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Have you ever met someone who lacked a sense of humor? Picture this: you’re with a group of friends from different nationalities speaking in the same language, everyone is following the conversation perfectly well until you make a joke about something and none of them laugh. Just awkward silence. You thought your joke was funny, but humor also has a deep cultural component.
Most people think of humor as something that exists for the sake of entertainment, or for adding spice to social occasions. Something that makes a person laugh or smile. However, it comes in many different forms, from verbal to written, and it can vary from place to place. For example, American humor is different from British humor even without a language barrier to cross. It implies a cultural context and the existence of a belief system that has been developed in a different way, and of course, much humor is language-based. Therefore, the enjoyment of humor can’t be said to be universally understood. Translating humor, is without a doubt one of the hardest things to accomplish. Sometimes it is not possible to convey the jokes directly because they are often typical of the source culture from which it was produced, thereby losing its power to amuse in another new location. A translator’s job requires skills and creativity. David Bellos, a professor at Princeton, argues that the trick to translating humor is to abandon the idea of perfect fidelity and instead try to find a joke that rings some of the same bells as the original. Nevertheless, what about verbally expressed humor such as wordplay and puns which use a specific semantic? What is important is that the target humor serves the same function as the source one, that is to amuse the recipient. Sometimes a translator might drive him/herself crazy by trying to elicit a laugh into the target translation; here are some tips on possible translation methods according to Delabastita.
- Pun to Pun. Where the original pun is replaced by another pun, even if that pun features a completely different subject or type.
- Pun to Non-Pun. When there is a pun in the source text and language, which is then omitted in the target text and language, resulting in a non-pun where originally there had been a pun. This method can then result in a loss of humor but this is not always the case.
- Pun to Zero. Where the entire segment featuring a wordplay is simply omitted and not replaced by anything else, in some cases when two cultures/languages are too far apart.
- Editorial Techniques. In this method the translator uses editorial techniques such as footnotes, in order to explain a wordplay found in the source text.
As a translator, the best way is to think of similar words in the target language that can be combined in an equally clever way for an audience with a different background. Once you understand the structure of the joke, you can start formulating a new one in the target language. Similarly, you have to understand its cultural context, especially if the joke makes a reference to a local politician, historical event, etc. In this case, you have to determine what’s the essence of it that makes it so funny. So, if in the target language you are talking about a totally different person or event, chances are you can preserve the same meaning.
The most important aspect of humor translation, is not to be a literal translator, rather let your inner creativity interfere and transcreate. The purpose is to effectively communicate what makes the context humorous, involving a linguistic skill, cultural adaptation, a sense of humor and other resources. For instance, you will have to use the inner poet in yourself when jokes have rhyming phrases.
The problem with translating a joke is not the language itself, for a translator it will be easy to merely change it into another language but the key is to also make it funny in another language. We cannot deny the special talent comedians have, like Jerry Seinfeld, but imagine all the transcreation it takes to translate his jokes into Chinese, because all of them are so attached to New York’s cultural life.
 Delabastita, Dirk. Wordplay and Translation. Special Issue of The Translator: Studies in Intercultural Communication