Translation of Humor or Humor of Translation?

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.

 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.  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.

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.

Outright jokes are not the holy grail of comedy, as any stand-up comedian will tell you. To 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.  In the real world, of course, translators have a certain kind of shadowy power. But all kidding aside, what makes a good translator of humor?

“We talk about the cerebral difficulties, but at some point you have to become an artist, and just work with what you can find,” said Roger Sedarat, an associate professor of English at Queens College who has translated the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez and the modern Iranian poet Nader Naderpour, and moderated a panel at this year’s convention on rendering the lighter side of Persian verse.

As with serious prose, it’s no coincidence that the best translators are among the most enthusiastic readers. “I feel that when the translator is laughing, the humor will manage to get across,” the Greek translator Myrsini Gana said, adding: “One of the biggest difficulties when translating David Sedaris’s humor is that you laugh so hard that it is almost impossible to concentrate.”

No matter how resourceful the translator, though, there are limits to what can be faithfully done to elicit a laugh. “You try to save as much as possible without driving yourself crazy,” said Ingo Herzke, who has rendered Shteyngart into German. But, he admitted, “More often than not you have to let a joke go.”


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