Unfortunately for comedians, the infamous play-on-words, “a guy walks into a bar… ouch,” is not universally funny. In fact, partially due to language barriers, no joke is universally funny. But, does this mean that comedy can’t be made accessible to everyone? Netflix, the international video streaming service, is enlisting thousands of translators and language specialists to translate their programs, even the comedic ones. For their weekly show, Chelsea, starring the famously crude comedian, Chelsea Handler, Netflix has hired a team of 200 translators. Every week, these translators are given 12 hours to translate Chelsea’s profane humour into 20 different languages. This is no easy feat. The translators have to be conscious of what is funny in each language, and even more conscious of what is not.
Jokes are often so difficult to translate that sometimes interpreters or translators just skip them all together. After delivering a speech at a university in Japan, American President Jimmy Carter was confused as to why one of his jokes had received such an uproar of laughter. His Japanese interpreter later explained that rather than translating the joke, he had simply told the audience to laugh. This is not an uncommon practice among interpreters. Sometimes it is better to state that the speaker is telling a joke than to over-explain the joke.
Translating a comedy show goes beyond translating words. A lot of time, humour depends on slang, word-play or idioms, which cannot be translated. Even onomatopoeias manifest themselves differently. are different. In English, the cat says “meow,” but in Vietnamese it says “meo-meo,” in Estonian it says “nau” and in Malay it says “ngjau.” This just goes to show that if the joke depends on a rhyme, a play on words or a specific sound, it is not going to be translatable. This means that translators have to find new ways to make the original joke funny, often having to change the original to be more linguistically relevant.
Understanding comedy often depends on whether or not you share a cultural background. For example, in order to understand Jerry Seinfeld’s New York-centric Standup routine, you have to understand the culture of New York. Without this cultural empathy, the jokes are no longer funny. This makes translating comedy extremely nuanced, but not impossible. The translator or interpreter must be an expert in the cultural references of the target language and able to convert the jokes into that cultural context. If the translator can do this, they can translate comedy.
At Langpros, we have a team of excellent interpreters and translators. They are professional, experienced, and even skilled enough to translate your jokes.