Translation of Humour across Cultures

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kim_jong_un.jpgHumour inevitably gets lost in translation. Find out how a joke about Kim Jong Un was reported by a Chinese newspaper leading to some head scratching over in Asia.

Here at Kwintessential we love a good joke every now and then. However, as we work with many different cultures, we discovered that humour isn’t always as universal as you might think. In fact, humour is very culture specific; what’s regarded as funny in one country may not go over well in another one.

Recently, the Chinese newspaper the People’s Daily proved that humour can and does get lost in translation. The paper had printed an article stating that the North Korean ruler Kim-Jong-Un was declared ‘sexiest man alive for 2012’. The article was even accompanied by “steamy” pictures of the dictator.

The paper’s source, however, was The Onion, a spoof website.  This is a clear example of satire being lost in translation, but sometimes humour related misunderstandings don’t even require two languages. When a British tourist made a joke on Twitter about ‘digging up’ Marilyn Monroe this year, he was welcomed at LAX airport by a number of security agents that wanted to make sure he didn’t bring any shovels.  

Digging up Maryln Monroe Twitter

Comedian Stewart Lee has analysed the subject of translating humour thoroughly. His main focus was on Germany, as this country is often regarded as humourless. According to Steward, this statement isn’t true: the humour in Germany is just different from the “pullback-and-reveal” humour we are so fond of in Great Britain. This quintessentially English style of humour reveals the most important part of the sentence at the end; in the German language, however, this is impossible. In addition, German compound words cannot be used for the comedy based on misunderstanding we like so much. What you find funny is thus related to the language you speak.

Even though cultural differences in humour can partly be explained by language structure, the cultural element of humour mustn’t be overlooked. Containing a lot of puns, Chinese humour for example resembles the English style of humour, but the cultural references that are essential to most jokes cannot be translated. There is, for example, a Chinese joke in which a woman keeps getting up every time the bus she is in stops; as Mandarin can be read both from left to right and from right to left, the sentence “Stopping at the next bus stop” can also mean “When the bus stops, stand up.” If this joke were to be translated, it would require so much explanation in English that it’s no longer funny.

Whether countries prefer satire, slapstick or a style of humour we aren’t even aware of, fact is that humour exists in every culture. This is why laughter is featured on the list of “human universals” created by anthropologist Donald Brown. Moreover, laughter is so universal that it can even be found in other species. When primatologist Davila Ross conducted research on primates, she discovered that they respond to tickling in the same way was human children.

Even though it is important to be aware of cultural differences with regard to humour, in the end, most people laugh about the same things. Bodily functions, for example, are a good subject to turn to when telling a joke to people from a variety of countries. It’s even the subject of the oldest joke known to man, which reads “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” Physical humour also translates better then spoken humour, and embarrassment is a topic that is appreciated by many cultures too.

People laughing at a joke

When telling a joke to someone that is from another country, you should keep in mind that next to jokes that are universally regarded as funny, all cultures have a different style of humour. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing though: take the opportunity to find out about what makes your conversation partner crack with laughter and you might learn a few new jokes along the way!

by Elise Kuip

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