Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
So the Dalai Lama Walks into a Pizza Shop…
June 22, 2011 - By: - In: Translation - 6 comments

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.

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