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humour and puns in translation

The pitfalls of humour and puns in translation

There are many potential pitfalls when it comes to translation, but humour is probably the most difficult to pull off without falling into trouble. This is because many of our best jokes and funny quips rely on some sort of word play, like puns.

An Australian news anchor made a name for himself in 2001 when he told a Dalai Lama joke to the Buddhist icon himself. You can see it didn’t go particularly well, but wordplay aside, it also shows humour often touches on cultural, social, political and other touchy subjects – which can all be seen very differently in cultures across the world.

High-profile cases of humour gone wrong

You don’t have to go far to see high-profile cases of humour going wrong – in fact it’s been difficult to avoid Jeremy Clarkson’s catalogue of gaffes in the media this year. Top Gear enjoyed a pretty global audience, but managed to offend a lot of people in the process – on home soil as well as in other countries.

This is a slightly extreme example perhaps, because these comments were controversial in their original language. However, translation can even turn innocent words into complete gibberish, something embarrassing or even offensive in another language. Wordplay is the biggest victim of this because you can’t translate its subtle nuances and film taglines are a perfect example.

Looking closer to home

Film taglines are more applicable than you might think too – this could easily be your brand slogan, tagline for a new product or even a subheading in your content. Wherever it crops up, wordplay is an area you need to handle with great care and there are a few ways to go about it.

The first option is to simply drop any wordplay when you translate and replace it with something more literal. This is perhaps the easiest approach, but the problem is your content loses its edge and you risk losing your entire brand voice.

A better approach is to use localisation and try to recapture the impact of your original content in another language, without the translation gaffes. Let’s swap the big screen for something smaller and use corporate video as an example. You worked incredibly hard to develop a witty, creative script for your British voice over, but now you want to take your video overseas, you run the risk of losing the humour and charm of your narrative.

To make the same impact with an audience from a different linguistic background – as well as cultural and many other variables – you need localised expertise to take the original meaning of your script and turn it into something relevant for each audience.