Translating humour

Conference interpreters are confronted with several challenges during the course of their work. Whenever I tell someone that I am a simultaneous interpreter, they generally respond by saying how impressive it is to be able to speak and listen at the same time and that it must be difficult to learn all of the terminology that you need to know in order to be able to interpret at technical conferences.

One of the lesser-known challenges, however, is translating jokes from one language into another. While this isn’t required at every conference, the occasional joke is bound to crop up every now and then. The fact is, most of the time the joke – which might be side-splittingly funny in the source language – will not even be remotely amusing in the target language, if it can be translated at all, that is. This can be due to the fact that the punch line is country or culture-specific, but what I want to focus on are jokes which use a play on words to make people laugh, because I had a challenge of this kind myself a few months back, albeit in a non-work-related setting.

A friend of mine from England was visiting me in Germany for my birthday and we were having a celebration with my wife’s family, all of whom are German. In order to introduce my Germany family to a crucial part of English party culture, he brought over a box of crackers. I’m not talking about the type of crackers which posh people eat with cheese, but the type which you pull open with another person in order to access an embarrassingly unfashionable paper crown and – to bring me to the point of this story – a joke written on a small piece of paper. These jokes are generally terrible and are more likely to trigger a groan than a giggle, but on this occasion one of them was actually fairly good. It was so good, in fact, that my friend insisted I translate it into German for my wife’s aunt so that she could join in the laughter. The only problem – aside from the fact that this was a Christmas joke and the party in question was at the end of March – was that the joke went like this:

Q: How does Good King Wenceslas like his pizza?

A: Deep-pan, crisp and even.

For those of you wondering why this joke is so hilarious, it is a play on the words from the famous Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas, who, so the song goes, last looked out on the Feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.

When I tried to explain to my friend that this joke could not be translated, he accused me of being lazy and said that I just couldn’t be bothered to do it. I protested, saying that even if I translated the joke literally, it would not be remotely funny in German. Eventually he backed down, but I could see he was disappointed that the best joke ever to come out of a Christmas cracker would remain lost on a middle-aged German lady.

The above joke is a prime example of how difficult it is to translate a play on words from one language into another. There are, however, jokes which can be translated. I had the misfortune to hear one of them from a German friend of mine in the wake of England’s early exit from the 2014 World Cup. It goes like this:

Q: What do you call an Englishman in the last-16 of the World Cup?

A: A referee.

And who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humour.

(Some of the characters in this story have been changed to remove any potential for embarrassment).

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