Tell a joke day – potential banana skins when translating humour

There are many intricacies in language and one of the trickiest to reproduce in translation is humour. Translating humour is far from easy as jokes can take many forms and humour often varies between cultures. Sunday 16th August 2020 is ‘tell a joke day’, and, to mark the occasion, our language experts are discussing all things translating humour and why poorly translated humour can leave the joke on you!

Humorous content

There are plenty of areas where humorous content may be needed. This can include marketing content, website text and branding. The difficulty in translating the text is that what works in one country will not necessarily work in another. This is partly because humour is so closely linked with a country’s individual popular culture. Moreover, written humour also depends on punctuation and text layout, both of which can vary from language to language. An example is when British humour doesn’t always translate due to language structure.

It is also important to consider that different countries may even find certain humour offensive so the jokes must be adapted to suit each country’s culture. We have talked before about how some phrases do not directly translate into another language – in humour, this can mean the joke could be lost and become meaningless. Double meanings (in English, we tellingly often refer to these with the French term double entendres) frequently play a part in humour, which do not always work the same way in different languages.

The key in humour is that it should not need explaining. Humour should be quick witted and provoke an immediate response in the listener. That is why, in interpreting, translation of humour can become more difficult unless the interpreter has vast experience in both the source and target languages. Translation of written humour can be easier to succeed in as it gives the translator more time to consider the most appropriate words to use.

Translating humour

Due to the plethora of things to consider when it comes to translating humour, this is one area that is safely best left to the experts! A good translator will use transcreation and their knowledge of the local culture to ensure your content works, and, importantly, does not offend. Translators need to take a pragmatic approach to joke translation for it to work effectively. Machine translation systems that simply take texts word for word will undoubtedly produce some unintentionally funny mistakes!

Translating humour means avoiding losing the meaning of the text. This is true of all translated texts, of course, but, with a humorous one, chances are that an inaccurate translation will just result in confusion. The key is to be creative and produce a working, local language version of the joke. This may well mean changing cultural references, as well as word choice and sentence structure.

Writing funny content for translation

When writing amusing content for translation, there are a few things that can make the translation process easier. Firstly, do not overcomplicate things; in many cultures, the simplest jokes are often the most effective. Secondly, think about where the text will be used – what works on a website, may not work on a billboard, for example, where space is limited. Think about the subtleties that make your joke work – are they cultural references, word play or punctuation? This will help identify the focus for your work. Do not be surprised if your text needs to be altered – it’s rare that any translator can translate your joke word for word, and it will make sense in another language.

To find out more about transcreation and translating humour, please contact us today!

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