The translation of humor

Humour might be one of the most complicated – yet more fun to work with – challenges to deal with when translating a text.

The humour of a story can be the key to its success: think of books such as those by Roal Dahl and David Walliams or tv series like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” or “Friends”. If they didn’t have that element of fun in them they wouldn’t have probably had the success they even maintain nowadays.

But what happens when we translate a joke from a different language into our language? Or even better, how can we translate the humour of another culture into our own culture? Those are no easy questions.

Luckily enough, there is always a way. Humour comes in many shapes: we have jokes, wordplays, parodies, slip of tongues, references, visual humour, etc. If the puns are only linguistical, they could probably be translated without many problems. However, things get more complicated when we add another dimension: culture.

If a pun includes a cultural reference, there is going to be a lot to take into account. We will have to determine whether we want to keep the reference and lose the pun or maintain the humour, but lose the cultural aspect of it. There is also a way to explain the humoristic references by adding a footnote at the end of the page, but that’s not normally used, since explaining a joke tends to supress the funny part of it and because footnotes are generally preferred in editions that have a more academic approach.

Every time we translate we have to think about the readers of our text. Humour seems universal, but each culture understands it in a different way. English humour and French humour is not alike, and even more different is Russian humour, for instance. But if you know your audience you know what kind of humour they are used to. That is why a good translator will always try to keep the humoristical side of the text whilst adapting it to the target culture.

If the author of a book invents a word the translator is free to create a word in his/her target language, since that concept is not culture-bound and therefore the purpose of it is to create a pun, not to inform about it. Take the word “prankification” (which does not appear in the English dictionaries), for instance. In Spanish, we have the word “broma” (prank) and we also form nouns ending in -ación, so one option could be to invent the word “bromificación” (which would be very close to the original word), but the translator can be as creative as he wants and use other options like “bromicidad”, “bromicidez”, “bromicia”, etc.

I always have a lot of fun translating children’s books and it is a creativity boost to get to work on a text that lets you explore the language and its possibilities.

Leave a Reply