At first, you may think that translating humor is too difficult, if not impossible. And you are almost right. Translating humor does demand careful and creative work, and there are cases when you simply can’t do it.
But even in these cases, you can often still create humorous material — text, sound, images, video — inspired by the original. You’re not exactly translating the joke, you’re transcreating it.
So let’s check a few tips to help you convert witty commercials, funny dialogue and amusing descriptions into a foreign language.
1. When transcreating wordplay, use your ears
“His name is Eustace, milord,” says a courtier introducing a boy to a dwarf in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair. “Useless?” the dwarf mishears. “I daresay he is.”
When translating this scene into Brazilian Portuguese, where the character’s name is Eustáquio, the translator chose to transcreate the dwarf’s answer as “Batráquio?” (“Batrachian?”) This sounds slightly forced, because the first syllable in each word is so different from the other it would be hard to mishear one for the other.
But if you just say the name Eustáquio a few times out loud, it’s clear which would be the most likely way for a person to mishear it: “está aqui”, which means “is here.” This makes for a more natural-sounding transcreation, and it also opens the way for a funnier reaction: “He is here? I can see that.”
2. When transcreating image-related jokes — use Google
Now imagine you are subtitling a movie scene where characters are eating tomatoes, and one of them asks: “Why is the tomato red?” — then delivers the punch line: “Because he saw the salad dressing.”
If you are subtitling this in French, you can’t translate the joke. But you can google “blagues avec tomate” — and find a few options of French jokes about tomatoes.
In fact, there is one which goes: “What does the gardener to do make his tomatoes turn red? He undresses in front of them.” Which by the way only makes only makes sense in French, since in that language “tomato” is a feminine word.
3. When translating a funny commercial, consider if it makes sense in the target culture
This humorous MySwitzerland ad is easily translatable and works across most countries, because the humour is not in wordplay or images, but in the situation. And the situation is not too culture-specific — as long as the audience knows who cinema legend Robert De Niro is, and the types of movies he tends to play in, they will find the ad funny.
The same can’t be said for this ad by the Danish Road Safety Council. While it’s hilarious to Nordic audiences, and to anyone familiar with Viking culture and history, it does not have much appeal outside of that culture. So if you had to transcreate this ad to Spanish, you should create a different story altogether — maybe around bullfighting, or the running of the bulls.
It’s not always possible to translate humor, but more often than we think, it is possible to transcreate it. What you need is enough time, a good knowledge of the target language and culture, and a dose of creativity.