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

Translating humor in multilingual content can pose a huge challenge for creative content agencies.

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!

Melissa Haun

Melissa Haun is a translator, writer, and editor from Asheville, North Carolina. A self-described linguistics nerd and food fanatic, she spends most of her time either eating, writing, or writing about eating.


1 reply
  1. Oleg Gordeev
    Oleg Gordeev says:

    Thank you for the great article, Melissa! Jokes, wordplay, and rhymes are definitely among the top challenges that a translator faces. Handling them is more about creation and copywriting than translation.

    Reply

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