Fully translatable humor

Dire Streets

Not being a professional translator myself but being daily in contact with them, I can only imagine how hard it is to translate jokes based on plays on words. However humor can be based on other things, not only on multiple meanings of words or sentences. To illustrate this point, I will give two fine examples from an Argentinean ensemble called Les Luthiers.

Both examples come from the same piece, “Colored Letters”, in which a young man from the heart of Africa goes to New York to try his luck. He writes back to his uncle, saying among other things:

  • “When I arrived they took my fingerprints. They did it with white ink.”
  • “I have to say that it’s not true that all black people are mistreated in this country. Some black people are mistreated in other countries.”

The first example is funny in any language you care to translate it into, because it proposes an absurd association between the color of the ink and the color of the skin, when the real correlation should surely be between the colors of the ink and the paper where the ink will end up.

The second example is, in my opinion, more interesting and subtle. It is based on the two possible parsings of the sentence: “all black people are mistreated in this country”. The immediate meaning attached to this kind of sentence is equivalent to “all black people in this country are mistreated”, but the same sentence structure can be used to say something like “all penguins build their nests in the Arctic” as opposed to somewhere else.

And then there are some fundamental laws of thought which are followed everywhere, i.e., they are not dependent on the language in which they are expressed. Negating a universal property is equivalent to asserting the existence of an exception. “Not all this are that” is the same than saying “there is a this which is not that“, regardless of what “this” or “that” is.

Therefore, the expectation of the usual parsing would be a follow-up such as “Some black people are not mistreated in this country”. The mismatch between the expectation and what actually is said is what makes it funny.

If you have had enough of no-no-nonsense translation experiences, get in touch with one of our representatives. You will be seriously surprised.