Do foreign jokes work in English? You tell us!

how to translate jokes

We often advise our clients to avoid using humour when developing content for multilingual translations. That’s because humour can be tough to translate. There can also be significant differences between what people find funny around the globe. Even between English language speaking countries, jokes don’t always translate; when comparing the US and UK, we don’t even spell ‘humour’ the same way!

This video from the Guardian newspaper demonstrates perfectly the problem of translating jokes from one language to another:

While these jokes may have made people laugh, it’s not necessarily because they got the joke!

How to translate jokes

When faced with a joke that requires translation, our linguists have three options. They can translate it word-for-word, use transcreation or replace it entirely with a ‘native’ joke.

  1. Translating jokes word-for-word

Translating jokes word-for-word doesn’t always work. Jokes get lost in translation as they might use wordplay like a pun, such as this example from 2011 when an Australian broadcaster interviewed the Dalai Lama. He attempted to break the ice with this joke: “The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop and says, ‘Can you make me one with everything?’” See how this fell flat in the video below:

In some situations, it may be appropriate to explain the joke so the target audience can understand why it is funny in the native language. You might see footnotes added to a foreign language novel to explain the context of the joke. However, this can be very distracting, and as the author, E.B. White once said:

“Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process.”

  1. Translating jokes with transcreation

Sometimes it may be possible to use ‘transcreation’ where the linguist subtly tweaks the joke for the target language. This can be effective if a joke includes a cultural reference that can easily be substituted with a comparable reference. For example, if it’s a joke at the expense of someone in the public eye, it might be possible to replace that individual with someone else that’s well known in the target market.

  1. Replacing jokes with other jokes

The other option is to replace the joke entirely with one that achieves the same goal. To do this, your translator needs to understand the purpose of the original joke and its effect on the target audience, and then find something in the target language that has the same impact. Not an easy job, especially if the target market doesn’t use humour in the same way as we do here in the UK.

No wonder we recommend that you avoid humour when developing content for multilingual markets, it’s a minefield!

However, if you do want to make people laugh in different markets, follow our tips below:

  • Market research: speak to your local market colleagues about how humour is used in their country, what your target audience will find funny and how it can be used effectively by your organisation or brand.
  • Identify humour with a cross-market appeal: do you share a sense of humour, are there jokes or styles of humour that are funny in all your target markets? Look for similarities that you can build on.
  • Make jokes easy to translate or replace: when developing content for multiple markets try to ‘contain’ jokes and humorous content so that it can be translated or replaced without impacting the rest of your content. Try not to continually reference a joke throughout your content, as your translator may find it difficult to translate without considerable transcreation (which takes more time and can affect your budget).

Finally, linguists and translators are not averse to jokes about our profession. Here’s one of our favourites:

A linguistics professor was lecturing his class the other day. “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”

A voice from the back of the room retorted, “Yeah, right.”

Please get in touch if we can help you with translating your content, whether funny or serious!

You may also like to download our guide, which explores the benefits of outsourcing your translations. Click on the link below for your free copy.