There are some risks inherent in attempting to translate humor but that is not to say that it is impossible. It is certainly possible to migrate light-heartedness from one language to another, a fact that is evidenced at the very least by an appreciation of the works of Woody Allen among the French.
We need to take a closer look at the widely accepted principle that it’s not possible to translate a joke. The first step to successfully translating humor is letting go of the pursuit of perfect fidelity and replacing it with the endeavor of identifying a joke that hits the same comical note as the initial one. By following this route, a variety of punch line, be they absurd or morbid, become that much easier to translate.
The Translator’s Dilemma and Losing Puns in Translation
Difficulties in translating humor typically fall into either one of two dimensions: wordplay and cultural references. Translating a joke that is confined within the culture from which the language emerges presents a catch-22 situation. One the one hand, you risk leaving out a large section of your readers with a reference they would consider cryptic. On the other hand, you may be forced to load explicatory footnotes into your text. Many authors choose to leave the joke standing without any footnotes for fear of committing the sin of explaining a joke.
Puns, too, present a unique challenge. French author Daniel Levin Becker had to exercise a lot of creativity in order to successfully translate „Quelques Mousquetaires,“ Hervé Le Tellier’s story about a man tormented by numbers that were self-incrementing. While famous titles such as „The Four Musketeers“ and „The Postman Always Rings Thrice“ were not difficult to render across languages, it took a lot more effort to do so with numerical puns.
Subtle Humor is Even More Difficult to Translate
However, as every stand-up comedian likely knows, when it comes to comedy, the Holy Grail is not necessarily outright jokes. Successfully reproducing the provocative humorous tone of the works of authors such as Mark Twain or Charles Dickens—or even comedians such as Richard Pryor or Bill Cosby—is far more difficult than it is to translate a one-liner into, say, French. In order to elicit the same reaction from your readers or audience as the originator of the humor, you need to cultivate their trust through a powerful persona that evokes a humorous ambiance.
In fact, many foreign translators of David Sedaris found the task of rendering his comedic tone a near-impossible task. For example, Sergio Flaksman, in his quest to bring into Brazilian Portuguese „Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim“ discovered that Sedaris came across as rather over-the-top and shrill in his early drafts. However, Flaksman was able to create some sort of Brazilian stand-in who in Portuguese exuded „relentless mean humor [that] could show its smiling fangs“. He was able to do this after paying close attention to the nasal of radio broadcasts by Sedaris.
When Translation Makes the Joke Funnier
In some cases, the humor can actually be amplified after translation. In George Saunders’s title story „Pastoralia,“ one of the character’s employees pay them to play the role of a caveman at a theme park where he is given a freshly-slaughtered goat every day to roast. One morning, however, he arrives at his usual spot only to find it „goatless.“ Of the numerous possible translations of this contrived word, the German translator of Saunders’s work opted to use ziegenleer, an aloof-sounding amalgamation of „goat“ and „void“ that has no precise equivalent in English.
According to Latvian translator Kaija Straumanis, editorial director of the University of Rochester literature in translate press Open Letter Book noted that while the translation was rendered accurately, the way in which the words were put together imbued it with a highly humorous tone. In fact, making it sound lofty-minded appears to have ratcheted up the hilarity of the observation made by the character.
Another means of achieving humor in translation is deliberately distorting the translation. Ever since Renaissance poets were able to come up with lines that could be understood in both Latin and Hebrew, making one language sound like another has been common. For instance, Hollywood actor Luis van Rooten successfully brought back the practice by phonetically transcribing nursery rhymes into French albeit with a nonsensical twist: his „Humpty Dumpty,“ for example, begins „Un petit, d’un petit.“
Sometimes, You Have to Let Go
In the end, however, despite a translator’s resourcefulness, there are limits to trying to faithfully render the same joke in a different language without either making it sound absurd or losing its humorous tone. Most times, you may have to abandon the joke. Learn more about translating English to German at Wortland.