Nuances of Translating Humor and Sarcasm in Asian Languages

With the growing transcendence of boundaries and cultures through increased cultural exchanges via television shows and movies as one example, translating humor has become a must in the translation industry. However, as can be imagined, translating humor comes with a number of challenges. Not least of which include cultural and historical references, references to famous people, puns and plays on words, syntactic structure differences between the source and target language, and so many others. 

Because translating humor is such a difficult endeavor, translators need to be aware of numerous factors and strategies to ensure that they get a laugh out of their target audience through their translation, as intended. Although translating humor can be difficult, it is not impossible. In this article, we explore some of the challenges and differences in translating humor as well as which non-verbal cues may signal a funny situation. Let’s take a closer look.

What is the purpose of humor?

Research studies show that humor plays many different roles in the linguistic and everyday experiences of people. For example, when used cross-culturally, it can:

  • Bridge cultural divides
  • Strengthen the impact of adverts
  • Increase the effectiveness of business communication, and
  • Enhance the teaching-learning process.

What makes the translation of humor difficult?

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that translating humor is a complicated process. This is because it is both culture and language-specific. A joke often happens when something incompatible or unexpected is stated as opposed to something that is compatible and expected in a sentence or a joke. It can be a pun or wordplay (through homonymy, homophony, homography, or paronymy). 

Other examples include allusion, verbal irony, subtle uses of humor, and cultural references. With regard to cultural references, humor can be particularly difficult because pop culture icons, books, movies, or daily phenomena can be misunderstood by a foreign audience. Direct translations are therefore not encouraged. Ultimately though, a joke necessarily involves cognitive processes that should ultimately result in laughter. 

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Further to this, there are six main parameters that jokes can be broken down into. These are: 

  1. Knowledge sources
  2. Language
  3. Narrative strategy
  4. Target
  5. Situation
  6. Logical mechanism, and
  7. Script opposition 

In the translation industry, several different strategies are used to translate the humor and especially puns. These include leaving puns unchanged, complete pun replacements, replacing puns with rhetorical devices, the pun is rendered as a non-pun (which could result in the loss of effect), the complete omission of the pun, an adjacent or corresponding pun is used through the process of “compensation”, or inserting notes that explain the pun. 

Challenges of translating humor for subtitling

Translators that wish to have the desired effect, namely be funny translators, also face challenges with subtitling and translating humor for subtitling. Subtitling is the process of inserting words/sentences at the bottom of an audiovisual production such as a TV series or a film in its translated form so that the target audience can understand it. Although some subtitling can be addressed with relative ease, challenges arise when humor needs to be translated. 

These include: unstandardized translations of the film title, lengthy sentences, literal translation without referring to the visual image, rigid literal translation, and free translation. 

As such, translators will use strategies that include core principles of translation theory and subtitling strategies which are: retention, specification, direct translation, generalization, substitution, omission, and official equivalence. 

Apart from making use of these strategies, there are a further 10 subtitling strategies to be considered and implemented. They include: expansion, paraphrase, transfer, imitation, transcription, dislocation, condensation, decimation, deletion, and resignation.

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Is there a different perception of humor in the East and the West? 

When translating humor, research was carried out in the translation of a Western comedy film for a Chinese audience. It was found that common challenges that occurred in the translation (although it was a fan-based one) included the following:
Understanding the Complexities of Translating Humorous and Sarcastic Expressions in Asian Languages

  • Chinese has shorter sentences than English
  • The languages have different syntactic structures
  • There were difficulties encountered when translating celebrities or famous places
  • Some funny words in English may be considered taboo in Chinese and are often omitted
  • The need to preserve the function of the text
  • Audience unfamiliarity with cultural and historical contexts
  • Lack of consistency between the referential and pragmatic meaning, resulting in a failure to deliver the intended message
  • Lack of receiver orientations
  • Inadequate choice of vocabulary

Therefore, although every culture appreciates and enjoys humor, what constitutes humor is perceived differently from the East to the West and vice versa. For example, what may be funny in one culture may be offensive in another. As such, being aware of cultural differences when translating humor should be a must for any translation project that deals with jokes. 

A simple way to explain these cultural differences is that traditionally, in China with the predominant philosophy of Confucianism dominating, humor was previously regarded in a negative light. Self-restraint and seriousness were encouraged instead. It was only in 1924 that the word “humor” was introduced in China and then only in the 1980s when its official study as part of an important discipline began.

Further to this, Chinese people are said to have a narrower understanding of humor than their Western counterparts. This is possibly due to the major difference in language families and the fact that some linguistic differences are nearly insurmountable. Today, however, humor plays a much more important role in Chinese society as part of cultural norms. 

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Are there ways to pick up humouristic/sarcastic cues not based on language?

The two predominant non-language related cues when it comes to humor and sarcasm that transcends language are the tone of voice and exaggeration. For instance, regarding the latter, studies have shown that sarcasm in Cantonese has a specific acoustic pattern where sarcastic speech in Cantonese is raised to a higher tone or pitch than usual, whereas this is the opposite in English. This is just one example of non-verbal cues to attempt to demonstrate humor between Western and Eastern language families.

In summary

In short, translating humor is a challenging and complicated task overall. These complications are compounded when different language families need to be translated into other language families and this is where humor can literally get lost in translation. However, experienced translators use linguistic tools, strategies, and theories to overcome this challenge through various techniques and attempt to ensure that translations of humor, such as translating humor for subtitling, are performed effectively and with the desired effect.