nterpreting is the revenge of intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of intellect upon the world. To interpret is to
impoverish, to deplete the worldin order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.”
It had been another exhausting eight-hour day of simultaneous interpreting (with long breaks, which did not make it any less tiring, I must say). My
clients had asked me to stay over for dinner, which was not included in the original contract. This was a special occasion, the golden brooch to a
three-day series of meetings of high-rank executives of an international logistics company. My clients were “so, so sorry” not to have realized
before that the two foreigners I was interpreting for would be lost when “the comedian” arrived. “You see, it’s a surprise,”
they said, “for one of our employees, who is retiring.” The foreigners (an Australian and an Indian) deserved to know what their partners were
laughing about, after all. And as challenge is my middle name, I accepted to do the job and face the musicor the jokes in this case.
Simultaneous interpreting leaves no time to be creative, nor does it allow for research into social, cultural or linguistic issues!
To make a long story short, I was in for a few surprises. Not only was the comedian a big-name impersonator in Argentina but he also interacted with the
guests. This is nothing to write home about if you are a regular member of the audience, but I was an interpreter, only one of the three women present,
sitting between two men who clearly did not look like the average Argentinian. I knew I would have to cope with any of us three being the butt of the joke-
and I was absolutely right. The comedian interacted with us for a while, asked what I was doing there and where the two gentlemen were from, and finished
with a punch line which was something like “Oh, come on! Why bother doing that? They won’t get a thing anyway!”
Fortunately, the feedback I received was positive. The foreigners seemed generally pleased with their rate of understanding and they even praised the
comedian as funny, smart and quick-wittedwhich suggests that either they are accomplished liars or I did a generally decent job if they were able to
assess the performer’s talent. Mission accomplished? The initial sense of achievement started to vanish a few hours later, when I realized that the
comedian’s question, “Why bother?,” was all I could think of. I started to wonder if it had really been worth the effort and decided
that, once I got home, I should devote some serious thinking to the issue of interpreting humor.
The social side
Humor is distinctly a human phenomenon, differentiating us from animals, but it is also a form of social play, according to recent research. In humans,
laughter relates to symbolically created and mediated surprises, uncertainties and insights (Vandaele, 2010). Social theories sustain that the focus on the
victim or target (the so-called butt of the joke), heightens the self-esteem of those who appreciate the funny side of the episode. Vandaele (ibid.)
sustains that humor fosters a peculiar kind of socialization, as it exploits, confirms or creates inclusion (in-groups), exclusion (out-groups) and
hierarchies between persons, particularly comprehenders and non-comprehenders.
Indeed, the boosting of self-esteem was clearly the reason behind including the gags in the dinner party in the first placean employee was retiring after
many years of service, so the general morale of the group probably needed some pumping up. And, of course, my commission meant ensuring the inclusion of
the foreigners, who should not be made to feel as outsiders by any means. On the other hand, though, the comedian’s “attacks” were clear
attempts at their (or should I say our?) exclusionno wonder Freud considered humor a mitigated form of aggression (1905, in Vandaele, ibid.). Of course,
I should not take this personally, since many other employees were also the butt of his jokes as the comedian walked around the tables impersonating a
former Argentinian President famous for his absent-mindedness, mistaking people for well-known actors, T.V. hosts and sports stars.
Thus, apart from focusing on delivering as accurate and timely a translation as possible, I had to brief my audience about the President’s background
and the veritable spectacle he gave once on television, mistaking names, people and even the way offstage, which eventually led to the destruction of his
image. And I also rushed to explain who all the famous people mentioned were, together with other conversations going on at our table at the same time,
particularly when the “butts” were not Argentinian either and did not know who they were being compared to. (At one moment everyone was
googling pictures of a late Argentinian T.V. host of a match-making show to explain to a perplexed Cuban-American why he had been told his show was great
and he was surely “in a better place” now. And of course, I had to interpret this, too.)
The comedian´s use of incongruity rendered other trying moments. The so-called “incongruity theories” of humor tend to focus on its
“cognitive” features. Laughter occurs when a rule has not been followed or an expectation is set-up and not confirmed: the mere sight of a
former president walking around the dining room and mistaking people for celebrities together with the witty way in which he found resemblances provoked
thunderous laughter in all locals. In this case, humor clearly fulfilled a social rolethere were no superiority feelings as participants agreed the show
was a form of social play. Had I failed to include the “interpreter’s notes” providing background information of the social and political
implications of the impersonation (which I did completely out of a survival instinct rather than expertise, needless to say), the foreigners might have
interpreted many of the gags as sheer aggression.
The cultural side
Cultural factors are largely responsible for the well-known saying “humor does not travel well.” The literature on this subject vastly
discusses humor as an epitome of “untranslatability,” and the linguists who dare propose plausible solutions focus mostly on dubbing and
subtitling films and T.V. programs, and other endeavors that do not require the “real-time” output of simultaneous interpreting. For
instance, Gáll (2008) suggests that translators should strike a balance between the two extremes of total assimilation to the target-language culture
or complete adherence to the norms of the source culture by “finding some sort of compromise” and “keeping as much as possible of its
informational and pragmatic content.” Hickey (2000) suggests adapting the text to fit the target-language, and is completely against the use of
translator notes to help readers understand, if not appreciate, the “untranslatable” piece of language. He claims that the effect of this kind
of action results in the opposite of what the translator should aim at: it destroys humor by explaining how the text would have been funny if the
translator had not overhauled it. And after all, as E.B. White said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the
frog dies of it.”
Looking back at my job at the dinner party, I must admit that my initial confidence about my performance in social terms waned rapidly when considering
cultural issues. I failed miserably to come up with “transcreation,” defined as an artistic permission to craft an equivalent expression in
which the content of the message has been culturally and linguistically adapted and thus is fresh, original and funny (Paris, 2010). What is more, at times
I struggled to explain why people were laughing, and all I triggered in my listeners was a nod of acknowledgement in the best of scenarios (and a meek
smile of sympathy in the worst).
Parody, in fact, “is only accessible to those who are at least vaguely acquainted with the parodied discourse” (Vandaele, 2010), and all this
comedian did was parody. His two appearances involved the impersonation of two paradigmatic figures of our countrya former president with a reputation of
absent-mindedness (as mentioned earlier) and a sensationalist T.V. journalist famous for carrying out interviews using a lie detector. At this time,
however, my “interpreter’s notes” came in handy again as my provision of background information helped the foreigners understand not only
socio-political issues but also contextual data, such as the presence of the clumsy-looking prop standing for a lie detector, or why the retiring employee
was asked some awkward and tricky questions about his professional performance in the company (anecdotes which the whole audience seemed to know about and
enjoyed with mirth).
The linguistic side
The close bond between language and culture is undeniable. Many of the linguistic problems involved in translating humor cannot be strictly separated from
cultural untranslatability, while others are related to (socio)linguistic particularities and metalinguistic communication (Vandaele, 2010). As for the
linguistic obstacles faced when interpreting humor, Argentinians do not rely heavily on metalinguistic features such as puns (luckily), but appropriateness
of linguistic choices is certainly a defining sociolinguistic feature of what makes a nation laugh. Paris (2010) sustains that cultural jokes may be
inappropriate and offensive and should, in general, be avoided in the context of dinner parties. However, I was faced with a number of gags about topics as
taboo as self-pleasuring and misunderstandings during sexual intercourse, among others. Hickey (2000) sustains that even though humans tend to behave in
context-appropriate ways, appropriateness is an elusive concept and varies greatly across cultures and situations. When dealing with humor, or any
other culturally-determined issue, Hickley proposes focusing on the illocutionary force of the text (Austin, 1962 in Hickley, ibid.). He claims the
translator should concentrate on the effect produced or the reaction triggered by the text in the target audience, and translate in order to answer the
question “What is the effect of the text in the target reader/listener and which linguistic devices have contributed to that effect?” rather
than “What does the text say?.”
Nonetheless, for my interpreting job, Hickley’s (2000) proposition was, once again, unviable: the text could not be transformed to fit the target
language culture, not only due to time constraints but also to the fact that the listeners belonged to different cultures, and that my knowledge of either
of them was quite limited. After my first bold attempt at translating the joke about masturbation literally and bluntly and after seeing the look of utter
shock on my listeners’ faces, I decided I would much rather they understood less but did not think so low of my manners. A few minutes later, when
the story about the couple having intercourse came, I opted for killing the joke, explaining, poker-faced, that people were laughing because the husband in
the story had mistaken his wife’s shrieks of desperation at receiving a shock from an electrified-wire fence with an aural expression of pleasure.
And the prudish, muffled giggles that replaced the embarrassed looks of horror told me this was, if not good enough, not as bad as literalness.
The loneliest side: the interpreter’s
Paris (2010) suggests that translating humor should be tackled by two linguists teaming up, each an expert in either the source or the target language, and
both possessing a good sense of humor. Princeton Professor David Bellos (Hoffman, 2012) claims that both creativity and a bit of luck are necessary,
suggestively acknowledging, at the same time, that there seems to be “a disconcerting shortage of jokes beginning A pair of translators walk into a bar.” Novelist Gary Shteyngart has stated (Hoffman, ibid.) that “(n)othing is worse than killing the
joke by over-explaining.” If the not insignificant element of time constraints in interpreting is added, it could be concluded that interpreters
dealing with humor can only expect gloom and doom. Or can they?
Usually not comedians by nature and with no time, resources or cultural knowledge to resort to, interpreters must grow a hard skin and rely on their
strategic competences when dealing with jokes, gags or any comic text. Being strategic is, of course, central to all successful interpretings but humor
implies some special requirements. Hoffman (2012) sustains that even for comedians, it is harder to reproduce a seductive, humorous tone such as
Dickens’ or Cosby’s than to render a one-liner into a foreign language, and states that “(t)o really make people snort milk out their
noses, you need to earn their trust with a convincing persona that summons an atmosphere of ambient hilarity.”
That is not a bad suggestion for interpreters, who also need to win their clients’ trust. Setting the right atmosphere is crucial: to make listeners
comfortable, they must share all the information the local audience havein my experience, namely, the socio-political contexts of the characters
impersonated (as explained above) and even the pragmatic implications of some rhetorical devices. An example of the latter is the comedian’s
stylistic use of intertextuality when imitating the former Argentinian president. At some point, “the president” said he was unemployed now
and, as he is a lawyer, the company should hire his services for many reasons. He said “People say I am honest, and I am honest. People say I am
hardworking, and I am hardworking. People say I am intelligent, and I am honest.”
Besides the obvious recourse to incongruity through the reversal of expectations, the comedian was tapping into a very famous and successful
campaign commercial, considered to have been crucial in this politician´s electoral victory, where he (a presidential candidate at that time) kept
repeating “People say I am boring” and making a connection between “being boring” and being “honest and hardworking.”
Ask any Argentinian who is more than twenty-eight if they can recognize the phrase “Dicen que soy aburrido”chances are they will recall the
commercial at once. In fact, after interpreting these lines, a roar of laughter from the Argentinian audience filled the room, and I felt compelled to
provide my listeners with a brief summary of the background to the joke mentioned above. And fortunately, once again my gut feeling was right: they nodded
and smiled (possibly, in appreciation), and even if it did not crack them up, it helped them understand the mood of their colleagues.
Another useful strategy to resort to, for humor in particular (although it can be applied to any interpreting situation), is the “intimacy”
achieved by speaking to somebody straight into their ear, without anyone else, particularly the speakers of the local language, knowing. This privilege
gives interpreters what Hoffman (2012) calls a “shadowy power,” which, if used ethically, can be extremely effective. Macdonald (2012) recalls
a well-known interpreter who, when faced with untranslatable humor, “tells her listeners that the speaker has just made an appalling/untranslatable
joke and they really should laugh to keep her/him happy.” Hoffman (ibid.) cites a well-known anecdote in which former American President Jimmy Carter
was perplexed to find that some lines of his speech at a Japanese University were met with an uproar of laughter, and on asking his interpreter why the
joke had been so well received, he got the following answer: “I told the audience, ‘President Carter told a funny story; everyone must
laugh.’” Of course, it is important to know where to draw the line between ethical and unethical. Yet, if the interpreter has managed to
establish a good rapport with the foreigners (which was my case, being the occasion an informal dinner and being the foreigners satisfactorily wined and
dined by the time the show started), taking some liberties such as providing useful though unrequested background information cannot be frowned upon.
Coming full circle, I would like to answer the comedian’s question, “Why bother?” True, humor does not travel well, and simultaneous
interpreting is a harrowing, treacherous journey that might eventually kill all the joy. Yet, is the ride worth it? In my humble opinion, it certainly
is. Simultaneous interpreting leaves no time to be creative, nor does it allow for research into social, cultural or linguistic issues. The interpreter
is at risk of passing as utterly ineffective, painfully slow and even downright rude. Having said this, interpreting humor implies crossing cultural,
social and even academic borders. Being honest with clients about the shortcomings of our work, sharing with them the difficulties faced when translating
humor and providing them with the background information they need at least to understand why the others laugh (if laughing themselves is not possible)
might result in a good performance, worthy of praise and appreciation. If the interpreter has communicated a fair amount of meaning,
albeit not in a funny way, ensured the foreigners have not felt socially excluded and encouraged their appreciation of a different culture, the effort was
most probably worth it.
Gáll, L. K. (2008).Translating Humor across Cultures: Verbal Humor in Animated Films. The Round TablePartium Journal of English Studies, I , 1-11.
Hickey, L. (2000). Aproximación pragmalingüística a la traducción del humor. Retrieved November 28 from http://cvc.cervantes.es/lengua/aproximaciones/hickey.htm
Hoffman, J. (October 19, 2012). Me Translate Funny One Day. The New York Times, p. BR31.
Macdonald, P. (2012). Who’s Listening/Reading? Translation Journal, 16, 4.
Paris, A. (2010). Translating Humor: Achieving the Universal Chuckle. Retrieved November 22, 2012 from
Vandaele, J. (2010). Humor in Translation. In Yves Gambier & Luc van Doorslaer (eds.), Handbook of Translation Studies. Vol 1 (pp.
147-52). Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.