Everyone enjoys a good joke. Whether with friends, family, or to break the ice in a business meeting, the laughter generated by sharing a piece of humorous wordplay strengthens social bonds and breaks down barriers. The oldest known joke can be traced back to the ancient Sumerians circa 1900BC, meaning humans have gained pleasure from making each other laugh for millennia. Jokes are told and retold, country to country, border to border, and can often be understood in different languages and across cultures.
However, this is not always the case. After all, humour is subjective and what one person finds hilarious can be absolutely mortifying to another. Therefore, when translating jokes into a different language, care must be taken to ensure the intent of the humour isn’t lost, or even worse, becomes offensive.
The Homophone Conundrum
Homophones are words which sound similar when spoken aloud, but have different meanings – see/sea, which/witch etc. Many jokes rely on exploiting the homophonic relationship between words to make the humour work. The comedian sets an expectation with the story of the joke, then subverts the expectation in the punchline. Take the following joke for example:
Q: What do you call a fish with no eyes?
In the above joke the audience does not expect the punchline as the expectation has been set that the answer will relate to a blind fish in some way. Therefore, when the punchline reveals the question referred to the letter “i” in the word “fish,” and not the animal’s eyes, the expectation is subverted and the audience is (hopefully) amused.
However, in Spanish the word for fish is “pescado”, and the letter “i” is pronounced “ee.” Therefore, if one were to simply translate the joke from one language into another, the homophonic relationship between the expectation and the punchline would be lost, along with the meaning and the humour.
All Is Not Lost
Thankfully, there is more to a comedy performance than simply telling a joke. Many comedians entertain their audiences with funny anecdotes rather than relying on a play-on-words to generate laughter. Performances such as these are far simpler to translate into other languages, as it is the content of the story which is funny. In fact, it’s possible for a comedian to perform a routine in a language most of their audience doesn’t understand, and still succeed in making them laugh. Such is the power of a good performance.
Physical or slapstick comedy is also easier to transpose to a different country as it doesn’t rely on the spoken word at all – people falling over is funny, whichever language you speak.
The Show Must Go On
Whether in business or in day-to-day life, the prospect of translating humour into another language is a daunting one. Run a joke through Google Translate and the likelihood is, instead of getting a laugh, your carefully crafted play-on-words will simply yield looks of bewilderment.