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.