Humor That Doesn't Translate

The conventional wisdom seems to be that while tragedy translates between eras and cultures fairly well, humor is very much dependent on culture and historical period. My personal experience bears this out.

Not only does historical period and culture influence the perception of humor, but it seems even different subcultures in contemporary America have different views of what is funny.

This leads me to ask a few questions of you kind folks.

  1. Do you have any examples of humor that doesn’t translate well between times and cultures?
  2. Are you privy to any jokes that depend on membership in a very specific group to understand? For example, you know a joke that just slays computer programmers, but non-programmers don’t get it at all.
  3. What sort of humor do you think would have the broadest possible appeal?

Slapstick and physical comedy seems to translate between cultures better than anything else.

A Jewish man converts to Christianity (much to the chagrin of his wife) after being passed over for promotion several times at work, and beginning to suspect he is being discriminated against. The morning after his conversion, he is laying t’fillin, just like he has done every weekday since his bar mitzvah. His wife walks in on him and says “So, Mr. Big Christian, just what do you think you are doing?” the guy :smack: and says “Ach, goyisher kop*!”

I could give several more examples of Jewish jokes that end in Yiddish punchlines where the joke itself is told in English, but the punchline can’t be translated.

*Yiddish expression that means something like “typical goy,” which Jews say when goyim say or do something ignorant. See: it isn’t that funny. Trust me, if you understand the expression “goyisher kop,” it’s hilarious.

Deaf people often find it very funny when little, insignificant things make noise, and especially when hearing people find them distracting. One guy I know was sort of bouncing a paperclip on his desk, and I looked over at him. He found it hilarious that I could hear that.

The first people who saw someone slip on a banana peel probably laughed for hours. The joke goes back to stagehands at Vaudeville shows. Vaudeville theaters had traveling acts that headlined, but they also had local people who were regular employees, who changed sets between acts, and told a few jokes or did something to keep the audience entertained while the next act was set up. Sometimes they had singers, acrobats, or jugglers, but mainly they had people doing brief bits of physical comedy.

One thing that got laughs was having a guy eat a banana. Watching someone eat a banana can be really funny, especially if a professional comic is doing it.

One day, the banana-eater topped off the joke by casually tossing aside the peel. A few minutes later, a stagehand came walking across the stage. No one was expecting anything. Stagehands walked across the stage all the time. But then, this guy stepped on the banana peel, and took a pratfall. Hilarity ensued.

George Lopez had a funny bit kind of along this line about Spanish sayings that don’t really translate or make any sense in English, though my wife had to explain most of it to me since she is a native Spanish speaker.

Puns don’t translate.
Real-life example: Several years ago, an American guy wanted me to translate a joke for him, from English into Mandarin for a Mandarin-speaking audience. The joke was about a man who walks onto an airplane, sees his friend Jack, and says “Hi, Jack!” - and gets arrested - why? Because he said “hijack.”
Ummm…no, that pun doesn’t translate into Mandarin. It doesn’t work that way. I mean, I could explain it, but it wouldn’t be funny then.

Those are one and the same, sort of; both of them require specific knowledge, even if it’s the fact that certain words have multiple meanings, of a certain expression, or of some words being homophones.

The people who translate Terry Pratchett, G.B. Shaw or G.K. Chesterton have my utmost respect because, whether it is puns or someone misunderstading a semi-heard sentence, their writings are full of that kind of stuff.

There are two books in Spanish dedicated to literal mis-translations into English. To understand the jokes, you need to be able to see that it’s lousy English. It’s kind of a pity the authors (Spaniards who teach ESL) did not think of adding the real translations, because they would have sold even more copies! They’re called “Speaking in silver” (hablando en plata, speaking plainly) and “From lost to the river” (de perdidos al río, in for a penny, in for a pound).
Note: I know that in English those titles would have had more caps. But they’re written like that in the Spanish editions, following Spanish capitalization conventions… which is yet another joke.

There’s a line in Alice in Wonderland where Alice says something about the earth turning on its axis, and then the queen says “Speaking of axes, off with her head!” In the definitive French translation, it says the earth “makes revolutions on its axis,” and the queen says “Speaking of revolutions, off with her head!”


What do you mean by “can’t be translated”? Do you mean that the joke can’t be explained in another language, or do you mean that there is no equivalent expression in another language? Or do you mean that you need inside knowledge to get the joke?

There is nothing special about a joke that takes inside knowledge to get.

The punchline can always be translated. It might also then have to be explained due to cultural differences, but it can be explained.

After that, whether or not people find it funny is a different matter.

Take home lesson: People who say “(XYZ) can’t be translated” are just bad at translating.

When the joke has to be explained, very often it loses its (ahem) punch.

Terry Pratchett’s “Is she a medium? - She’s more of a small.” can be translated and explained but whatever little laugh it would get in the original it would not get at all in the translation/explanation.

People who are multilingual and love languages and that kind of wordplay, get that kind of joke, and they like it.

Other people don’t find it fun. It has nothing to do with what can or cannot be translated.

But that’s what is meant by the saying “humor can’t be translated”. It doesn’t mean the meaning of the sentence can’t be translated. Of corse it can. It means the “funniness”, the aspect that causes someone to laugh, won’t come across in the second language. Even in a single language if a joke needs to be explained it won’t make you laugh.

Oh. So this well thought out thread is about jokes you don’t get because you don’t understand the language in which the joke is told?

The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop …


There are all kinds of physics/math/other specialty jokes. If you remember the “grape jokes” like:
Question: What’s purple and 5000 miles long?
Answer: The grape wall of China.

There’s the math joke:
Question: What’s purple and commutes.
Answer: An Abelian grape

You have to be American, either of a certain age, or into cult TV, and familiar with the periodic table of elements to get “16 sodium atoms walked into a bar, followed by Batman.”

But if you are, it’s hilarious.

No. In fact, it’s not even necessarily about language; “translation” can mean other things besides converting information from language to another. Language is just one barrier to humor, though a common one (and particularly daunting in the case of puns). The larger topic is humor that works in one culture, but not in another–even if the two cultures share a language.

I have argued in the past that most forms of humor rely largely on surprise. It’s a response to confounded expectations. Of course, that requires you to have those expectations in order for the humor to work, and many of those expectations are products of the culture we live in.

Take, for example, the rather strong American taboo against public nudity. The existence of that taboo makes public nudity a strong focal point for potential humor–streakers, skinny-dipping mishaps, locked out of the house scenarios, and so forth. To a person from a culture with less strict standards on public nudity, some or all of those would lose a lot of their humor.

Say you have a skit about a yokel come to town, who is accustomed to skinny-dipping, because there’s never anyone around the places where he swims. The hotel he’s staying in has a jacuzzi. Eager to try it, and with no one around to demonstrate proper etiquette, he strips down and climbs in to soak. Other people arrive, and shock and shenanigans commence because he’s naked.

Japan, on the other hand, has a tradition of public baths. A nude man soaking in a common pool of hot water is not outside their cultural expectations. Our yokel may be (and, indeed, almost certainly is) breaking some other elements of the etiquette they would be familiar with, but that wouldn’t be the focus of humor in an American skit on this theme. As a result, at least some of the humor would be lost (or redirected–“look at the silly people freaking out over a man bathing”) if the skit were shown to a Japanese audience. The humor doesn’t translate very well, and it has nothing to do with the language barrier.

I think humor breaks down into a number of categories for translation purposes, each with their own challenges. The list that follows isn’t exhaustive, just some ideas I have along that line:

  1. Physical humor. As far as I know, there is no culture on Earth with a hallowed tradition of slipping on banana peels, so no one has a subconscious expectation of pratfalls. As a result, they tend to translate well.

  2. Body humor. Everybody farts, and it’s generally considered unpleasant. Most cultures have at least some general expectation that people will try to keep unpleasant bodily functions away from others. Body humor is often translatable.

  3. Tales of woe/rants. Most people, regardless of culture, have some sense of probability. One unlikely mishap can happen to anyone. Two in a row is just an unfortunate coincidence. The longer the chain gets, though, the more improbable it seems that someone would have an unbroken string of bad luck–and the next misfortune subverts that expectation. This kind of humor can translate, if the individual mishaps are sufficiently unexpected in the audience’s culture as well.

  4. Humor based on behaviors or taboos specific to a culture. These don’t translate well at all. They can be made to work if you introduce the expectation well before the joke (so it doesn’t feel like you’re explaining the joke), or if you come up with an equivalent situation in place of the original joke. An example I once gave involved a cook waiting for people to leave so he could grab a bowl of rice they’d left sitting on a ledge with a couple of sticks in it. The idea that he’s stealing an ingredient to prepare for his customers is a little off, but you don’t get the real subversion of expectations unless you recognize that he’s stealing a funeral offering. To make it work for, say, an American audience, you’d either need to establish that earlier or rework it as a florist lurking outside a cemetery.

  5. Absurdism. This is really difficult to translate, and just flat doesn’t seem to work for some cultures at all. It’s not a problem with presenting something unexpected–absurdist elements themselves are pretty much universally unexpected–it’s making the jump from “weird” to “funny”. To some extent, one expects people from other cultures to do “weird” things, wear strange clothes, and have different customs. That creates a hurdle absurdist humor has to clear–people have seen pictures of apparently earnest Americans wearing giant wedges of cheese on their heads; what’s so much stranger about seeing one wear a duck? Thus, people in another culture may find absurdist images funny, but not necessarily for the original reason.

  6. Pure wordplay/puns. This is the most language-dependent form of humor I can think of. It usually works if the cultures share the language, but even an accent can ruin it. When there’s a language barrier, the best you can usually hope for is to come up with an equivalent in the target language, like RivkahChaya’s example from Alice in Wonderland.

FWIW it seemed hilarious to me once you explained the term.

It probably would have been impossible to tell it well as a joke that way (i.e. including the definition) because of timing, but once you’ve explained, I can go back and insert the concept into the joke, sort of (instantaneously sort of) re-tell it to myself, and hilarity ensues.

The above jokes are so much better when re-told by The Grapist!