So the Dalai Lama Walks into a Pizza Shop…

by Translation Guy on June 22, 2011

And the guy behind the counter says, “What’ll it be?

And the Dalai Lama says, “Make me one with everything.”

Funny, right? Buddist humor, gotta love it. But wait, there’s more. So this guy, on national TV (Australia’s a nation, right?), this newscaster, he has the real Dalai Lama on his show, and he tells the joke to the Dalai Lama! Right? And the Dalai Lama, whose English is a bit shaky, doesn’t get it! Lost in translation is where it really gets funny.

Here’s the video.

Watching interviewer Karl Stefanovic watch his joke die with the Dalai Lama is a lot funnier than the gag itself, one he picked up from his 12-year-old son, which should have been a warning sign for Karl right there.  In the post-mortem wrap-up, he gets a well-deserved ribbing from other presenters for his humor fail. As one presenter notes, “You know a joke’s in trouble when you have a translator off to the side explaining every few words.”

Ain’t that the truth. As soon as the translators enter the room, humor must flee. It’s often the first thing an interpreter will say to a client after the handshake. “No jokes.” And for those who defy this ban, that first experience of a joke gone south in translation is so excruciatingly memorable that the jokester quickly learns to keep his sense of humor to himself.

It would figure that Skynet singularity savant and machine translation pioneer Ray Kurzweil is skeptical about the abilities of human translators. (I’ll post more on Nataly Kelly’s interview with Kurzweil soon.) He says, “Even the best translators can’t fully translate literature.” I wouldn’t go that far, since I think the comprehension of most readers is so low (present company excepted, of course) that whatever is lost in translation is incidental to whatever is lost in the reading, native or no. That gists in literary translation are just white noise against the general cacophony of misunderstanding when them that thinks they get it, don’t. But I’ve got to agree with Ray on translating humor. Translators just can’t do it. Anything word- or concept-based is sure to arrive dead on delivery. Having someone explain a joke to you is just not funny.

Any translators or interpreters out there with a successful joke translation story? I agree with Ray on this one at least, and say it can’t be done. The gauntlet has been thrown.


  1. Riley says:

    C’mon Ken, why are you always trashing us Aussie’s!

    • Ken says:

      My love affair with your nation just hasn’t been the same since Nicole Kidmann got that restraining order on me.

  2. Monk12 says:

    That’s hilarious!

  3. Pierre says:

    Ah yes, that one was all over the web. I think that with jokes, interpreters don’t stand a chance. Translators are in another league though. For instance, Terry Pratchett is hilarious both in English and in French, thanks to the crafty work of translator Patrick Couton. But in this case, one would argue that the skill involves so much more than translating…

  4. Wilber says:

    Submitted earlier, might have deleted it.

    No theory, but see if this story is translatable: A few months before his death in 1989 the Spanish surrealist painter embraced Tibetan Buddhism. Soon after, he fell in love with the silvery voice of country start Dolly Parton. Only he thought her name was spelled Dalai Padmehum.

    Too complex? Try this: A rabbi and a Tibetan holy man share a number of key ideas and decide to found a higher consciousness consulting firm. Its slogan: OY, mani padme hum.

    OK, really now. Here’s an ancient joke I’ve heard in a few languages. Under an exchange program a sweet young giraffe named Gina is placed with an American farm family. She introduces herself to the different animals and asks what they do. The dog: “I guard the house and help herd the sheep.” The hen: “I lay eggs for the farmwife to sell at the market. The cat: “I catch mice and sparrows.” Then she asks a big black bull, who says: “Take off those crazy pajamas and I’ll show ya!”

    • Ken says:

      Very reticulated, Wilber. Thanks.

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