This week, I was at the British Comparative Literature Association’s conference in London, where I presented on the translation of wordplay, using Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and two of its translations to Swedish as an example.
As with other aspects of humor, wordplay is culturally dependent; where wordplay adds an extra challenge is that it is also linguistically dependent. Wordplay is usually based on the polysemic nature of language, which means that it works at both the word level and above.
In my research, I have found a variety different methods for translating wordplay. These are:
• Deleting the wordplay (and possibly other text as well, depending on the context and the usage of the wordplay).
• Translating the wordplay on one level only, which usually means the humor disappears.
• Translating the wordplay directly, which is generally only possible if the languages/cultures are related, or if a certain bit of wordplay just happens to work in more than one language.
• Adding an explanation to the text or adding extratextual material (footnotes, introduction).
• Replacing the wordplay with another pun or another kind of humor or rhetorical device.
• Adding in new wordplay or even completely new text, in order to show readers the tone of the source text and that wordplay is used in it.
I can’t say that one solution is always the best one to choose or that another should always be avoided, or make any other broad statements. However, my general feeling was that deletion was not such a good idea since it ignores authorial intentions and the tone of the text, and I also thought that adding an explanation usually ruined the humor (if you need a joke explained to you, doesn’t that detract from the point of the joke?). In my analysis of Alice in Wonderland and those two Swedish translations, I found that a strategy that was frequently successful was creating new wordplay in place of wordplay that, for linguistic, cultural, or contextual reasons, wouldn’t work in Swedish.