Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Translating Humor

Ethics is an important subject, and one we’ll come back to, but for a total change of pace, here is an article I noticed about translating comedy.

Humor is especially tricky to translate not only because different people and different cultures find different things funny, but also because of the fact that languages work in different ways. As the author of the article points out, English vocabulary and grammar “allow for endlessly amusing confusions of meanings.” For example, it is easy to play around with “tale” and “tail” in English and to make a joke based on how the two words sound the same but have different meanings, but such a joke wouldn’t work in Swedish (or in many other languages), as the Swedish translations for those words are not so similar. Incidentally, this sort of linguistic complexity, or confusion, depending on your point of view, is one reason so many people find it difficult to learn English, especially in terms of spelling and pronunciation.

Word play and humor add so much to a text and sometimes can be truly essential to the story or document, but they are incredibly difficult to translate well. When it comes to translating humor, there are three main choices. A translator can leave a joke or word play out entirely, which then of course may affect the meaning of the work and/or cause other changes to have to be made to the text. Or a translator can retain the joke but translate it literally, so the humor is lost but the words are retained. A footnote could possibly be added here to explain what the joke means in the source language, especially if the humor is important to the text and to the reader’s understanding of it. Finally, a translator can adapt it to the target language, creating a somewhat similar atmosphere or sense. Obviously, a translator has to make such a decision on a case by case basis and there is no simple rule for how to deal with these kinds of situations.

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