Comedy! The very word conjures up images and associations that can have people in peals of laughter even before they see or hear something funny. Comedy is the realm of the imagination. We do not laugh at something just because it is funny, but more because we associate it with something much deeper and more personal. Funny is not the same for everyone. Even two people who have near-identical backgrounds can differ in what they deem ‘funny.’ When humour is such an individual experience even within a particular culture, what are the chances that translated humour will have the same effect on someone from another culture altogether? Let’s see.
Visual vs. Verbal Humour
From the perspective of translation, visual humour has a clear edge. A man slipping on a banana peel is as universally funny as…well, a man being poked in the eyes with a pair of fingers. Let’s face it – the reason that slapstick comedy is so popular is that people all over the world can relate to comical mishaps where physical humour is concerned. The same is not true with verbal humour, unfortunately. For a joke to be funny, it has to be told within a particular frame of reference. That frame of reference encompasses so many aspects of culture that it boggles the mind: humour has socio-economic connotations; it has religious implications; it is intimately connected with preferences in satire; in short, it is such a complex domain that only the brave can dare to venture there.
Historically, humour has had its own set of challenges; in fact, the roadblocks that modern comedy translators face are likely throwbacks to the age of Archilochus and Hipponax – whose sexually loaded humour reeks of Benny Hill and the dialogue writers of the hugely popular Carry On series – or was it the other way round? Innuendo of any sort is purely a verbal acrobatic exercise, and is very hard to duplicate (or even replicate) in another language. Even forms of intellectual humour that do not constantly refer to biological functions are extremely difficult to translate. Take, for example, the agon – the part of a classic Greek comedy that consisted of verbal jousts. Such a translation undertaking requires a sound knowledge of both languages because it requires the mental and linguistic suppleness of a Nadia Comăneci – who some consider to be the greatest woman gymnast of all time (I cannot but agree, though I may be biased as she’s also Romanian). Translating an Aristophanes play, however, into another language can – and has – been successfully done, but only by the best in the business.
Modern Comedy Translation
Today’s translators of comedy have their work cut out for them, just as their predecessors did. There are as many cultural nuances to consider as there were in the days of Aristophanes. Try telling a uniquely “American” joke to a Berliner and you’ll know how difficult it can be. Or attempt to translate one of Sir Humphrey’s (from the popular TV series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister) inimitable one-liners into Arabic, and you’ll quickly learn the meaning of the word deadpan. To translate humour from one language into another is to take the essence of one culture and transform it into an elixir that has magical properties in another. That’s what comedy translation is all about.
Comedy Translation Experts Today
This isn’t to say that it cannot be done. There are translators who are experts in the field of comedy in our age that can put the likes of Andreas Divus to shame, simply because language is more dynamic today than ever. Changing meanings and blending cultures have made it a skill that requires nimbleness that would make Ms Comaneci envious. If you’re willing to take the time and effort to find them, then you have a chance of striking gold. Otherwise, you’ll just be left cold.