Volume 11, No. 2 
April 2007

  Katia Spanakaki

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Linguistic Problems with Translation of Japanese Patents to English
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The Loss in the Translation of the Qur’an

by Mohammad Abdelwali

  Arts & Entertainment
Translating Humor for Subtitling

by Katia Spanakaki

  Literary Translation
Verónica Albin Interviews Amir Gutfreund and Jessica Cohen
A New Approach to Translation: The transposition or transcription system of Sub-Saharan African writers
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  Translation Journal

Arts & Entertainment


Translating Humor for Subtitling

by Katia Spanakaki


umor is an essential part of everyday communication and an important component of innumerable literary works and films and of art in general. It is rooted in a specific cultural and linguistic context, but it is also an indispensable part of intercultural communication and mass entertainment. When trying to translate humor, culturally opaque elements and language-specific devices are expected to make the translator's work difficult, while some elements are ultimately not transferred at all.

Humor, in its many manifestations, appears to be one of the most defining aspects of humanity.
Humor, in its many manifestations, appears to be one of the most defining aspects of humanity. Repeated attempts have been made to define the essence of humor from sociological and psychological, as well as from linguistic perspectives. Although humor has been approached from several angles, it has rarely been systematically studied as a specific translation problem. Humor has various levels of applicability that are partly universal, cultural and linguistic, or individual. It is the level of applicability, which often makes it a tangible problem for a translator. However, for the purpose of maintaining intelligibility, the problem needs to be resolved in one way or another.

Additionally, humor, as an everyday phenomenon, is increasingly a part of the context of intercultural communication. It is also a vehicle for mass entertainment, as television nowadays offers a wide variety of entertaining programs, both feature films and TV series, which are mostly of Anglo-American origin, with humor as the primary or secondary element. Translators often face the task of having to translate seemingly untranslatable humor, while not reducing the meaning effect, which invariably tests their capability for finding creative solutions.

Definitions and theories of humor

No matter how ordinary or commonplace humor seems to be in everyday life, it is found to be much more problematic and indefinable as a theoretical concept. This has not, however, prevented scholars of various disciplines such as psychology, sociology, pedagogy and linguistics, from exploring the issue of humor, which has, more often than not, resulted in "epistemological hairsplitting" (Attardo, 1994:1). The problems involved when it comes on defining humor, are that some scholars have doubted that an all-embracing definition of humor could be formulated (see Attardo, 1994:3). Additionally, we could say that one of the difficulties in defining humor derives from the fact that the terminology used to describe it is not explicit. A number of scholars such as Schmidt-Hidding (1963, see Attardo 1994:6-7), have attempted to clarify the issue by proposing semantic maps of humor, but certainly various other, significantly different definitions could be formulated.

It goes without saying that the definition of humor ultimately depends on the purpose for which it is used. As Attardo points out (1994:4), in the field of literary criticism for instance, there is a need for a fine-grained categorization, whereas linguists have often accepted broader definitions, arguing that whatever evokes laughter or is felt to be funny is humor, e.g. that humor can be deduced from its effect. Nevertheless, laughter as such is not necessarily a condition for humor, and with this in mind, Attardo (1994:13) considers Kerbrat-Orecchioni's (1981) pragmatic definition of humor as a text whose perlocutionary, e.g. intended, effect is laughter, to be a more fruitful approach. More specifically, humor is whatever is intended to be funny, even if it might not always be perceived or interpreted as such. This definition seems to be quite problematic, since measuring intention is not easy. However, it is useful because it accounts for humor as a fundamentally social phenomenon as well as one whose manifestations can vary greatly in different cultures.

One could agree that there are three general categories of humor/jokes: a) universal humor/jokes, b) culture-specific humor/jokes, and c) language-specific humor/jokes. Indeed, Raphaelson-West (1989:130) has also divided jokes into three main categories:

linguistic jokes (e.g. puns)

cultural jokes (e.g. the ethnic jokes), and

universal jokes (the unexpected)

She states that by going from top to bottom, following the above order, "the jokes are progressively easier to translate" (ibid.). She demonstrates each by examples and draws conclusions respectively. As regards the translation of linguistic jokes, she uses the expression "punny as hell," by replacing the idiom "funny as hell" to show that the word 'punny' rhymes with the word 'funny,' and further states: "In order to translate the joke it would be necessary to have an idiomatic expression about humor which contained a word which rhymed with a word which means something about puns or language. This word which means something linguistic would have to be semotactically similar to the word it rhymes with, and its presence would have to add a little meaning to the sentence" (ibid.). Moving on to the next category, the cultural jokes are seen to be "more widely translatable" (ibid.). Considering the following example where we have nations x, y, z, for instance, and both nations x and y have relations with nation z, it is possible for nation x to make jokes about nation z, which would be translated into the language of nation y, but translating a joke of nation x into the language of nation z might be impossible for the reason that, "even if the listener is good-natured and can laugh at himself, he might not understand the stereotype" (ibid., original emphasis). To make it more explicit, Raphaelson-West (1989:132) points out that: "There are many jokes which may mean the same thing semantically, but in terms of pragmatics and culture, there is something sorely missing which makes the joke untranslatable." Yet, universal jokes are perhaps bicultural jokes, since not being aware of every culture, there is no way for understanding all jokes in the world.

The equivalence of humorous effect

Following Vandaele: "humor translation is qualitatively different from 'other types' of translation and, consequently, one cannot write about humor translation in the same way one writes about other types of translation" (Vandaele, 2002:150). Similarly, when it comes on translating humor, the translator has to deal with the intended effect of humor and its possible unsuccessful reproduction. According to Vandaele (2002:150), there are four elements to be pointed out: a) humor, as a intended effect, has an exteriorized manifestation (laughter), which is quite difficult to render, whereas the meaning of other texts is 'less compelling' in terms of perception. b) the comprehension and appreciation of humor and humor production are two distinct skills; although "translators may experience its compelling effect on themselves and others (laughter), but feel unable to reproduce it" (ibid.). Therefore, humor can be considered as a talent-related skill, since it is neither learnable nor teachable, unlike the skill of writing academic papers and business letters for instance. c) "The appreciation of humor varies individually" (ibid.); it is very much depended on the translator's sense of humor; that is the translator's recognition of a comic instance, and d) "the rhetorical effect of humor on translators may be so overwhelming that it blurs the specifics of its creation; strong emotions may hinder analytic rationalization' (ibid.).

It goes without saying that humor is also confronted with the personal translator's dilemma of whether to translate a bad joke or just produce a funny effect.

The tools available for the translation of humor

a) Wordplay

Wordplay or punning, is defined by Delabastita as follows: "Wordplay is the general name for the various textual phenomena in which structural features of the language(s) are used are exploited in order to bring about a communicatively significant confrontation of two (or more) linguistic structures with more or less similar forms and more or less different meanings" (Delabastita, 1996: 128, original emphasis; see also Delabastita, 1993:57). Further, "the pun contrasts linguistic structures with different meanings on the basis of their formal similarity" (Delabastita, 1996:128, original emphasis).

According to the type and degree of similarity, puns can be further divided into the following categories (Delabastita, 1996:128):

homonymy (identical sounds and spelling)

homophony (identical sounds but different spellings)

homography (different sounds but identical spelling) and

paronymy (there are slight differences in both spelling and sound).

Further, a pun may be either vertical or horizontal. The formal similarity of two linguistic structures may clash by being co-present in the same portion of text (in this case it is vertical wordplay), or by being in a relation of contiguity by occurring one after another in the text (the horizontal wordplay) (see Delabastita, 1996:128). The translation methods of puns available for the translator's disposal are presented in Table 1. below:

PUN PUN (pun rendered as pun): the ST pun is translated by a TL pun

PUN NON PUN (pun rendered as non-pun): a non-punning phrase which may retain all the initial senses (non-selective non-pun), or a non-punning phrase which renders only one of the pertinent senses (selective non-pun), or diffuse paraphrase or a combination of the above

PUN RELATED RHETORICAL DEVICE [pun rendered with another rhetorical device, or punoid (repetition, alliteration, rhyme, referential vagueness, irony, paradox etc), which aims to recapture the effect of the ST pun]

PUN ZERO (pun rendered with zero pun): the pun is simply omitted

PUN ST = PUN TT (ST pun copied as TT pun, without being translated)

NON PUN ą PUN (a new pun introduced): a compensatory pun is inserted, where there was none in the ST, possibly making up for ST puns lost elsewhere (strategy 4 where no other solution was found), or for any other reason

ZERO PUN (addition of a new pun): totally new textual material is added, containing a wordplay as a compensatory device

EDITORIAL TECHIQUES: explanatory footnotes or endnotes, comments in translator's forewords, 'anthological' presentation of different, complementary solutions etc.

Table 1. Translation Methods of Puns
(Delabastita, 1993:192-226; Delabastita, 1996:134)

Although, techniques 2 and 4, as well as techniques 6 and 7 are found overlapping with each other at some point, they can be combined in a variety of ways. For instance, in the case of technique 2 (PUN NON PUN), where the pun is suppressed, it can be followed by a footnote explaining what was left out and why (technique 8, EDITORIAL TECHNIQUES), as same combination can apply with technique 6 (NON-PUN PUN). As in subtitling, the case of footnotes is out of a question, the combination of these techniques and especially technique 8 (editorial techniques) are inadequate and completely irrelevant for the purpose of this study.

b) Allusions

Allusions are also quite hard to define. For this reason, they will be discussed in detail in this subchapter. Starting from the terminological problem, in the broad sense of the concept, an allusion is defined in 'The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory' (Cuddon, 1991:29), as "an implicit reference, perhaps to another work of literature or art, to a person or an event." However, a variety of other definitions have been proposed, while most of them seem to be in accord with the indirectness of allusions as a rhetorical device.

Nevertheless, Ritva Leppihalme defined allusions as elements, which involve "some modification of a frame" (Leppihalme, 1996:200 original emphasis), where a frame is defined as "a combination of words that is accepted in the language community as an example of preformed linguistic material" (Leppihalme, 1997:41). Such frames include: "idioms, proverbs, catchphrases and allusions to various sources" (1996:200) and they can be modified either linguistically or situationally, for the purposes of humor (ibid.).

Moreover, Leppihalme's study of allusions (1997) is important for two reasons: firstly, as a guideline for defining allusions, as mentioned above, and secondly, as a source of potential strategies for translating allusions. More specifically, the functions of allusions can be broadly divided into three categories: a) creating humor, b) delineating characters, and c) carrying themes (modified from Leppihalme 1997:37). The first of these categories, humor, tends to function on a more local level than the other two, which are essentially cumulative.

As allusions are culture-bound, the degree to which they are intelligible across cultural and language barriers varies to a great extent. The sources of allusions, such as: history, literature, cinema and television, to name the most important ones, are only relatively rarely familiar beyond their cultures of origin, since popular culture seems to travel more widely than high culture. American television serials and films may be an exception to this phenomenon, but they will serve to emphasize the fact that cultural products seems to be crossing borders in one direction only. To illustrate the extent to which allusions are transcultural, it may perhaps assumed that nearly everybody who has received a Western education will have some idea of who Hamlet is and what his dilemma is, and will react in some way to the words "To be or not to be." However, this is very much the limit of universal allusions even among people who assumedly share the same cultural heritage. Yet, it cannot be emphasized strongly enough that there are great differences between individuals and subgroups within each community.

On the other hand, translating allusive texts is complicated for two reasons: First, it is probable that the readers of the translation cannot make much of a number of allusions, even if the source is given, because the connotations of those allusions are not activated in the reading process. Second, readers of translations are not a homogenous group, and some of them will probably spot and enjoy allusions if they are given a chance to do so, but will resent being looked down on in the form of additional explanations (for an extreme example, not even a translation, see Leppihalme 1997:110).

c) Verbal irony

As mentioned above, various problems arising when it comes on defining humor. The same problem of finding an accurate definition is also raised in the case of irony. Bearing in mind the conventional meaning of irony, which would typically be as "saying one thing and meaning something else" does not seem to be an accurate description for the complex meaning of irony. However, irony and especially verbal irony cannot be identified in specific sets of linguistic and stylistic traits, since there is neither an ironic tone, nor an ironic style to be recognized. As Mateo (1995:172) states: "irony depends on context, since it springs from the relationships of a word, expression or action with the whole text or situation." Irony can be also discussed in pragmatic terms, as it produces a series of different interpretations varying individually. Therefore, the twofold interpretation of verbal irony differs from that of wordplay, which is "the product of a linguistic structure and it is a question of different meanings rather than interpretations" (Mateo, 1995:172 emphasis on text).

Many scholars in this field have approached the concept of verbal irony from different angles: Muecke (1969, 1982), Tanaka (1973), Nash (1985), Espasa Borrįs (1995) and Mateo (1995), to name but a few. Muecke (1969:42) identifies irony as "Situational Irony and Verbal Irony," while Nash (1985:31) classifies the complex structure of humor as "superstructure" and "substructure," where superstructure is "the formulaic structure of the joke," and substructure is "the underlying context that the reader / listener needs to have in his grasp." Following Tanaka: "the main focus of irony is the relationship between the two interpretations intended, rather than the content itself" (Tanaka, 1973:46 quoted in Mateo, 1995:172). Additionally, what distinguishes irony from sarcasm is the sense of some contradiction between the two stages of interpretation; the fact that irony "mal-codes," that is, "it misrepresents the real content of the message so that the contradiction must be assumed as normal, whereas a sarcastic statement is ostensibly sincere and provokes no feeling of contradiction at all" (Nash, 1985:152-153 quoted in Mateo, 1995: 172).

However, as a point of reference for the findings in this project, not all of these approaches are helpful since the study focuses attention on the specific medium of subtitling. Although these approaches do not take into account the constraints of subtitling, they are worth investigating in terms of studying irony in translation.

Mateo (1995), drawing on Muecke's (1969) classification of irony types, proposed a list of possible strategies, after studying a corpus of three English comedies translated into Spanish. Although the strategies do raise some problems, when it comes on engaging them in the specific medium of subtitling (e.g. 10. 'ST irony is explained in footnote in the TT' is not possible in any case, since in subtitling, a footnote or a translator's note is out of the question), we will discuss this issue in detail on the next chapter, after the subtitling constraints and limitations are established. However, these strategies clearly presented in Table 2.below, have as follows:


ST irony becomes TT irony with literal translation

ST irony becomes TT irony with 'equivalent effect' translation

ST irony becomes TT irony by means of different effects from those used in ST (including the replacement of paralinguistic elements by other ironic cues)

ST irony is enhanced in TT with some word / expression

ST ironic innuendo becomes more restricted and explicit in TT

ST irony becomes TT sarcasm (i.e. more overt criticism)

The hidden meaning of ST irony comes to the surface in TT (no irony in TT)

ST ironic ambiguity has only one of the two meanings translated in TT (there is no double-entendre or ambiguity in TT therefore)

ST irony is replaced by a 'synonym' in TT with no two possible interpretations

ST irony is explained in footnote in TT

ST irony has literal translation with no irony in TT

Ironic ST is completely deleted in TT

No irony in ST becomes irony in TT

Table 2. The Translation of Irony

(Mateo, 1995:175-177; see also Pelsmaekers and Van Besien, 2002:251)

Humor in subtitling

Firstl, we have looked at how humor can be translated. We will now move on to examine how humor can be translated in subtitling, where various other parameters such as the soundtrack and visuals to name but a few, are to be taken into account.


To begin with, subtitles are the textual versions of the dialogue in a film and in television programs, and are usually displayed at the bottom of the screen. They appear in two different forms: a) in a form of written translation of a dialogue in a foreign language, or b) in a form of a written rendering of the dialogue in the same language to help viewers with hearing disabilities to follow the dialogue.

Defining subtitling

The concept of subtitling is defined in Shuttleworth and Cowie's Dictionary of Translation Studies (1997:161) as "the process of providing synchronized captions for film and television dialogue." It would be misleading not to mention that 'captions' is also a term used to refer to subtitles. However, Karamitroglou (2000), based on Gottlieb (1994a:107), points out that "subtitles are different from 'displays' or 'captions'" (Karamitroglou, 2000:5). He states that: "'Captions' (or 'toptitles') are pieces of 'textual information usually inserted by the program maker to identify names, places or dates relevant to the story line' " (ibid.).

Gottlieb (1992:162) defines subtitling as a 1) written, 2) additive (e.g. new verbal material is added in the form of subtitles), 3) immediate, 4) synchronous, and 5) polymedial (e.g. at least two channels are employed) form of translation. He follows Jakobson (1966) in distinguishing between different forms of subtitling: from a linguistic viewpoint, there is intralingual (within one language) and interlingual (between two languages) translation; whereas technically speaking, subtitles can be either open (not optional, e.g. shown with the film) or closed (optional, e.g. shown via teletext) (Gottlieb, 1992:163; see also Baker, 1998). Gottlieb, states that: "Subtitling can be both 'intralingual' (or 'vertical'), when the target language is the same as the source language, and 'interlingual' (or 'diagonal'), when the target language is different from the source language" (Gottlieb, 1994a; Gottlieb, 1998:247, quoted in Karamitroglou, 2000:5).

Film subtitling is therefore interlingual and open, which means that SL linguistic material (speech, other linguistic material) is transformed into TL subtitles, and that subtitles are broadcast simultaneously with the program. According to Shochat and Stam (1985:41), "the interlingual film experience is perceptually bifurcated: we hear another's language while we read our own."

It is worth to be mentioned at this point that subtitling is the dominant form of AV translation in Greece and other small European countries such as The Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Rumania, Israel, Finland and other Nordic countries (Gottlieb, 1992:169; see also Dries,1995:26), which are most commonly defined as subtitling countries. I will not enter into the particulars of what motivates the choice of a particular subtitling technique in the first place (see Kilborn 1989 and O'Connell 1998), but it is at least partly due to the fact that subtitling is about fifteen times less expensive than dubbing (Luyken et al. 1991:105; see also Dries 1995:28-30).

Constraints and limitations of subtitling

AV translation's visibility is probably one reason as to why AV translation also lends itself to easy and occasionally sharp criticism among the viewers. According to Shochat and Stam: "subtitles offer the pretext for a linguistic game of 'spot the error' " (1985:46), especially for those viewers who have a command of both the source language and the target language. To highlight the above-mentioned 'sharp criticism,' I should mention the fact that there are, indeed, whole Websites, as well as Internet forums and Chatrooms devoted to subtitling gaffes, as for instance the following: http://digitallyobsessed.com, http://dvd-subtitles.com etc.

Furthermore, the low prestige, which is generally attached to manifestations of popular culture as well as the fact that in the case of subtitling, the original soundtrack is present as a sort of touchstone, often contribute to the perception that AV translation is "a necessary evil" (Zabalbeascoa 1996:235), that is easily dismissed and soon forgotten.

However, what is rarely appreciated is that AV translation is a form of translation that is of vital, and growing, importance, and that it imposes a variety of both technical and contextual constraints on the part of the translator. As subtitles do miss details most of the times and frequently have an overall neutral shade, which detracts from their quality, it would be useful to discuss what subtitling involves in actual practice.

Gottlieb (1992:164) discusses in different terminology, what he calls the formal (quantitative) and textual (qualitative) constraints of subtitling. Textual constraints are those imposed on the subtitles by the visual context of the film, whereas formal constraints are the space factor (a maximum of two lines are allowed, with approximately 35 characters per line) and the time factor. The time factor in particular, plays a pivotal role in the decisions translators have to make. Although traditionally five to six seconds have been considered to be sufficient for reading a two-liner (Hanson 1974; quoted in Gottlieb, 1992:164), Gottlieb (1992:164-165) brings up interesting evidence from more recent studies (d'Ydewalle et al. 1985), according to which some viewers have been able to read subtitles considerably faster.

As Delabastita (1989:200), also discusses the problem of film subtitling, he suggests that one of the chief aspects to be considered is the amount of reduction it presupposes. This is due to the fact that the number of visual verbal signs on the screen is restricted, on one hand, by the space available and, on the other hand, by the time available. The constraints of space and time result in the problem of selection, as the translator has to analyze the source text material carefully to decide what should be transferred to the target text and what can or must be left out. Kovai (1994:250) has applied relevance theory to subtitling, arguing that "decisions about deletions are context-dependent." Nevertheless, while zigzagging in the crossfire of all these demands, a subtitler aims at producing a subjectively maximal result.

Moreover, subtitling as a mode of linguistic transfer has a number of synchronization constraints. Following Mailhac (2000:129-131), these constraints are the following: a) the medium changes from oral to written, that is "video and television subtitling normally require larger fonts and therefore allow fewer characters (ibid:129), b) the linguistic transfer is constrained by the length and structure of utterances, c) link to visuals, d) frame changes "since they can divert the attention of the viewer away from the subtitles" (ibid.), and e) the viewers' reading speed, which varies according to their degree of literacy and according to whether it is a cinema audience or a television/video one, which carries implications in terms of the age range (ibid:129-130).

There are also some other inevitable losses such as: quantitative and qualitative changes (as discussed earlier, when referred to Gottlieb 1992), to achieve legibility and readability. Such changes to achieve legibility, in terms of appearance, are the following: the position of line breaks, the number and length of lines, the use of punctuation marks, the color and size of the font, typeface, and timing. On the other hand, when it comes to achieving readability, there are a number of quantitative and qualitative changes that need to be taken into account. Quantitative changes include: a) simplifying vocabulary, b) simplifying syntax, c) merging short dialogues, and d) deletions. Qualitative changes include the tendency to neutralize the marked language/speech to more clear and standard language, which affects the characterization.

Consequently, the nature of the losses can only be identified and fully appreciated by taking into account the aforementioned parameters. As Mailhac (2000:130) states, "The simultaneous availability of the source and target dialogues may encourage viewers with a knowledge of the source language to start 'picking holes in the translated text,' even though they are more often than not ignorant of the constraints which characterize this form of linguistic transfer and the strategies required to overcome them."

As a result, when it comes on translating humor in subtitling, the subtitler needs to use the limited space and time in an optimal way, in order to virtually retain the meaning effect in the subtitle translation. But the constraints themselves clearly cannot predict whether the meaning effect tends to be preserved or lost in subtitles.

Another point is that, in the case of subtitling, the use of a footnote or a translator's note is simply out of the question. That is also a fact that makes the translator's task even harder, in terms of conveying the appropriate meaning in TL, when there is not a direct equivalent term and the translator is also forced to follow the 'rules' and make things work in the TL environment. As we explained in this chapter, subtitling is not an easy work and is performed under considerable constraints. For this reason, effective subtitling requires recognition of these constraints and understanding of the limitations, as viewers simultaneously have to read one or two lines of text at the bottom of the screen in the allotted time, which is generally shorter than for the original dialog. Subtitled films thus require a greater effort to harmonize a variety of cognitive activities and grasp the underlying idea.

Finally, as Dollerup (1974:198) points out, translators "need a complete knowledge of the subtler shades of meaning in foreign words or phrases and should remember the pitfalls of failing to recognize them."

Summary and conclusion

This study has attempted to establish the tools available for the translation of humor. It provides a general theory of how humor can be translated, in terms of wordplay or punning, allusions and verbal irony. An attempt is also made to establish how humor can be translated in subtitling by adopting the aforementioned models.

According to Vandaele (2002:150), the appreciation of humor may vary individually and so does the appreciation of a well or poorly translated text or subtitle. But following the study, we can clearly conclude that if humor is separated into isolated compartments or categories, namely wordplay (puns), allusions, and verbal irony, it can be examined more constructively and analyzed more efficiently. By using the suggested strategies for the analysis, which may be seen as a practice potentially pointing to the appropriate translation solutions, the subtitler can identify which translation methods to employ more effectively. In other words, by breaking humor down into components, certain problematic utterances or phrases potentially causing a confusion of various possible translation strategies when rendering an ST/ SL in TT / TL can be less confusing and puzzling for the subtitler, when following the logical mechanism of the proposed framework. Needless to say that, choosing a translation strategy involves a decision-making process where various factors mentioned throughout the study come into play and, therefore, translating humor in a contextually bound medium such as subtitling, does not necessarily work in the TL environment.

Finally, the choice of a translation strategy is manipulated by more or less absolute rules to mere idiosyncrasies and knowledge. As Dollerup (1974:198) states: "Long and careful study of both languages is required and, more particularly, of the literature, history, and culture of the country concerned."


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