Translating Humour Is No Joke: 5 Ways to Handle Funny Business
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
Jokes are supposed to make you laugh. But do they also translate into other languages?
Having to deal with wordplay, double meanings and grammar structures that may not exist in your target language isn’t so funny. You also have to think about tone and cultural references that may not make sense to your target audience. And most importantly: jokes have to be funny.
It’s a well-known rule of comedy that a joke stops being funny if you have to explain it. You want your reader to “get it” the first time around. So what are your options? You can either let the joke go or, as Jascha Hoffman writes, you:
“Abandon the idea of perfect fidelity and instead try to find a joke that rings some of the same bells as the original.”
Here are 5 examples that illustrate how funny business can be relayed in another language.
1. TV Humour
Have you ever watched your favourite TV show in a foreign language? You may wonder how humour is translated on TV or in films. Sometimes making people laugh is serious business.
One approach to translating jokes is to not translate them at all and come up with an entirely new joke instead. Sounds tricky, doesn’t it?
The American medical comedy series Scrubs handles humour brilliantly, both in English and German.
Here’s an example of a joke told by main character JD in season 4, episode 9:
“Did you hear the one about the skeleton who couldn’t go to the party? He had noBODY to go with.”
The ambiguous meaning of no( )body doesn’t exist in German. That’s why this joke wouldn’t have landed with a German audience, no matter how much time the translator may have spent on a clever but hopeless transcreation.
Instead, the German Scrubs translation team took it upon themselves to come up with a new joke for German TV, which was very similar in length:
„Wissen Sie, was der größte Vorteil bei Alzheimer ist? Dass man täglich fremde Leute kennenlernt.“ (English: “Do you know what the best thing about Alzheimer’s is? You get to meet new people every day.”)
Side note: I (Belinda) recently told both versions of this joke at a cocktail party. The German version was actually perceived as (even) funnier than the English original. Well done, team!
2. Horsing Around
There’s a German saying that goes: „In der Kürze liegt die Würze“ (English equivalent: “Keep it short and sweet”).
Some of the best jokes in the world are so-called one-liners (German: Einzeiler). And if you’re lucky, you’ll find that some of them even work in more than one language:
German: „Kommt ein Pferd in eine Bar. Der Barkeeper: ,Warum das lange Gesicht?‘“
English: “A horse walks into a bar. The bartender: ‘Why the long face?’”
Are you a fan of animal humour? Great! Here comes another one:
German: „Wie nennt man eine Gruppe Wölfe? – Wolfgang!“ (note: the „gang“ is pronounced in an American English style)
English: “What do you call a group of wolves? – Wolfgang!”
Still not tired of it? Okay, one last Einzeiler for good luck:
German: „Kann ein Känguru höher als ein Haus springen? – Ja! Weil ein Haus nicht springen kann.“
English: “Can a kangaroo jump higher than a house? – Yes! Because houses can’t jump.”
Tip: If you’re stuck for clever puns, check out this tool here. Type in your search term, e.g. “Pferd” (horse), to find a collection of puns or idioms with your search term in it. You may find that the phrase you’re looking to translate already has an equivalent in another language.
3. Moss makes the world go round?
How do you make an English-speaking audience understand the German sentence “Ohne Moos nix los.” (literal meaning: “Without moss, nothing goes”)?
This idiom is based on the fact that Moos is slang for money. The English equivalent would be “Money makes the world go round”. The writer of this plant-related website had clearly used it because it’s a pun involving the word “moss”. The problem: there are no moss-related money proverbs in English (that we know of anyway). So, what do you do?
Well, once you’ve finished crying (just kidding!), you need to decide what’s more important – the reference to money or the reference to moss. In this case, the text was about moss (and why it’s a good thing), so it was an easy choice: focus on the moss aspect. So what’s a solution that works here? “Remember: moss has a way of growing on you”.
4. Who is "er"?
In a recent blog translation of mine (Stephanie), the author was talking about emptying her bins after dropping her son off at school. She joked that he was always excited to slip through her fingers and then added: “ich überlasse jetzt Deiner Fantasie, ob mit "er" der Jüngste oder der Eimer gemeint ist” (literal translation: “I’ll leave it up to you to imagine if “he” refers to my son or the bin”).
In German, it’s immediately clear that he could only ever refer to her son (unless you’re somebody who likes to treat all your household objects as if they’re people – no judgement). But because English doesn’t have grammatical gender, this joke doesn’t translate directly. Do you let the joke go, over-explain (rarely a good idea) or think of an alternative?
Since this blog post was meant to be a fun, entertaining read, I went with the final option. I completely transcreated the section and came up with: “Once I’ve got rid of one smelly friend, it’s time to deal with another: the bin.” This strays quite far from the original and would definitely need to be double-checked with the author (in case they feel uncomfortable blatantly mocking their child) but it keeps the whimsical flavour of the original text while at the same time being accessible to the reader. In this situation, I chose to prioritise the function of the text over literal meaning.
5. Switching to the Dark Side
Sometimes you can translate a joke literally and not lose much in the process. A few years back, I (Stephanie) used to translate a lot of product descriptions for a German e-commerce company that sold Star Wars merchandise. Whenever I came across a Darth Vader product, I’d usually see a phrase like: “Mit diesem Produkt wechselt ihr zur dunklen Seite” (literal translation: “With this product, you’ll switch to the dark side”).
In English, there’s a quite straightforward approach to this joke: “This product will make you turn to the Dark Side”. Since the Star Wars movies were originally filmed in English, there’s little danger that this cultural reference will be lost on your target reader (especially since they’re probably already a Star Wars fan!). There’s no point in transcreation for the sake of transcreation. If your joke works, then leave it be – no need to use the Force ;-)
Don't shy away from a good laugh
When it comes to translating humour, creativity trumps accuracy. The main point of a joke or a clever pun is to tickle your reader’s or viewer’s funny bone – whether that’s achieved through a direct translation, a roundabout phrase or a new joke altogether.
Next time you read a blog, watch a TV show or hear people tell their favourite jokes, why not let your creativity wander? See if you can find equivalents in other languages or come up with a joke that hits the same tone, duration and “appropriateness” level. Enjoy, haha!
If you would like to share your thoughts and spark a conversation about how humour is translated, feel free to get in touch (see below for details)!
This blog post was written in collaboration with fellow marketing translator Stephanie Hancox. After publishing our article on transcreation, we felt that the time was right to embark on another project together. One thing’s for sure: we had a good laugh! :)