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. Read more

Eddie Izzard, in Translation

Conventional wisdom says it’s difficult to translate a joke. British comedian Eddie Izzard disagrees.  With his Force Majeure tour, he has been performing his stand-up comedy routine in English, French and German and he plans to add Spanish, Russian, and Arabic to the mix before it’s all said and done.

In an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Izzard explained:

“Humor is human. It’s universal,” Izzard says. “I believe there’s no American sense of humor, there’s not a British sense of humor. There’s not a Russian sense of humor, in a national way… I typically slam together images that are quite surreal. That’s my gut instinct as to where comedy lies, comedy that I like. I believe there’s a mainstream sense of humor in every country, and a more ‘alternative’ sense of humor in every country. So, ‘The Simpsons’ can be watched around the world when translated. But they won’t get all the references. In England, we might not get someone (referenced) from American television that we don’t know. The references are national, but the type of humor is either mainstream or alternative.”

According to the Boston Globe, Izzard’s brother Mike is a linguist who has been helping with the translations. Since the comedian is not fluent in these languages, his show has to be scripted with little room for ad-libbing or going off script.

At least one joke did not translate well into German- one in which Izzard compares an aging body to “two weasels, covered in gravy, nailed to the back of a tractor.”  It doesn’t make a lot of sense in English, but in German the rhythm was all wrong, too. Izzard tried alternate translations like “a washing machine filled with rodents” and ” two washing machines filled with frogs that have been sat on by elephants,” but he told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review he never quite got it right.

Still, having his act translated has opened up a lot of opportunities to perform for people around the world in their own languages. He told the Boston Globe he intends to visit 25 different countries:

“I will be touring Germany and the German-speaking countries, and France in French. And I think I can go to some parts of the Caribbean and play in French. And I could definitely play Beirut in French. I think that would work. So I’ve got all these options there. It’s fun. A great adventure.”

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