Why This Joke Isn’t Funny

by Translation Guy on September 8, 2010
0 comments

They say humor doesn’t translate. Heaven knows, I’ve tried. Ever since I boarded that 747 to Japan thirty plus years ago I’ve been living in a state of borderline culture shock. One of my coping strategies, as you may have noted here, is to act like a jack-ass, but even a cross-cultural clown like me blanches at jokes in translation. So here you go. What follows is the only Japanese joke I’ve ever tried to translate.

The University Bug Club was having a big party. Every college insect was there, and the beer was starting to run low. “Beer run! We need more beer!” yelled out one Japanese beetle. So they took up a collection, and the centipede volunteered to go down to the grocery store to get more brew.

Off he went. Then the beer ran out. The beerless minutes stretched on, the centipede still wasn’t back. “Where’s the beer?” the other bugs started to complain.

“He probably fell in the ditch,” said the cockroach, “I’ll go check on him.”  But as soon as he headed for the front door, he saw the centipede bent over his shoelaces in the entryway. “Oh there you are! What took you so long to get the beer? We thought you fell in a ditch!”

The centipede looked up. “Fallen in a ditch? I haven’t even left yet. I’m still putting on my shoes.”

That, my friends, is humor in translation. And now, finally, science has explained why that joke is not funny…

For years, the scientific consensus was that humor stemmed from a release of tension, or from a feeling of superiority or incongruity, depending on your particular theory of humor.

But new research from HuRL (the Humor Research Laboratory) at the University of Colorado suggests that humor stems from a benign violation of the way the world ought to be.

The benign violation theory (BVT), developed by researchers A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, predicts that “humor occurs when three conditions are satisfied: 1) something threatens one’s sense of how the world ‘ought to be,’ 2) the threatening situation seems benign, and 3) a person sees both interpretations at the same time.”

McGraw says that the discovery would also explain why humor may not travel well. “It’s hard to find a comedy that’s funny cross-culturally because the ways that violations can be benign differ from culture to culture…. The comedy that is funny cross-culturally tends to involve a lot of physical humour. The violations are clear no matter who you are.”

Painfully predictable slapstick…works for me. But perhaps English speakers are at a disadvantage?

British comedian Stewart Lee argues that English is an inherently comedic language, much to the disadvantage of a well-developed sense of humor. “The flexibility of the English language allows us to imagine that we are an inherently witty nation, when in fact we just have a vocabulary and a grammar that allow for endlessly amusing confusions of meanings…. Since watching jokes I co-wrote for our German production withering in the translation process, all their contrived weaknesses exposed, I have stopped writing jokes as such, and feel I am a better stand-up because of it. I try now to write about ideas, that would be funny in any language, and don’t rely on pull- back and reveals and confusion of meaning.”

Here’s Stewart on Americans, so you can see what German humor has done for his own shtick. More on shticks next time.

0 Comments

  1. Wilber says:

    Are you ruminating tongue in cheek? The centipede joke actually is funny – gently so, not convulsively. But of course reactions differ, and not just between languages / cultures. I love humor of all kinds and have even (ahem) essayed a witty remark myself once in a while. Occasionally it works.

    I’ve never read any explanatory / classificatory / scholarly analysis of humor that didn’t come off stodgy, strained, and – the main shortcoming – totally unsuccessful. But hey, humor analysts have to make a living too.

    • Ken says:

      Wilber, I’m sorry if you found that joke amusing. I assure you it won’t happen again. I’ve gotten off-line comments on this also from those too timid to share their outrage online.

      In answer to your question, basically all I can do is either tongue-and-cheek and rightous indignation, which I often confuse anyway.

      I am so with you on the humor of humor researchers, which would be funny if it wasn’t so cringingly unfunny. It’s got its own particular reek, like toe cheese. It’s the humorists who understand humor best. Twain’s essay, How to Tell a Story, I consider definitive.

  2. Ian Nichols says:

    That’s hilarious Ken!

  3. Larry Rogers says:

    Nice. Thanks for sharing this story – you write so much more intimatley than some of the other dull translation people… Great post :-)

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