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Too funny for words: How to translate humor in multilingual content

One of the biggest problems facing polyglots and translators is also one of the funniest: understanding and translating humor in multiple languages. It can be an infuriating challenge, but what makes it so difficult?

Punchline problems

Picture this: you’re with a group of friends speaking your second language. You’re following the conversation perfectly well… until someone makes a quip and they all explode with laughter. You’re left stupefied, puzzling over what was just said as you try to determine what they found so funny.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. And it’s not just you, I promise. It’s just that no matter how many irregular verbs you memorize, no textbook will impart you with a bilingual sense of humor.

Humor is one of the hardest things to learn in a second language.

Just smile, laugh, and pretend you got the joke.

When it comes to translation, this issue is magnified. If you’re translating any text that intends to entertain, chances are it includes a joke or two. Magazine articles, advertising copy, literary works… all of these formats use humor in one way or another. In any of them, a bit of clever wordplay or a witty cultural reference can pose a monumental challenge. How do you preserve the same sense of humor with different words, for an audience with a different background?

Here are some of the most common kinds of linguistic humor, and the difficulties they pose.

Wordplay

In this case, the source of the problem is pretty obvious. If a joke is based entirely on the words that compose it, it’s pretty hard to get the same idea across using completely different words. As a translator, your best bet is to think of similar words in the target language that can be combined in an equally clever way.

First of all, determine the strategy the source text is using. Is it alliteration? A pun? Does it take advantage of a word with two different meanings? Once you understand the structure of the joke, you can start formulating a new one in the target language. It’s not easy, but with a little creativity and some linguistic liberty, you can make multilingual miracles happen.

Rhymes

Maybe this is technically a type of wordplay, but it’s tough enough to deserve its own subheading. Rhyming exists in all languages, of course, but by no means are rhyming pairs in one language equivalent to those in another. If you really want to turn in the best possible translation, you’ll have to find your inner poet… and your thesaurus.

The simplest strategy is to think of as many synonyms as possible for the words in question, until you find two that rhyme. Sometimes it’s impossible, but if you can make it work, you’ll (rightly) feel like a genius.

Making readers laugh out loud at multilingual content is quite a challenge.

Making your audience laugh out loud is harder than you might think.

Want a real life example? While translating a magazine article, I came across this title: “Si de resacas se trata, este cóctel ataca.” This is a simple one-liner referring to the well-known concept of “hair of the dog.” Translated (more or less) literally, it says “If you’ve got a hangover, this cocktail will attack it.” But that’s no fun! Where’s the clever catchy rhyme?

Let’s work through this. What’s another way to say “attack,” or to describe the effect of a good cocktail after a rough night? How about “hits the spot”? Okay, so now we need to find a word that rhymes with “spot”… and lucky for us, there’s already one in the original translation: “got.” Switch around the word order, and you’ve found your solution: “If it’s a hangover you’ve got, this cocktail hits the spot.” Maybe not the most grammatically pleasing sentence, but it preserves the original meaning while maintaining the playful humor of the rhyme. Success!

Cultural references

Every translator—and second language speaker—knows that a good part of understanding a language is understanding its cultural context. This is especially obvious when it comes to jokes. If the punchline refers to a local politician, a historical event, or anything that’s only familiar to a certain community, it’ll be lost on outsiders.

A good translator can preserve humor across cultural and linguistic barriers.

When translated well, humor can transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries.

When translating, sometimes you have to make a tough call. Do you leave the reference as is and hope your audience will get it? Do you change it to a different reference in their own culture that communicates a similar idea? Or do you just get rid of it?

If you’re going for the second option, you’ll need to be very familiar with both the original reference and the culture of the target audience. Try to determine the essence of the joke: why is it funny? This is what you need to maintain with the new reference. Even if you’re talking about a totally different person or event, chances are you can preserve the same meaning.

Then again, there’s the possibility that if you change the reference, the text simply won’t make sense. In that case, you might want to interject an explanation. A parenthetical aside with a couple of choice details can work wonders; this way you preserve the full meaning but give the reader some extra help to understand it.

Lost in translation… found in transcreation

As a second language speaker, you know you’ve really made it once you start understanding and making jokes. Likewise, one sure sign of an expert translation is the effective communication of humor. In fact, this involves more than just translation in the classic sense of the word. It can better be described as transcreation, requiring not only basic bilingualism but also linguistic skill, resourcefulness, and cultural adaptation… and, of course, a sharp sense of humor.


VeraContent is a creative translation and transcreation agency that can help your content reach a wider audience—and maybe even get a laugh out of them!

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American vs. British English – How they’re different and why it matters

Today marks 241 years since the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and the official birth of the United States. For most Americans that means hot dogs, fireworks, and patriotic pride—but it’s also the perfect opportunity to discuss the linguistic legacy of American independence.

It’s no secret that despite all we have in common, there are vast cultural differences between the US and the UK. That divide is also visible in dialectical variation between American and British English: things like spelling, grammar, and other linguistic details. Although these differences may seem insignificant, in the world of translation and content creation, they’re anything but.

Context counts

Writers and translators based solely in the United States or the United Kingdom may never confront the question of dialect. But for those of us who work in international contexts, it’s vital to distinguish between British and American English, and to be highly familiar with both.

For example, if you’re writing advertising copy for a company promoting its products in the UK, they’ll expect you to follow the conventions of British English. A university recruiting international students, on the other hand, might prefer US English as a universally accepted standard. It all depends on the context. Before you start working with any client, it’s vital to establish which style they want.

Learn the lingo

As a translator, I’m used to switching between English and Spanish—but I’ve found that it’s equally important to know how to juggle different dialects within each. The first time I was asked to write something in British English, I was dumbfounded. I had always known it existed, of course, but I’d never been asked to adopt it as my own voice. What exactly were the differences? And how many were there?

When writing in a non-native dialect, mistakes are inevitable. Always edit your work carefully.

Mistakes are inevitable—edit your work!

Quite a few, as it turns out. But nothing you can’t handle, as long as you’re prepared to treat your non-native dialect the same way you’d treat a foreign language. Learn the differences and do your best to embrace them—the more natural they seem to you, the more natural your writing will seem to the reader.

Dialectical details

So what exactly are the differences? Here are just a few of the most important ones to know.

  • -or vs. -our: This is a classic. Even the most unaware reader can distinguish regional style from just one letter. Examples: color (US) vs. colour (UK), favorite vs. favourite, and behavior vs. behaviour.
  • z vs. s: Another single-letter difference. This one has to do with the suffix used to form transitive verbs meaning “to render or make.” Whereas US English uses “-ize,” UK English uses “-ise.” Examples: optimize vs. optimise, utilize vs. utilise. And remember, this applies to any form of those words as well (utilized vs. utilised).
  • Has vs. has got: When it comes to expressing possession, the line is slightly blurred. In both UK and US English, we can say “I have a dog” or “I’ve got a dog.” But despite the fact that both are correct, you’re much more likely to encounter “has got” in British English, and “has” in American English.
  • Vocabulary: This is far too broad to cover in a single bullet point, but it’s vital to be aware of lexical differences. There are tons of words whose meanings vary depending on the dialect, as well as different words that are used to express the same meaning. My personal favorite is the word “pants.” In US English, pants are what we wear to cover our legs, like jeans or slacks. In UK English, pants are what we wear underneath our trousers—the American equivalent of “underwear.”
  • Period placement: There are several small differences in punctuation usage. US English places a period after abbreviations like “Mr.” and “Ms.” whereas British English does not. British English uses a period to express specific times (10.30) where American English would use a semicolon (10:30). And finally, British English places periods outside quotation marks (“Happy Fourth of July”.) while American English places them within (“Happy Fourth of July.”).
In American English, the convention is to spell words like "colorful" with "or."

American spelling…

In British English, the convention is to spell words like "parlour" with "our."

…and British spelling.

So which is correct?

As you’ve probably already guessed, that’s a trick question. If you have friends from across the pond, you’ve most likely had this debate before. Americans abroad are often subject to (usually) good-natured criticism along the lines of “Speak real English!” Likewise, most Brits have probably been told that they “talk funny” or something of the sort. It’s worth pointing out that British speakers are usually more aware of linguistic differences, since they have greater exposure to American culture than vice versa.

Americans and Brits often argue over dialectical differences.

Linguistic debates have been known to get heated.

Of course, the truth is that there is no “right way” in and of itself. The correct way to say something depends on the context, just like every other linguistic variable does. In casual conversation, it doesn’t matter if you say “learned” or “learnt”: people will know what you mean. But when it comes to professional translation and content creation, the differences do matter. Always make sure you know the target style of each assignment. If it’s unclear what the client wants, pick one style and stick to it—consistency is key.

In general, the most important thing is to keep an open mind and be flexible. Translation and content creation are all about adapting your voice to suit the client’s needs and the audience’s context. The best way to optimize (or optimise) your writing is to adapt it to each and every project and situation you encounter. And when it comes to content, patriotism has no place—leave that for the Fourth of July festivities.


VeraContent is a multilingual content agency providing creative translation and copywriting services. We’re experts at adapting our content to suit your style; whether it’s American or British English.

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The psychology behind clickbait: what it is and why we fall for it

“You won’t believe your eyes!”

“Shocking secrets, revealed!”

“…and what happened next is unimaginable!”

Sound familiar?

You might have noticed that eye-catching article titles and questionable news stories—not to mention excessive exclamation points—are taking over your social media feeds. This kind of content, popularly known as “clickbait,” has been stalking internet users more and more in recent years. These seductive headlines lure you into opening an article that contains poor content—which the average person spends under 15 seconds reading.

In other words, companies are feeding off the human need to gain more knowledge in order to build revenue via clicks-per-page. And many of us continue to fall for these headlines on a daily basis—but why? To understand, first we need to define the phenomenon itself.

What is clickbait?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary incorporated the term in 2015, defining clickbait as “something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.” To put it plainly, it’s a link that sparks curiosity and generates traffic, but ultimately leads to low-quality content.

The origins of clickbait lie in yellow journalism. This journalistic style relies on attention-grabbing headlines designed to increase sales, rather than objective and well-researched facts. It was born in the 1890s, when newspaper magnates Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were engaged in a furious competition for readership. They began using sensational titles in an attempt to attract readers as quickly as possible.

Another of the fathers of clickbait is journalist Vincent Musetto, who in 1983 covered a story about a bar owner being shot to death after an argument with a customer. Its title, “Headless body in topless bar,” is considered by many to be the first truly audacious headline. These kinds of developments set the tone for today’s digital battle for clicks and views, in a world where content is more abundant and accessible than ever before.

Vincent Musetto's sensational headline is an early example of clickbait's origins in journalism.

The infamous cover story (image courtesy of the New York Post)

Exploiting curiosity and clicks

Clickbait takes advantage of the human need to expand our knowledge, whether it be through funny cat videos, quantum physics, or that poorly-written article blowing up your Facebook feed. This universal human curiosity has been explained by George Loewenstein, an economics and psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, in his information gap theory. It states that humans have a constant, unsatisfied need to accumulate knowledge, whether it’s useful or not.

Information gap theory can help explain clickbait’s psychology when it comes to the reader—but on the company’s end, things are much more financially-motivated. Pay-per-click advertising allows companies to earn a fixed amount of money for each click or view an article receives. This creates a high demand for intriguing titles, but not so much for intriguing content. The initial click is the money-maker, so what comes after is much less important. As a result, articles are churned out faster and faster, with a corresponding drop in quality.

The power of post-click

Beyond the issues of low-quality content and greed, there’s also the problem of data collection. If audience perception is measured solely through clicks-per-page and views, the results won’t reflect the content’s true value. To obtain accurate and meaningful data, companies should shift their focus to post-click statistics: article sharing, movement to other articles, and the time spent on each one.

Post-click statistical measurement is slowly on the rise among companies, especially those focused on producing quality content and creating a loyal audience. This encourages marketing strategies that tap into a different part of human psychology: emotions. For example, it’s a widely known fact that advertisements and logos strategically utilize colors to manipulate consumers’ emotions—and motivate their purchases.

Articles can tap into readers' emotions to generate traffic and interest in content.

Angry readers means more likes

Similarly, articles can evoke emotions in readers that inform their post-click choices. Research has shown that when an article sparks anger, the viewer is more likely to “like” it. When a piece of content is inspirational, however, the viewer is more likely to share it. Using these emotional responses to engage readers and maximize viewership is an increasingly important marketing strategy.

The social media clickbait battle

The debate around clickbait is getting more heated by the day, enraging users across the vast expanse of the Internet. Some social media platforms are even considering changing their algorithms to reduce the amount of unwanted content on users’ feeds. Facebook, for example, has already taken concrete action to remove clickbait and fake news. One of their tactics consists of reviewing articles and labeling them as “disputed” if their content is of questionable quality. With 2 billion users worldwide and an infinite amount of circulating content, they’ve got a lot of work ahead of them—but it’s a start.

Hopefully, other platforms will follow Facebook’s lead and start implementing strategies to fight back against the clickbait invasion. If post-click analysis and a focus on emotional impact can successfully overtake the pay-per-click paradigm, our feeds will be all the better for it. With any luck, we’ll see a decline in low-quality articles and a spike in well-written, substantial, and meaningful content that treats readers with the respect they deserve.


VeraContent is a creative language agency producing high-quality content that aspires to more than spontaneous clicks. To see what we can do for you, consult our multilingual copywriting service page.

5 times you should drop the exclamation points in your writing

I’ll be honest; seeing too many exclamation points at once makes me slightly uncomfortable. It’s like talking to that one friend who yells at you during a casual conversation. Unless you’re speaking to your friendly, yet partially deaf abuela, there’s just no need to shout.

Similarly, putting an exclamation point at the end of every thought creates stress or excitement where none is warranted. I envision the writer reaching through the computer screen and shaking me to catch my attention. I call this sensation “exclamative discomfort.” These days it lurks around every corner, especially on social media—and even in the Tweets of some of the world’s most powerful people.

And okay, I’ll admit it; exclamation points are fun! Using them is like kicking off your shoes and not caring where they land! Once you start, you can’t stop! But the more you exclaim, the less exciting your words become. It’s like absinthe or red pepper flakes; a little goes a long way.

Using too many exclamation points is like yelling at someone standing right in front of you

Exclamation points: the written equivalent of yelling… or megaphones

Here are five places you should definitely check yourself on the exclamation points.

1. Work emails

Writing emails can be intimidating. Whether you’re sending a reminder to a co-worker or a proposal to a prospective client, piling on the exclamation points is as bad as writing the whole thing in capital letters (don’t even get me started on that).

Work emails occupy the gray area between a corporate memo and the free-for-all that is the Internet. You want to appear professional yet conversational; concise yet congenial. The best way to achieve this balance is through carefully chosen, evocative vocabulary—not excessive punctuation.

2. Article titles

A good article can draw you in with just the title. Effective titles give a sense of the content while grabbing your curiosity. You might think that exclamatory sentences will capture people’s attention, but the truth is that the title’s content is much more important than its punctuation.

If you want to create a truly interesting title, don’t rely on an exclamation point to do all the work for you. Adding one to a mediocre title will not improve it; it will simply show that you don’t know how to resist temptation.

The world's best newspapers use expressive language instead of language in their headlines.

The world’s best newspapers know that exclamation points don’t always make for good headlines

 3. Cover letters

The cover letter is like the resume’s more expressive cousin. Leaving behind the dates and logistics, it’s your chance to really talk yourself up. A good cover letter expresses who you are to your potential employer, and it might just land you that dream job.

While enthusiasm is appreciated in any work environment, your tone should remain professional. Exclaiming how badly you want the job or how fun it would be to work together (!!!) will not make you any more qualified. Keep the tone serious while expressing genuine interest in the work.

4. PowerPoint presentations

Visual presentations are a great way to share information. They offer a simple format with bullet points, graphs, definitions and images. In fact, presentations don’t need much punctuation at all.

In an informative presentation there should be no need for exclamations. The visual portion can help clarify or organize your talking points, but the presenter should be getting more attention than the slideshow. If you feel the need to express hope, surprise or urgency, use the expressive powers of voice instead of an exclamation point. 

A good PowerPoint presentation does not rely on exclamation points to express emotion and excitement.

Enchant your audience with your stellar presentation skills—not your punctuation

5. Advertising copy

The best print ads use creativity to connect a feeling to a product or service. The key here lies in word associations, stirring images and new perspectives. When I see an exclamation point in an advertisement I imagine this conversation:

   “I’m liking this copy, but I need to feel the excitement. How can we make the excitement more apparent?”

Adds exclamation point with Sharpie.

   “Perfect.”

Falling back on punctuation is tempting. But ultimately, more creative solutions exist for those willing to work a bit harder.

Expression vs. exclamation

It’s true that there are times when nothing will do but a good ol’ exclamation point. But in today’s digital world, we’re talking less and less, relying instead on exciting punctuation and emojis to make up for a lack of facial expressions, body language and inflection.

Emojis are used to express emotion, but they're no substitute for well-written text.

Emojis are great, but they can’t replace powerful language

There’s often a need to more accurately express all the emotion that can be lost when putting our thoughts into writing. We look at a sentence and think, “Does this come off too harsh? Do these words express what I’m feeling?”

When the answer is no, too often we think throwing an exclamation point at the end of a statement will pump emotion through every word. Resist that urge and believe in your writing skills. A well-formed sentence can express excitement on its own.

So here’s my challenge to you as a writer: drop those extra exclamation points. Then take the opportunity to get creative and make your words pop off the page all by themselves. No yelling necessary.


Need some help with your content? VeraContent is a creative language agency that produces expressive and exciting material—without excessive exclamation points.