Not a Joking Matter: How Humor is Lost in Translation

Posted by Michela Ferullo

Cracking Jokes Across Languages Isn’t Always a Laughing Matter

Universally, many believe the best way to break the ice when in the company of new acquaintances is to tell a joke. My advice is that unless you’ve been dubbed the funniest human on Earth, I would avoid playing the comedy card. Have you ever told a joke to your friends and received blank stares or confused faces in return? Yeah, awkward. Clearly some aspect of the humor wasn’t comprehended. Telling a joke to another person that speaks the same language as you can be tricky enough, due to varying senses of humor, but telling a joke to someone originating from another country could take misunderstanding of the comicalness to an entirely new level.

If you find yourself in another region or conversing with a friend from overseas, be sure to avoid jokes that rely on any type of cultural reference.  This is a sure-fire way for your audience to have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about; being part of separate cultures means your backgrounds and references are most likely vastly different. Also, be sure to never dabble in the domain of jokes relating to politics, religion, or stereotypes. This can severely offend others, whether you speak the same language or not, potentially leading to an angry acquaintance, an upset audience, or the end of a relationship.  Lastly, trash any jokes that rely on wordplay to get a good laugh.  When translated, jokes that use a play on words for the punchline are almost always lost in translation.

(Source: English Magazine)

Public Display of a Failed Joke

Back in 2011, Australian news anchor, Karl Stefanovic, received a once in a lifetime chance to interview the Dalai Lama.  He chose to kick off the interview with an ice-breaker joke:

“The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop…and says, “Can you make me ‘one’ with everything?”

His goal was to create a joke about the Dalai Lama unifying himself with the universe; the response Stefanovic received was a gaze of confusion.  This type of wordplay and cultural reference could only be interpreted by a specific target group of people, who understood both aspects.

“LOL-ing” Around the World

It does appear that, globally, we can all get on the same page joke-wise.  Psychologist Richard Wiseman teamed up with The British Association for the Advancement to perform a social experiment referred to as LaughLab.  This year-long experiment involved over 40,000 joke submissions, which were then rated by over a million people worldwide.  The consensus determined the international winning joke. Submitted by Gurpal Gosall of the United Kingdom:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”

Funniness is a universally present element in social interactions and elicits a variety of emotional cues from silliness to sarcasm. Even though laughter is far-reaching, comedy isn’t always as extensive. When clowning around from one country to another, always keep in mind the potential cultural gap that can occur.  Aside from the risk of awkwardness, incorporating humor and jokes into conversation can make some people feel more at ease or reduce the anxiety of a situation. If you would still like to take a crack at cracking a one-liner your best bet is to run it by a translator or someone you’re friends with from that culture first, just to make sure.

For more jokes that are hilarious within the country of origin, yet confusing to most others check out this video by The Guardian.

Joking aside, to avoid any miscommunicated blunders like these and for all of your other translation and localization needs, contact us at Lionbridge onDemand.  Here, we can ensure you won’t get lost in translation.