Interpreting Cross-Cultural Humor:
Why Did The Interpreter Cross The Road?
Nobody likes that moment when you crack a joke and nobody laughs, but this really poses a problem when performing comedy to a crowd that doesn’t speak your language!
The awkward silence following a joke flying over people’s heads is a legitimate problem for comedians presenting to non-native speakers of their language. Perhaps the audience understands the words themselves, but the overall idea is lost. The obvious solution would be to bring in an interpreter – but is interpreting cross-cultural humor really possible?
Japanese Comedian: Panda no esa wa nani? Pan da!
English Interpreter: What do pandas eat? Bread!
Let’s face it; there are just some jokes that can’t be (without risk of becoming mundane dietary facts). However if you should ever find yourself in a stand-up situation, we have tips ready:
Read The Script Beforehand: the more lead time you have on what the content will be, the more time you have to think on how to interpret jokes.
Find Equivalents In Your Target Language: interpreters should not only be familiar with the target language, but the culture behind it as well. This knowledge will allow you to think of similar jokes that will convey the same meaning.
Embody The Speaker: if you put yourself in their mindset (emulate their speaking and energy) getting jokes across may seem more natural. In the event a joke doesn’t translate, merely having the energy of the performer may be enough to rectify the situation.
Be Prepared To Improvise: you don’t have a lot of time as a simultaneous interpreter to think of different ways to explain things. In a pinch, be prepared to trust your gut and improve some of what is being said (who knows, perhaps it will be funnier than the original joke).
Just Let It Go: it happens; there are jokes that just have no translation no matter what you do. In these instances it may be in everyone’s best interest to just let it slide.
Of course you could simply instruct the audience to laugh – as a Japanese interpreter did for a humorous story during a graduation speech by former American president Jimmy Carter (though not highly recommended by us).
Think interpreting comedy (or in general) might be the gig for you? Check out our interpreter training courses that will start you on your way to some stand up performances!
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