Translating written humor is already difficult. Imagine having to do it in real-time or immediately after a person utters his witticisms and punch lines. This challenging situation is notably present when it comes to interpreting humor in conferences. Even highly experienced professional interpreters consider this task highly challenging.
The nature of interpreting
Language interpretation is notable for the following:
- The need for accuracy
- The need for speed
- Preference for conciseness
- Excellent speaking skills on the part of the interpreter
- No drafts in translations, everything is a final translation
Interpreting is certainly more difficult than translation. Aside from the need for accuracy, there’s the time pressure, which can result in mistakes or misrepresentations for someone who does not have the experience and adeptness in doing interpreting jobs. Interpreting produces translations that are the first and final version. There’s no more opportunity for reviews. Committing mistakes means conveying an erroneous message.
Of course, it’s possible to make some form of correction. Interpreters can take back what they said and say the correct message. This would be messy, though, as the interpreting pace will be affected, which would be problematic for both parties being bridged by the interpreter. If the interpreter fails to translate messages in time, the receiver of the message will be confused and it may become necessary to ask the speaker to slow down or repeat what was said.
Interpreting can be simultaneous or consecutive. The former means producing translations in real-time or without making the speaker pause to have the statements translated. The latter, conversely, involves a short interruption on the part of the speaker to allow the interpreter to translate.
Depending on the language pair, humor can be greatly challenging for translators. Some would even say that humor is the hardest to translate. This difficulty can be attributed to two main factors:
- The lack of equivalent words, phrases, idiom, or expressions in the target language
- Cultural backgrounds – what some consider comically amusing may not be funny to others
Humor is not universal. Different societies have their distinctive brand of humor. While it’s relatively easy to translate a joke word for word, conveying its wit and impact usually takes time and effort. In the case of jokes that have equivalent jokes in another language, a translator would have to dig into his knowledge or do some research to come up with the best translation. The resulting joke may not consist of the exact same words used in the joke, but it can deliver the intended thought and impact.
For jokes that don’t have “counterpart” jokes in another language, the translator would have to find ways to indicate that it’s supposed to be a joke. One way to do this is to put an annotation or comment stating why the translated text is supposed to be funny. This is something you can find in “fansubs” or subtitles created by fans of foreign comics, animations, dramas, movies, or TV shows. The regular subtitles are at the bottom of the screen while the annotations or comments of the “subber” (subtitle creator) are added on top.
Take note that all of these refer to translation, which means there is time to think about how to translate the joke or to do some research. Imagine how much more difficult it would be when it comes to interpreting.
The challenge in interpreting humor in conferences
As mentioned, interpreting requires speed as the translation has to be generated while a speaker talks (simultaneous) or during a pause after a few lines have been uttered (consecutive). Taking away the chance to think about the best possible translation or do some research would mean that either the interpreter is really brilliant or some of the jokes will inevitably be lost in translation.
At least three primary challenges are present in translating humor in conferences. These are the following:
- Speed of the speaker
- Delivery of the joke
It’s a given that the faster a speaker talks, the more difficult it would be to perform language interpretation. On the other hand, the setup of the conference may pose difficulties in hearing what the speakers say. There are times when interpreters pay attention to audience reaction to evaluate if they successfully translated the humor. This desire to hear both the speaker and the audience can create audibility issues.
Additionally, there’s the potential problem in the way a joke is delivered. Not every speaker is a good jester, but interpreters have the responsibility to translate a joke into the way it is intended even though the delivery leaves a lot to be desired. If the joke does not sound like a joke to the audience, the blame will likely be on the interpreter.
Exemplifying the difficulties
Here’s an example of how humor in one language can be difficult to translate.
In the following local TEDx Talks in the Philippines, the speaker says “Halimbawa, pag nangliligaw ganyan din, yong mga mommy ang nililigawan natin, yan ang mga audience natin. Pag pumunta ka sa mga bahay nila, siyempre pa-half rice half rice ka lang.“
Literally, this translates to “For example, when courting someone, we usually court the moms first, that’s our audience. When you go to their respective houses, of course you only eat half a serving of rice.”
This line from the speaker was taunting the typical Filipino habit of presenting their best foot forward when trying to court someone. This line can easily confuse a newbie interpreter.
First, there’s a shift in the person. In the first sentence, the speaker uses “natin” which is “our/we” in English but shifts to “ka” (you in English) in the second sentence. Many Filipinos tend to talk this way, but it does not confuse fellow Filipinos because everyone is already accustomed to it.
On the other hand, there’s the line “pa-half rice half rice ka lang,” which is meant to evoke a grin or some laughter. English-speaking listeners will likely fail to get how this line is supposed to be funny as they may not have a grasp of the concept of half servings of rice and why someone would eat only half a serving.
A better translation of this line would be as follows: “For example, when courting someone, we usually court the moms first. When we visit their houses, we hold back from bingeing during dinners no matter how great the food is.”
To translate humor, it may be necessary to drop some words and substitute ideas with something more relatable to the audience. The substituted idea shouldn’t be too different from the original, though. There’s a need for conciseness to present the punch line clearly. If there are words or details that tend to dilute the humor, it would be better to ditch them.
Addressing the challenges
To improve the translation of humor, it’s important for the interpreter to be acquainted with the culture of the speakers, including their commonly used expressions and references. This is not something that can be done overnight. It takes a considerable time of exposure to be truly acquainted with a culture and language. However, with the help of prep materials from the speakers or conference organizers, a proficient interpreter can do a decent job with just a few days or even an overnight preparation.
Interpreters are sometimes given guides or pointers so they have an idea of what will be said during the actual talks in the conference. They are expected to study these materials diligently before the event to help them do their interpretations faster and more accurately. There are also instances when they get copies of the exact speeches that will be delivered by their assigned speakers. In such cases, they can write their translations beforehand and read these translations as the speakers proceed with their talks. However, they need to be fully attentive to what the speakers actually say instead of just relying on the translations they prepared in advance. The speakers may change a few details or insert ad libs, which should be interpreted accordingly.
Companies and organizations, on the other hand, need to hire an experienced and reputable interpreting agency to make sure that these challenges don’t become a problem for their conferences or events. Poorly trained and inexperienced interpreters can easily get confused and fail to translate jokes and witty remarks in the ways they are intended.
Translating humor is no joke
Interpreting humor in conferences and other events is a serious business, so it should only be assigned to competent and experienced interpreters like the ones we have at Day Translations, Inc. With our extensive years of experience and network of native language experts, we guarantee contextual accuracy and the best chances for humorous stories and one-liners to retain their impact as they are translated to another language. Send us an email at Contact us for a quote on the language service you need or drop us a line at 1-800-969-6853.
Image Copyright: Anna Bizoń / 123RF Stock Photo