One of the biggest challenges facing polyglots and translators is also one of the funniest: figuring out how to translate humor into multiple languages. It can be an infuriating challenge, but what makes it so difficult? Humor involves more than just technical linguistic knowledge. While there’s certainly something to be said for understanding the grammatical structure of a language, sometimes it’s just not enough.

Essential tips on how to translate humor

Watch out for 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 in laughter. You’re left stupefied, puzzling over what was just said as you try to determine what exactly is 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. 

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?

See also: Creative translation: Everything you need to know

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 properties of 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. 

Tips for how to translate humor into multiple languages
How would you transcreate this image into another language?

See also: 5 ways to ensure a quality localization – even if you don’t speak the language

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.

Want a real-life example?

While translating a Spanish 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!

See also: 12 multilingual social media tips that really work

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. 

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.

See also: Glocalization: What it means and which brands are doing it best

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 make them laugh.

Do you have more tips on how to translate humor?