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  • Zineb Outnouna

The Challenges of Translating Humor

Translating humor is not the same as translating other contents. In addition to being skilled, knowledgeable, and experienced in both languages, the translator must be familiar with the cultural, political, social, and religious differences of both languages they are working with to ensure that the reader finds it funny. It's a tricky business with high chances of errors, especially when it comes to nuanced topics.

Here are the reasons why translating humor requires extreme caution:

The major challenge of translating humor is culture. Note that the translator not only needs to translate the words, but humor should have the desired effect after translation. Hence, the joke needs to make sense to the people who will read it. What might be funny and appropriate in one culture, might sound bizarre, offensive, and attacking in the other.

Creativity is another major issue. When you translate humor, you need to be creative so that your translation has the same effect on your readers as the original text had on its readers. The translator should not change the context of the message just to make readers laugh. Rather, the translator needs to be creative by staying within the boundaries that the author has created. It’s the only way to get the readers laughing while maintaining the integrity of the original text.

In addition to culture and creativity, translating linguistically based humor is nearly impossible. This type of humor, although simple to understand, is very difficult to translate because the essence of the joke lies in wordplay, homographs, and homophones, which tend to disappear once translated into another language.

A translator needs to understand when they can translate a joke and when they can’t. This is a skill on its own. For instance, if an American author jokes about someone being Amish or Irish, translating it into Chinese won’t have the same effect. Even if you manage to use a Chinese equivalent of a concept like Amish, it won’t have the same effect. That’s because Chinese audiences won’t understand the background of the joke. So, it’s the translator’s responsibility to understand whether the translation of the joke is important, or it’s best leave out the humor in some areas and translate the rest.

In a nutshell, translating humor is tricky and requires a good understanding of both languages and cultures. If you want to translate your message, hire experts who can effectively convey the insight, knowledge, and nuance of the original text in an engaging way.

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