Humor in Translation Explained

by Translation Guy on October 29, 2012

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. An Australian news anchor walks into a morning show interview with the Dalai Lama. He tells the Dalai Lama a joke. “The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop and says, ‘Can you make me one with everything?’” The Dalai Lama, hearing the joke through a translator, doesn’t get it. Hilarious. I guess you had to be there.

The awkwardness of cross-cultural contact is always good for a laugh, intentionally or otherwise. Which is why the general rule for translation is “no jokes.” To make a joke work multi-lingually, you’ve either got to be lucky or pack a heavy information load to schlep humor across the language barrier. Nothing is as unfunny as a joke that tries too hard, translated or no.

Princeton professor David Bellows, author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear? believes that there is a place for humor in translation. He was interviewed recently by Joshua Kaufman in the New York Times. “The received wisdom that you can never translate a joke is worth examining a bit more closely,” Bellows says.

According to Bellows, the key to a good joke in translation is to skip translation accuracy and go for the punch line.

Hoffman writes, “By this standard, many simple punch lines, from the morbid to the absurd, are not that much harder to translate than the weather.” That is, unless you run into some obscure cultural reference or wordplay. In the translation business, it’s called “inside baseball,” which is an in-group reference that leaves everybody else out in the cold. Personally, I’m quite good at that since people often tell me to have no idea what I’m talking about. That’s inside baseball for regular readers of this blog.

So the challenge of humor in translation is the same as the monoglottish variety – a joke explained is no joke at all.

That rules out wordplay, of course. Puns are certainly the lowest form of humor spoken in any language. This is a fact that a lot of punners do not seem to understand, and why sign language comes in so handy. (Handy, sign language? Get it?)

And it goes without saying, that the lowest form of punning is multilingual punning. I have seen roomfuls of drunken Japanese diplomats going on endlessly in this way, and I assure you, it is absolutely insufferable.

Next question. Can jokes be improved through translation?

Hoffman’s cites a literary example translated from English to German: A wild man has a fresh goat laid out for his dinner every day. One day he goes back to the usual spot and finds it “goatless.” Nice turn of phrase in English, sort of. But “goatless” is not a word that works in German. The translator topped the original author with his own creation, ziegenleer, “a lofty-sounding melding of goat and void with no exact equivalent in English.” Those of you who speak German will find it amusing, I guess. For those who don’t, it’s funny because… well, never mind.

Kudos to Hoffman for a really charming and funny review.


  1. Wilber says:

    Ken, your little friends are wrong. Puns are not the lowest form of humor. Dumb, strained, overly academic, juvenile (poopy-head), and lame jokes of any genre (nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more) are the lowest. And an endless orgy of samples of low wit, by drunks or teetotalers, are, as you say, insufferable. But don’t blame puns. Blame dumbness. Also depends on the audience I suppose. Do I have a punch line? Naaah. Hey, keep up the good work! You are an inspiration to all us youngsters.

  2. Cerny Malek says:

    I’ve never in my life, had a joke land well across a language barrier. I gave up a long time ago.

  3. Catalina says:

    I can’t imagine multilingual punning, it seems both amazing and horrifying all at once.

  4. It’s Prof. Bellos, not Bellows. Also, his book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Was one of the best books I read this year on any subject, let alone translation.

  5. Nuno says:

    I think you got the fellow from Princeton’s name wrong, or at least that isn’t how it is spelt on the book sitting on my bookshelf.

  6. Roger says:

    The key is to make them completely simple and obvious, because as pointed out, anytime you have to explain a joke, it is no longer funny.

    • Ken says:

      Could you go over that one more time?

  7. Viktor Janda says:

    I love puns, they aren’t the lowest form of humour. Sarcasm, sarcasm is the lowest form of humour, as it requires almost no thought to be sarcastic. At least with puns, it requires some thought to pull off.

    • Ken says:

      Yeah, right.

  8. Jennifer says:

    Never try and cross the English/German humour divide. I’ve done business in Germany for years, and simply cannot understand those people’s sense of humour, they find the oddest things completely hilarious, while stuff that would normally be considered funny gets no reaction. Although do try and laugh at their jokes, they are under the impression they have mastered comedy.

    • Ken says:

      Those Germans!

  9. Jeff says:

    I’ve always lived by the rule that if I didn’t grow up speaking the language, I’m not going to try and be witty with it. I can barely manage that in English. Plus, the net benefit of landing a joke doesn’t exceed the humiliation of failing, play it safe.

  10. Penny says:

    I haven’t heard the term “inside baseball” used in years, I really thought is was one of those terms that had become obsolete and totally unused. It’s good to see some these still live on.

  11. Niraj Dadoo says:

    Pictures of goats are funny in any language, but I do need to disagree on the point about puns. Puns can be wonderful things, and certainly not the lowest form of humour. Although the translatablity of puns is low, and would agree the humour across linguistic borders is a horribly difficult thing to navigate.

  12. I’ve tried to tell jokes before as an interpreter, I largely get these blank stares that are just soul crushing, I really don’t do it anymore.

  13. I can agree that humour can work across languages, but the key is to keep the jokes ridiculously simplistic for them to have any effect.

  14. Judy says:

    So you got any jokes that might work for those out on the multilingual grind?

    • Ken says:

      How about this one: “Two translators walk into a bar. Because they’re borderline alcoholics, like all translators. Don’t laugh, it’s not funny.” @grouchotendency

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