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Translating Humor –Not Fun at All

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Have you ever watched a movie in a language other than English? You may be familiar, in a broad sense, with the culture where it was originally made, so you enjoyed it.

However, it may happen at times that you just do not understand why these people find some things so funny. “What are they laughing about?” “What do people see in this movie?” Why does this happen?

Humor has always been a great challenge for translators. Translators do not just transfer words from one language into another. They also transfer cultural aspects from the source language culture. And one of the biggest cultural expressions is found in humor —in the form of jokes, comic-books, or even sitcoms and movies.

Their creators resort to a number of resources to generate a certain effect. But most times these have no equivalent in the target language, and when the text arrives at the hands of the translator, he or she is faced, once more, with every translator’s nightmare: untranslatability. But the desire to transfer this cultural expression, making it available to the target audience for them to enjoy as well, drives the translator to try to find a way to tackle challenges.

There are two factors, among others, which are used in humor and can represent a huge drawback for translators —language resources and cultural aspects.

Language Resources

Every language has a wealth of linguistic resources which can be used by comedians. English, for instance, allows for a lot of puns —there are words with several meanings, homophones, etc.

“I can handle this. ‘Handle’ is my middle name. Actually, “handle” is the middle of my first name.” (Chandler Bing, Friends, S. 3 E. 17.)

Spanish also has a lot of resources to create a humorous effect. The comedy-musical group Les Luthiers makes full use of the resources provided by Spanish language and Latin American culture.

Con mis fuerzas casi extintas,
a vasto imperio llegué.
Puse pie en tierra de incas,
o sea, hice hincapié.

(Cantata del adelantado Don Rodrigo Díaz De Carreras)

Acudid en mi ayuda, decidme qué debo hacer en este momento aciago… así hago algo. (El rey enamorado)

Quien conociera a María, amaría a María

You can find additional examples, both in English and in Spanish, in the footnote 1[1].

Cultural Issues

Many times, comedians make use of specific situations known by people living in a certain place at a certain time. There is a shared knowledge which allows them to understand the joke.

Puente polaco

Acentos norteños


Jokes cannot be explained. Then, what can a translator do when facing some of these issues? Depending on each case, it is possible to use a correspondence, or perhaps the translator will have to change the joke in full. Some translators omit the jokes, or translate them literally, and hence the humorous effect is absolutely lost. This is what happens with Chandler Bing’s comment in Friends. Subtitles read:

─Permítanme. “Soportar” es mi nombre. En realidad es solo una parte de mi nombre.

The translation is literal and not funny at all, because it is impossible to change the character’s name to create a pun.

Translators need to remember two key points:

  • Different cultures laugh at different things. Even if someone understands the joke, they may not find it funny. You would not make a joke about Polish people if you are in Warsaw, would you?
  • You need to evoke the same effect. This is not a word meaning translation, but a transfer that intends to achieve a specific effect for the target audience.

What do you think? Your opinions and suggestions are welcome! Did you enjoy the article? Like it and share it with your friends!

Click here to find out how I can help you meet your linguistic needs.


[1] Here are some examples, although there are a lot more, and even better:

Ted: Robin, it’s fine. You said you wanted a dog and you got one. And the best part is: he got his shots.

Nate: Hey, guys, got my shots.

(How I Met Your Mother, S. 6 E. 18.)

Raj: I don’t like bugs, okay. They freak me out.
Sheldon: Interesting. You’re afraid of insects and women. Ladybugs must render you catatonic.

(The Big Bang Theory, S. 3 E. 2.)

Chandler: Well, this one’s for you.

Joey: Get out!

Chandler: I can’t.

(Friends, S. 2 E. 14.)

Chandler: It’s time to settle down. Make a choice. Pick a lane.

Joey: Who’s Elaine?

(Friends, S. 4 E. 7.)

Cultivarán las flores
de todos los colores
la lívida lavanda, la caléndula
y el lívido alhelí
la lila color de lila, y la rara lila blanca
y la lila color de lila, y la rara lila blanca
la rara lila, la rara lila
la lila lila y la rara lila
la lila lívida, la lila lívida
y la rara lila.

(Aria agraria, “tarareo conceptual”, Les Luthiers)

Poeta: ¿Cuánto valen su humildad y su decoro?

Eco: Oro, oro.

Poeta: ¿Quién es hermosa cual estrella?

Eco: Ella, ella.

(El poeta y el eco, Les Luthiers)

No escapa a cualquier espectador sagaz, y cuando decimos “espectador sagaz”, no confundir “espectador” con “encendedor”, aunque este último a veces también es “a gas”. Decíamos, si el espectador… sí, son esas cosas uno no… Si el espectador es sagaz, no debe escapársele (bueno también si el encendedor es a gas no debe escapársele), no debe escapársele el hecho de que… (Serenata tímida, Les Luthiers)

Los palacios que nos arrebatan
eran tan grandes, tan imponentes,
que no nos alcanzaban los sirvientes.
Y hoy si nos alcanzan, nos matan.

(El zar y un puñado de aristócratas, Les Luthiers)

─Was ist das?

─¿Qué es esto?

─Nein! Nein!

─Nueve, nueve.

(Muerte y despedida del dios Brotan, Les Luthiers)

3 thoughts on “Translating Humor –Not Fun at All”

  1. Good morning! I found you article utterly interesting.
    I have a particular interest for Les Luthies, being an Argentine myself, and I´ve been dealing with Humoristic translations into English.
    I’d like to share a translation of a fraction of Les Luthiers’ sketch: Monólogo Mal puntuado.
    Hope you enjoy it!

    Flawed Monologue

    In the most prestrigrious intrenatrional… pestrigrious internratrional… prestri.. prestigrious… intrernationa… in the world-wide famous forums that I’ve been to I mentioned lust… the last piece of Mastropiero. Many times I´ve mentioned the failure of desire on.. the “Zion and the wand ring.. the wandering… “Zion and the wandering jew”, the opera based on my auntie´s heel boot trail… an antique Hebrew tale. Almost fell for that one, but something seemed a bit off!
    I’ve always said that Oprah fails to depict… that that opera fails to depict your wish for sex, thus… your wish for exodus… the Jewish exodus, therefore the opera was this pointing buckle… a disappointing debacle.
    In those days Mastropiero had a very unusual face… various issues to face, he was locked in a rough truck… he was struck by rough luck. He was always struggling with a mountain bird… a mounting burden of debt.


    Liked by 1 person

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