Two Translators Walk Into A Bar…: The Challenges of Translating Humor
Last year, an Australian news anchor who was interviewing the Dalai Lama with the aid of an interpreter opened the exchange with a joke: “The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop and says, ‘Can you make me one with everything?’ ” His Holiness’s baffled stare, viewed by nearly two million people on YouTube, presents a lesson in the risks of translating humor.
But among the polyglots who convened this month in Rochester for the annual meeting of the American Literary Translators Association — where the topic was “The Translation of Humor, or, the Humor of Translation” — there is a sense of cautious optimism. At least some measure of levity, these dedicated professionals believe, must be able to migrate between languages. The French, after all, seem to appreciate Woody Allen.
“It takes a bit of creativity and a bit of luck,” said David Bellos, a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton, who, as he prepared his keynote speech for this year’s conference, confessed to finding a disconcerting shortage of jokes beginning: “A pair of translators walk into a bar.”
“The received wisdom that you can never translate a joke is worth examining a bit more closely,” Bellos told me. The trick to translating humor, Bellos argues in his book, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything,” is to abandon the idea of perfect fidelity and instead try to find a joke that rings some of the same bells as the original. By this standard, many simple punch lines, from the morbid to the absurd, are not that much harder to translate than the weather.
When complications do arise, they are usually caused by one of two tricky areas: cultural references and wordplay, according to those seasoned in the art. Culture-bound humor often presents a dilemma: you can either lose readers with a cryptic allusion or you can burden the text with explanatory footnotes. In an increasingly English-speaking world, the best solution is sometimes to let it stand. To take one recent example, the Danish edition of Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story,” a satirical novel set in near-future New York, leaves untouched such chat acronyms as timatov (“think I’m about to openly vomit”) and roflaarp (“rolling on floor looking at addictive rodent pornography”).