How to Translate a Joke

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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.”