It takes a high level of creativity to be able to translate humor from one language into another, which is not funny at all.
How do you translate humor, which is a cultural thing? How can you translate something that is funny in one language and make it sound the same in another language? Translators are experts in translating from one language to different languages. Admittedly there are languages that are more difficult to translate than others and there are words and phrases in one language that have no equivalent in other languages. These are just some of the challenges faced by translators in the course of their work.
However, one other challenge that does not seem funny to translators is translating humor, which can take a toll on the translator. Why? At the first instance, what is funny in one language may not be funny in another language. Or it could be a case of lost in translation because it is truly difficult to translate humor.
A bit of luck and some creativity should accompany this type of translation task. David Bellos described it in his book, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything.” Mr. Bellos is a Princeton professor of French and Comparative Literature. He said that to approach this task is to forget about maintaining fidelity and find a joke in the target language that will have the same tone or ring the same bells as the source. He added that by using this as the standard, punch lines in one language will not be as hard to translate as the weather in another language.
There are two complications that could arise – wordplay and cultural references. It will always be a dilemma if the humor is bounded by culture. The translator could either add more text via footnotes to explain the translation or risk losing readers by using cryptic allusion. One recourse is to leave things alone, because the English is increasingly spoken worldwide. This is especially true with the ever-growing number of chat acronyms, which you might also call as Internet jargon, cyberslang, leet speak or textese.
The difference in expressions being used is one of the main reasons why humor is difficult to translate into other languages. Sometimes, there simply are no equivalent phrases or expressions. In English it is very easy to say, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Yet in other languages, this expression may never be understood or will take much longer explanation for it to be grasped.
Another reason is the cultural difference. Different languages have different standards on how humor is expressed. This is much more blatant when the humor is directed at someone else’s expense, which may be all right in some cultures but frowned upon or taboo in another. You can liken it to table manners, which vary by culture and region. In the U.S. it could be funny to call a guy a “momma’s boy” if he is still living with his parents in his 20s and beyond. However, in countries where extended families are prevalent, such as in Asia, this kind of joke is not funny at all.
Tone changes go hand in hand with language change, thereby rendering humor harder to translate. A translator must be very well versed in the culture of the people for the target languages to be able to find alternative jokes in the same vein as the source language. Or better yet, the translator has to be a native speaker who understands the culture deeper to render the translation as hilarious as the original.
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