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Laughing matter: how to translate jokes

Heard the one about the translator who walked into a bar? OK, maybe not, but how you’d translate the joke into another language would depend on the punchline. Does it play on words or offer a sly nod to a cultural reference point? Perhaps it elicits laughter by conjuring up the absurd?
Translating humour can be fiendishly hard. Luckily, an armoury of tricks and tools is available to translators to help tackle the task.
First, it helps to understand what sort of humour is being used. Humour can be broadly divided into three camps:
  1. Universal humour. This is easily understood across cultural divides and is straightforward to translate. It often uses absurdity, exaggeration and understatement, among other rib-tickling strategies.
  2. Wordplay humour. This is where humour translation gets very tricky. Punning is the most common form of this genre, but other examples include spoonerisms and anagrams.
  3. Cultural humour. Also hard to translate, this basically refers to ‘in-jokes’ for a given community or nationality. A cultural joke might poke fun at a certain social group, for instance, or refer to a TV character.
Much of the time, a translator’s job will be to translate the humour, rather than the precise words of a joke – if they are translating a novel or film script, for instance. They are, thus, likely to need comedic skills as well as translation prowess: creativity, concision and perfect phrasing are key.

Funny crested macaque

As for the translation side of things, the following strategies suggested by Peter Low, a translation researcher at the University of Canterbury, may help:

Replicate puns where possible (and it sometimes is in closely related languages).
  1. Use a similar sort of humourous device instead. You might replace a pun with a spoonerism, for instance.
  2. Create a new pun which has some conceptual connection with the original.
  3. Substitute the joke with something completely different, but equally entertaining.
  4. Don’t translate the joke, but place a similar form of a joke in a nearby sentence.
  5. Don’t worry about reproducing the humour, but point out when something is a joke (“that’s very droll in Chinese”).
  6. When all else is lost, ignore the joke and translate it straight.