Ask any translator and they would tell you that the translator’s biggest nightmare is a pun. Humor is a device that is tuned to break our brain’s schematic functioning and impact it by surprising it. And the translation of humor rarely succeeds in doing it without complications.
Can humor be translated?
It is often said that humor is something absolutely universal. It is quite tempting to believe that a humorous text can be translated into any language with ease and that humor will produce the same effect in other cultures. However, the reason that many translators struggle with humor is because it is not just a task for simple translation but also cultural localization. A humorous text can easily lose some of its charms when translated. It can fail miserably, or in the worst case, it can even offend the reader. The reason is that many jokes are based on puns or rhymes which tend to disappear in a translation. Many translators find the task impossible.
Another reason for jokes not translating well is because of the socio-cultural context. A culture that venerates an animal, for example, might not appreciate a joke on the animal by a culture that perhaps eats it! Which is why many translators resort to localization- they place the joke in the cultural context of the language that the translation is in, so that the effect is as close to the original text as possible. This tiny metamorphosis is essential for a good joke to translate well.
Culture. Not just, language
A good translator not just knows two languages well. She is also extremely well versed with the two cultures. Hence translation is never a process that is isolated from culture. Context is a key factor in translation and nowhere is it more important than in translating humor. Humor requires absolute cultural immersion. Also, when combined with an image, there are many semiotic angles that get added to the humor that the translator has to absolutely decode. Take, for example, a comic book. The image shows the attitude and actions of a character, especially through facial expressions. The translation hence has to go with these actions. At the same time, there are puns and rhymes in the text that need to translate well. Add to this the space restriction imposed by a speech bubble and the translation becomes pretty much impossible.
Learn From A Joke
All this leads us to make a point for humor as a great medium for students to learn language from. For example, start watching humor sketches in the language that you are learning. Watching sketches allows you to familiarize yourself with everyday language but also with the culture of the country. Between the irony and cynicism widely used in France, black humor and the British second degree, self-mockery of the Japanese or the Spanish… each country has its own sense of humor. Also, you know what to avoid joking about depending on the country.
The Pun of It All
Nothing helps you enjoy a language like a good pun. Puns are built on homophones that also can have a strong cultural context. Cartoons, comics, humor articles are all stuffed with puns. Make it a habit of picking them up. Also, certain humor can be typical of cultures, Auto-derision, sarcasm, irony, slapstick, wordplay- each language and culture come with its own characteristic humor, that can really help you pick up nuances that so far have escaped you.
Slang Away To Glory
One dimension that language training sometimes forget to teach students is slang. Textbook articles or newspaper excerpts seldom speak like the man on the street and that might result in you speaking more like an erudite scholar even in the most banal situations. A great way to remedy this is to listen to jokes, one-man shows, and such- which are replete with every day speak and are actually amazing practice for the practical learner.