translating-interpreting-humor in a meeting

Translating and Interpreting Humor

Imagine you are an interpreter at a business conference. As an ice breaker, the American company representative makes a joke to lighten up the scene. Everyone in the room laughs—except for your clients who are waiting for you to interpret. But will the joke be funny once it’s in the target language?

Translating or interpreting humor is complex. Should you explain the pun when the client has limited understanding of the original language? Could the joke be inappropriate in your client’s culture?

Here are 2 helpful tips to train your brain to translate/interpret jokes.

Familiarize yourself with the comedy of the target language/audience. There is no need to travel to another country! Standup comedies in a variety of languages are available on video streaming sites. You may find that while it’s common to joke about politicians in the United States, it’s not common or even inappropriate to bring up politics in a joke in the targeted audience.

Familiarize yourself with children’s humor. How would you translate a knock-knock joke? Or a pun that plays on the words? Perhaps there is a standard joke in the target language that will give the same effect as a knock-knock joke. But unless you are familiar with the children’s humor in the target language, you will not be able to quickly communicate the idea. Children’s books are a good source to study to understand the humor.

As the interpreter or the translator, part of your work is to be the cultural broker. When a literal translation is not funny, it is also part of your work to explain why it is funny to English speakers.