Me Translate Funny One Day

But among the polyglots who convened this month in Rochester for the annual meeting of the American Literary Translators Association — where the topic was “The Translation of Humor, or, the Humor of Translation” — there is a sense of cautious optimism. At least some measure of levity, these dedicated professionals believe, must be able to migrate between languages. The French, after all, seem to appreciate Woody Allen.

“It takes a bit of creativity and a bit of luck,” said David Bellos, a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton, who, as he prepared his keynote speech for this year’s conference, confessed to finding a disconcerting shortage of jokes beginning: “A pair of translators walk into a bar.”

“The received wisdom that you can never translate a joke is worth examining a bit more closely,” Bellos told me. The trick to translating humor, Bellos argues in his book, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything,” is to abandon the idea of perfect fidelity and instead try to find a joke that rings some of the same bells as the original. By this standard, many simple punch lines, from the morbid to the absurd, are not that much harder to translate than the weather.

When complications do arise, they are usually caused by one of two tricky areas: cultural references and wordplay, according to those seasoned in the art. Culture-bound humor often presents a dilemma: you can either lose readers with a cryptic allusion or you can burden the text with explanatory footnotes. In an increasingly English-speaking world, the best solution is sometimes to let it stand. To take one recent example, the Danish edition of Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story,” a satirical novel set in near-future New York, leaves untouched such chat acronyms as timatov (“think I’m about to openly vomit”) and roflaarp (“rolling on floor looking at addictive rodent pornography”).

“Nothing is worse than killing the joke by over-­explaining,” said Shteyngart, who has patiently replied to requests for clarification of terms like “Negra Modelo” and “stomach stapling” from scrupulous interpreters, particularly the Scandinavian ones.

Puns can be especially treacherous. To translate Hervé Le Tellier’s “Quelques Mousquetaires,” a surreal French story about a man plagued by self-incrementing numbers, Daniel Levin Becker, the youngest member of the French literary society known as Oulipo, had to dig deep. Corruptions of famous titles like “The Postman Always Rings Thrice” and “The Four Musketeers” were easy to render faithfully; numerical puns like quatorze intéressant (the whimsical sum of très intéressant + 1) required a little more sweat. Devising an entirely new set of English puns was “the only way to stay afloat as the narrator sinks ever deeper into his numberplay,” Levin Becker writes in the preface to his translation, “and the only way to retain the spirit of learned absurdity that makes the story infectious.”

But outright jokes are not the holy grail of comedy, as any stand-up comedian will tell you. It is harder to recreate the seductive humorous tone of a Dickens or a Twain — or for that matter, a Cosby or a Pryor — than it is to render a one-liner into Mandarin. To 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.

For the foreign translators of David Sedaris, the elusiveness of comedic tone is no laughing matter. Sergio Flaksman, who brought “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim” into Brazilian Portuguese, found that in early drafts, Sedaris came off as a whiny, melodramatic wreck. After listening to the nasal deadpan of Sedaris’s radio broadcasts, Flaksman was able to contrive a kind of Brazilian surrogate whose “relentless mean humor could show its smiling fangs” in Portuguese.

Might some funny bits actually get funnier in translation? In the title story of George Saunders’s “Pastoralia,” a character is paid to impersonate a cave man at a theme park, his employers providing a freshly-killed goat to roast daily, until one morning he goes to the usual spot and finds it “goatless.” Among the many possible renderings of this made-up word, Saunders’s German translator chose ziegenleer, a lofty-sounding melding of “goat” and “void” with no exact equivalent in English.

Jascha Hoffman has written for Nature and The New York Times.

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