant.

Villager: But the food here is really not good!
Waiter: Our restaurant has only been developing for a short time. Even if the food tasted worse than this, at least it’s our own food!

Villager: But can’t it be a little cheaper?
Waiter: That would not suit the conditions of our village; the restaurant also needs to develop.

Villager: But the employees of the restaurant are all driving Mercedes Benz cars!
Waiter: To ensure fair and uncorrupt staff, you need to pay them high salaries.

Villager: But last year, you lent all the profits of the restaurant to another village.
Waiter: This is the village policy, you don’t need to worry about it.

There’s added humour in going to the original site and getting that page translated by Google translate (“Small two: one that their village is nothing good, one that other villages on what is good. Village to sell you a thief! ! !”), but again, this is merely schadenfreude at Google Translate’s expense. Of course, when you actually do want humour from GT, that’s not necessarily what you get.

About 30 seconds of searching though, and the list of links I’ve found on the front page of my Google search was amazingly informative. There’s a couple of posts about humour and the recent Arab SpringHow to translate a joke notes

Is it possible to translate a joke? Of course, but it can be difficult because jokes often depend on “inside knowledge” that has to be explained to outsiders.  As the saying goes, “if you have to explain a joke, it isn’t funny anymore.” Also, what people consider funny can vary from place to place. Consider, for example, how different American humour is from British humour, even without a language barrier to cross.

Which is then re-iterated within the Arab context in the other article, the humourously titled When Translating Jokes, Is It Important to Make the Reader Laugh?

Several of the jokes Salem and Taira used in their presentation highlighted the particular difficulties of Arabic-English translation. One of the “who’s behind Omar Suleiman” jokes, for instance, functioned entirely through a shift from fos7a to 3ameya. Certainly, English has many different registers (one could translate into Shakespearean English, into Black English, into corporate-jargon English) but none of them function quite the same way as TV-broadcasting fos7a and casual-use 3ameya.*

There were a bunch of other links that I’ve excluded due to time and quality, but the Guardian’s take on international performers at the Edinburgh Festival is a good place to finish up, noting that so much of comedy (the long play version of the joke, I guess) goes well beyond the language used to deliver it:

In Italy, says Palmieri, the culture is visual, the comedy more physical – think Roberto Benigni – and deadpan humour is known as umorismo inglese. To Palmieri, the English language is uniquely suitable for verbal humour. “It’s very idiomatic, it contains a lot of polysemantic or homophonic words, which you can play with a lot. The same things that make English difficult to learn are what make it good for comedy.”

The British comedian Stewart Lee once blamed the German reputation for humourlessness on that language’s inflexible sentence structures, which preclude the twist-in-the-tail techniques on which English-language comedy depends. Fortunately, German comic Henning Wehn has never had to translate an existing act into English – like Palmieri, he took up comedy after moving to the UK. The only difficulty he has now is with going off-script. “If I want to improvise, or go off on a tangent, I quickly come to my limit. I’ll make grammatical mistakes, or can’t think of the right words.”

But not being a native English speaker can prove an advantage.

Teeuwen says non-native speakers do comedy “the same way Sinatra sings. He’s very conscious of every word he says, and of the way he places and phrases them. He grooves, but a bit more consciously than most.”


*I tried different encodings for the page, but I couldn’t get other recognisable terms for fos7a or 3ameya, neither of which looks correct nor comes up as an Arabic language when I search. If someone could clarify the meanings or correct terms, I’d appreciate it.**

**This has been cleared up in the comments by gr33ndata, who is the author of the post titled “Who’s behind Omar Suleiman” linked to above.