Humour in Translation: How Does It Come Through?

Take a moment to reflect – what makes something funny? Is it timing? Clever word play? Storytelling and context? Relatable references? If you said it was all of the above, you’d be right. What is funny to one person is tied to context, cultural references, and much more. So, how does humour perform in translation, and what considerations do translators need to apply? Translating humour well is no joke! (See what we just did there?)

Adapt, Adapt, Adapt

When translating humour, context matters. A joke about Canadian tuxedoes, for example, may not be understood by a global audience. Same goes for a joke about a public figure who may not be as well-known on another continent. At best, it will fall flat. At worse, it may ruffle some feathers or offend. So, what’s a translator to do? A skilled translator will take cultural differences into consideration and suggest a relatable equivalent.

Word Play Takes Work

Word play in translation… sounds tricky, right? Puns work when the audience understands the nuances of the language. Without clever translation, the result is often meaningless – or at least not funny. Take this example: “We’re springing into action” has a double meaning; “Nous passons à l’action ce printemps” is not so punny!

Take this classic knock knock joke:

Knock knock!

Who’s there?


Lettuce who?

Lettuce in, it’s cold outside!

This joke relies on word play; without it, it’s nonsense. Much like cultural context, a skilled translator will take the time to find an equivalent usage rather than offer a literal translation.

Timing Matters

Another important aspect of humour is timing: delivery and rhythm play a role in how jokes are perceived. Timing is especially important in subtitled films, TV shows, and video games, when you don’t want your audience to miss the joke or jump too far ahead. To keep the rhythm, your translator might rearrange whole sentences – and your audience will appreciate it!

Enter Creativity

As this article points out, translating humour may require a “transcreation” approach. Much like in marketing or literary work, your translator will have to think outside the box to bring your material to life and make sure it’s as relevant as possible to the appropriate audience. This takes creativity. A lot of creativity!

Key Takeaways

  • When translating humour, context matters. Where needed, adapt jokes to make them relatable and appropriate for a new audience.
  • Look for equivalents rather than literal translations to maintain the humour.
  • Creativity is key. When it comes to humour, thinking outside the box will help your translator keep things funny and appealing.


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