Volume 17, No. 1 
January 2013

  Paula Liendo


Front Page

Select one of the previous 62 issues.


Index 1997-2013

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
Translation Can Be Fun
by John C. Alleman

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant and Worker Bee
Found in Translation by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche
reviewed by Gabe Bokor

  Translators and the Computer
Human Translation vs. Machine Translation: Rise of the Machines
by Ilya Ulitkin
Friendly Files and Fancy Formats
by Jost Zetzsche

  Medical Translation
Hints and Links for Medical Translators
by Palma Chatonnet-Marton

Translation Theory
Translation Strategies: A Review and Comparison of Theories
by Zohre Owji, M.A.
TTR Changes in Different Directions of Translation
by Sergiy Fokin, PhD, AP

Business & Finance
Terminology for the English ⇔ Spanish translation of mercantile documents used in international trade
by Karina Socorro Trujillo

The Challenges of Interpreting Humor (a.k.a. “Don’t Kill the Killjoy”)
by Paula J. Liendo

How to Challenge a Brazilian Rear Admiral to a Duel
by Danilo Nogueirao

Translator Education
Methods of Enhancing Speaking Skills of Elementary Level Students
by Yulia Morozova
Looking for New Methods to Study the Regulation of Reading Comprehension
by Christian Soto, Valentina Carrasco
La innovación del Espacio Europeo de Educación Superior vs. la tradición educativa: la terminología y la fraseología del ámbito académico (español ⇔ inglés)
Esther Vázquez y del Árbol

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal

The Challenges of Interpreting Humor

(a.k.a. “Don’t Kill the Killjoy”)

by Paula J. Liendo

nterpreting is the revenge of intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.”

Susan Sontag

The context

Simultaneous interpreting leaves no time to be creative, nor does it allow for research into social, cultural or linguistic issues!
It had been another exhausting eight-hour day of simultaneous interpreting (with long breaks, which did not make it any less tiring, I must say). My clients had asked me to stay over for dinner, which was not included in the original contract. This was a special occasion, the golden brooch to a three-day series of meetings of high-rank executives of an international logistics company. My clients were “so, so sorry” not to have realized before that the two foreigners I was interpreting for would be lost when “the comedian” arrived. “You see, it’s a surprise,” they said, “for one of our employees, who is retiring.” The foreigners (an Australian and an Indian) deserved to know what their partners were laughing about, after all. And as challenge is my middle name, I accepted to do the job and face the music—or the jokes in this case.

To make a long story short, I was in for a few surprises. Not only was the comedian a big-name impersonator in Argentina but he also interacted with the guests. This is nothing to write home about if you are a regular member of the audience, but I was an interpreter, only one of the three women present, sitting between two men who clearly did not look like the average Argentinian. I knew I would have to cope with any of us three being the butt of the joke- and I was absolutely right. The comedian interacted with us for a while, asked what I was doing there and where the two gentlemen were from, and finished with a punch line which was something like “Oh, come on! Why bother doing that? They won’t get a thing anyway!”

Fortunately, the feedback I received was positive. The foreigners seemed generally pleased with their rate of understanding and they even praised the comedian as funny, smart and quick-witted—which suggests that either they are accomplished liars or I did a generally decent job if they were able to assess the performer’s talent. Mission accomplished? The initial sense of achievement started to vanish a few hours later, when I realized that the comedian’s question, “Why bother?,” was all I could think of. I started to wonder if it had really been worth the effort and decided that, once I got home, I should devote some serious thinking to the issue of interpreting humor.

The social side

Humor is distinctly a human phenomenon, differentiating us from animals, but it is also a form of social play, according to recent research. In humans, laughter relates to symbolically created and mediated surprises, uncertainties and insights (Vandaele, 2010). Social theories sustain that the focus on the victim or target (the so-called butt of the joke), heightens the self-esteem of those who appreciate the funny side of the episode. Vandaele (ibid.) sustains that humor fosters a peculiar kind of socialization, as it exploits, confirms or creates inclusion (in-groups), exclusion (out-groups) and hierarchies between persons, particularly comprehenders and non-comprehenders.

Indeed, the boosting of self-esteem was clearly the reason behind including the gags in the dinner party in the first place—an employee was retiring after many years of service, so the general morale of the group probably needed some pumping up. And, of course, my commission meant ensuring the inclusion of the foreigners, who should not be made to feel as outsiders by any means. On the other hand, though, the comedian’s “attacks” were clear attempts at their (or should I say our?) exclusion—no wonder Freud considered humor a mitigated form of aggression (1905, in Vandaele, ibid.). Of course, I should not take this personally, since many other employees were also the butt of his jokes as the comedian walked around the tables impersonating a former Argentinian President famous for his absent-mindedness, mistaking people for well-known actors, T.V. hosts and sports stars.

Thus, apart from focusing on delivering as accurate and timely a translation as possible, I had to brief my audience about the President’s background and the veritable spectacle he gave once on television, mistaking names, people and even the way offstage, which eventually led to the destruction of his image. And I also rushed to explain who all the famous people mentioned were, together with other conversations going on at our table at the same time, particularly when the “butts” were not Argentinian either and did not know who they were being compared to. (At one moment everyone was googling pictures of a late Argentinian T.V. host of a match-making show to explain to a perplexed Cuban-American why he had been told his show was great and he was surely “in a better place” now. And of course, I had to interpret this, too.)

The comedian´s use of incongruity rendered other trying moments. The so-called “incongruity theories” of humor tend to focus on its “cognitive” features. Laughter occurs when a rule has not been followed or an expectation is set-up and not confirmed: the mere sight of a former president walking around the dining room and mistaking people for celebrities together with the witty way in which he found resemblances provoked thunderous laughter in all locals. In this case, humor clearly fulfilled a social role—there were no superiority feelings as participants agreed the show was a form of social play. Had I failed to include the “interpreter’s notes” providing background information of the social and political implications of the impersonation (which I did completely out of a survival instinct rather than expertise, needless to say), the foreigners might have interpreted many of the gags as sheer aggression.

The cultural side

Cultural factors are largely responsible for the well-known saying “humor does not travel well.” The literature on this subject vastly discusses humor as an epitome of “untranslatability,” and the linguists who dare propose plausible solutions focus mostly on dubbing and subtitling films and T.V. programs, and other endeavors that do not require the “real-time” output of simultaneous interpreting. For instance, Gáll (2008) suggests that translators should strike a balance between the two extremes of total assimilation to the target-language culture or complete adherence to the norms of the source culture by “finding some sort of compromise” and “keeping as much as possible of its informational and pragmatic content.” Hickey (2000) suggests adapting the text to fit the target-language, and is completely against the use of translator notes to help readers understand, if not appreciate, the “untranslatable” piece of language. He claims that the effect of this kind of action results in the opposite of what the translator should aim at: it destroys humor by explaining how the text would have been funny if the translator had not overhauled it. And after all, as E.B. White said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

Looking back at my job at the dinner party, I must admit that my initial confidence about my performance in social terms waned rapidly when considering cultural issues. I failed miserably to come up with “transcreation,” defined as an artistic permission to craft an equivalent expression in which the content of the message has been culturally and linguistically adapted and thus is fresh, original and funny (Paris, 2010). What is more, at times I struggled to explain why people were laughing, and all I triggered in my listeners was a nod of acknowledgement in the best of scenarios (and a meek smile of sympathy in the worst).

Parody, in fact, “is only accessible to those who are at least vaguely acquainted with the parodied discourse” (Vandaele, 2010), and all this comedian did was parody. His two appearances involved the impersonation of two paradigmatic figures of our country—a former president with a reputation of absent-mindedness (as mentioned earlier) and a sensationalist T.V. journalist famous for carrying out interviews using a lie detector. At this time, however, my “interpreter’s notes” came in handy again as my provision of background information helped the foreigners understand not only socio-political issues but also contextual data, such as the presence of the clumsy-looking prop standing for a lie detector, or why the retiring employee was asked some awkward and tricky questions about his professional performance in the company (anecdotes which the whole audience seemed to know about and enjoyed with mirth).

The linguistic side

The close bond between language and culture is undeniable. Many of the linguistic problems involved in translating humor cannot be strictly separated from cultural untranslatability, while others are related to (socio)linguistic particularities and metalinguistic communication (Vandaele, 2010). As for the linguistic obstacles faced when interpreting humor, Argentinians do not rely heavily on metalinguistic features such as puns (luckily), but appropriateness of linguistic choices is certainly a defining sociolinguistic feature of what makes a nation laugh. Paris (2010) sustains that cultural jokes may be inappropriate and offensive and should, in general, be avoided in the context of dinner parties. However, I was faced with a number of gags about topics as taboo as self-pleasuring and misunderstandings during sexual intercourse, among others. Hickey (2000) sustains that even though humans tend to behave in context-appropriate ways, appropriateness is an elusive concept and varies greatly across cultures and situations. When dealing with humor, or any other culturally-determined issue, Hickley proposes focusing on the illocutionary force of the text (Austin, 1962 in Hickley, ibid.). He claims the translator should concentrate on the effect produced or the reaction triggered by the text in the target audience, and translate in order to answer the question “What is the effect of the text in the target reader/listener and which linguistic devices have contributed to that effect?” rather than “What does the text say?.”

Nonetheless, for my interpreting job, Hickley’s (2000) proposition was, once again, unviable: the text could not be transformed to fit the target language culture, not only due to time constraints but also to the fact that the listeners belonged to different cultures, and that my knowledge of either of them was quite limited. After my first bold attempt at translating the joke about masturbation literally and bluntly and after seeing the look of utter shock on my listeners’ faces, I decided I would much rather they understood less but did not think so low of my manners. A few minutes later, when the story about the couple having intercourse came, I opted for killing the joke, explaining, poker-faced, that people were laughing because the husband in the story had mistaken his wife’s shrieks of desperation at receiving a shock from an electrified-wire fence with an aural expression of pleasure. And the prudish, muffled giggles that replaced the embarrassed looks of horror told me this was, if not good enough, not as bad as literalness.

The loneliest side: the interpreter’s

Paris (2010) suggests that translating humor should be tackled by two linguists teaming up, each an expert in either the source or the target language, and both possessing a good sense of humor. Princeton Professor David Bellos (Hoffman, 2012) claims that both creativity and a bit of luck are necessary, suggestively acknowledging, at the same time, that there seems to be “a disconcerting shortage of jokes beginning A pair of translators walk into a bar.” Novelist Gary Shteyngart has stated (Hoffman, ibid.) that “(n)othing is worse than killing the joke by over-explaining.” If the not insignificant element of time constraints in interpreting is added, it could be concluded that interpreters dealing with humor can only expect gloom and doom. Or can they?

Usually not comedians by nature and with no time, resources or cultural knowledge to resort to, interpreters must grow a hard skin and rely on their strategic competences when dealing with jokes, gags or any comic text. Being strategic is, of course, central to all successful interpretings but humor implies some special requirements. Hoffman (2012) sustains that even for comedians, it is harder to reproduce a seductive, humorous tone such as Dickens’ or Cosby’s than to render a one-liner into a foreign language, and states that “(t)o really make people snort milk out their noses, you need to earn their trust with a convincing persona that summons an atmosphere of ambient hilarity.”

That is not a bad suggestion for interpreters, who also need to win their clients’ trust. Setting the right atmosphere is crucial: to make listeners comfortable, they must share all the information the local audience have—in my experience, namely, the socio-political contexts of the characters impersonated (as explained above) and even the pragmatic implications of some rhetorical devices. An example of the latter is the comedian’s stylistic use of intertextuality when imitating the former Argentinian president. At some point, “the president” said he was unemployed now and, as he is a lawyer, the company should hire his services for many reasons. He said “People say I am honest, and I am honest. People say I am hardworking, and I am hardworking. People say I am intelligent, and I am honest.”

Besides the obvious recourse to incongruity through the reversal of expectations, the comedian was tapping into a very famous and successful campaign commercial, considered to have been crucial in this politician´s electoral victory, where he (a presidential candidate at that time) kept repeating “People say I am boring” and making a connection between “being boring” and being “honest and hardworking.” Ask any Argentinian who is more than twenty-eight if they can recognize the phrase “Dicen que soy aburrido”—chances are they will recall the commercial at once. In fact, after interpreting these lines, a roar of laughter from the Argentinian audience filled the room, and I felt compelled to provide my listeners with a brief summary of the background to the joke mentioned above. And fortunately, once again my gut feeling was right: they nodded and smiled (possibly, in appreciation), and even if it did not crack them up, it helped them understand the mood of their colleagues.

Another useful strategy to resort to, for humor in particular (although it can be applied to any interpreting situation), is the “intimacy” achieved by speaking to somebody straight into their ear, without anyone else, particularly the speakers of the local language, knowing. This privilege gives interpreters what Hoffman (2012) calls a “shadowy power,” which, if used ethically, can be extremely effective. Macdonald (2012) recalls a well-known interpreter who, when faced with untranslatable humor, “tells her listeners that the speaker has just made an appalling/untranslatable joke and they really should laugh to keep her/him happy.” Hoffman (ibid.) cites a well-known anecdote in which former American President Jimmy Carter was perplexed to find that some lines of his speech at a Japanese University were met with an uproar of laughter, and on asking his interpreter why the joke had been so well received, he got the following answer: “I told the audience, ‘President Carter told a funny story; everyone must laugh.’” Of course, it is important to know where to draw the line between ethical and unethical. Yet, if the interpreter has managed to establish a good rapport with the foreigners (which was my case, being the occasion an informal dinner and being the foreigners satisfactorily wined and dined by the time the show started), taking some liberties such as providing useful though unrequested background information cannot be frowned upon.

In conclusion

Coming full circle, I would like to answer the comedian’s question, “Why bother?” True, humor does not travel well, and simultaneous interpreting is a harrowing, treacherous journey that might eventually kill all the joy. Yet, is the ride worth it? In my humble opinion, it certainly is. Simultaneous interpreting leaves no time to be creative, nor does it allow for research into social, cultural or linguistic issues. The interpreter is at risk of passing as utterly ineffective, painfully slow and even downright rude. Having said this, interpreting humor implies crossing cultural, social and even academic borders. Being honest with clients about the shortcomings of our work, sharing with them the difficulties faced when translating humor and providing them with the background information they need at least to understand why the others laugh (if laughing themselves is not possible) might result in a good performance, worthy of praise and appreciation. If the interpreter has communicated a fair amount of meaning, albeit not in a funny way, ensured the foreigners have not felt socially excluded and encouraged their appreciation of a different culture, the effort was most probably worth it.


Gáll, L. K. (2008).Translating Humor across Cultures: Verbal Humor in Animated Films. The Round Table—Partium Journal of English Studies, I [1], 1-11.

Hickey, L. (2000). Aproximación pragmalingüística a la traducción del humor. Retrieved November 28 from http://cvc.cervantes.es/lengua/aproximaciones/hickey.htm

Hoffman, J. (October 19, 2012). Me Translate Funny One Day. The New York Times, p. BR31.

Macdonald, P. (2012). Who’s Listening/Reading? Translation Journal, 16, 4.

Paris, A. (2010). Translating Humor: Achieving the Universal Chuckle. Retrieved November 22, 2012 from http://www.acclaro.com/translation-localization-blog/translating-humor-achieving-the-universal-chuckle-99

Vandaele, J. (2010). Humor in Translation. In Yves Gambier & Luc van Doorslaer (eds.), Handbook of Translation Studies. Vol 1 (pp. 147-52). Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.