How to Translate a Joke

Humor is, without a doubt, one of the hardest things to translate. This was definitely apparent in the worldwide coverage of the Egyptian uprising earlier this year: jokes were central to the protests, but according to Al Masry Al Youm, unless they were written in English they were often lost in translation.

Is it possible to translate a joke? Of course, but it can be difficult because jokes often depend on “inside knowledge” that has to be explained to outsiders.  As the saying goes, “if you have to explain a joke, it isn’t funny anymore.” Also, what people consider funny can vary from place to place. Consider, for example, how different American humour is from British humour, even without a language barrier to cross.

Al Masry Al Youm looked at the English translations of two popular (and funny) Egyptian novels to get a better idea of how translators handle this particular hurdle.

For Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi, translator Jonathan Wright tried to make the jokes stand on their own as much as possible, though that meant that some of them had to be taken out of the text altogether. The easiest jokes to translate, naturally, were the ones about sex, but even when it comes to this universal human experience, cultural differences and wordplay such as puns can make a joke impossible to translate.

For example, Wright told Al Masry Al Youm that he had to get rid of a Viagra joke  “because I couldn’t see a way to convey the pun on the two aspects of wuquuf, stopping and standing. [The joke] referred to a warning on the packet that read: wuquuf mutakarrir [makes frequent stops], the warning they put on the back of buses.”

Rather than removing pieces of the text that English-speaking readers wouldn’t “get,” translator Nora Eltahawy tried to let them in on the joke with detailed footnotes for reference when she translated Ghada Abdel Aal’s I Want to Get Married!. However, she told “Al Masry Al Youm that even so, some of the humour was impossible to do justice to in translation:

“The hardest part was definitely coming to grips with the fact that there’s something very particular about Egyptian Arabic humor that would never translate as funnily, no matter how hard I tried…“A ‘damn you’ will never do ‘yekhrib beitek’ justice – and I wasn’t about to go the Arabic 101 route with a literal ‘may a curse be leveled on your house.’ So I did what I could and panicked about it a lot.”



5 replies
  1. Charlee
    Charlee says:

    This is a really interesting post, when I was learning sign language the question of jokes came up and it is funny that jokes some times just don’t make sense when translated, even when it’s nothing to do with the words jsut the cultural difference…

  2. Andres Heuberger
    Andres Heuberger says:

    Great post! Patrick Zabalbaescoa of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona argued that humor can be translated – but that the combination of humor and multimedia can make it extremely challenging to translate jokes.

    Some of the masters of adapting jokes and puns are the folks involved in writing and translating the Astérix and Obélix comic books and movies – true geniuses!

  3. Jeremy Patterson
    Jeremy Patterson says:

    “Humor is, without a doubt, one of the hardest things to translate.”

    Absolutely! My wife and are working together on Spanish subtitles for a movie that has a lot of slang and humor, and sometimes it is just not possible to convey the jokes directly. I would say the same is also true at times for insults (the opposite of humor?). All we can hope to do is insert something at some point that will make a similar impact on the TL audience. Fortunately, in the case of subtitles, it is also acceptable to drop non-essential content due to issues (space, time, etc.) that do not affect other translation situations.

    Great post!



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