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Review of  Translation, Humour and the Media

Reviewer: Win O. Whelan
Book Title: Translation, Humour and the Media
Book Author: Delia Chiaro
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.270

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EDITOR: Chiaro, Delia
TITLE: Translation, Humour and the Media
SUBTITLE: Translation and Humour Volume 2
SERIES TITLE: Continuum Advances in Translation
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury Linguistics (formerly Continuum International Linguistics)
YEAR: 2010

Dr. Winifred Whelan, St. Bonaventure University NY, emerita.


In her introduction, Delia Chiaro, a professor of English Language and Translation at the university of Bologna, Italy, explains that the translation of humor from one language to the other is difficult and in fact impossible in some cases. Technology has created a very large market for translation that requires quicker translation than ever before. Chiaro has four strategies for translation: a) leave the verbally expressed humor (VEH) unchanged, b) replace the VEH with a different instance of VEH in the target language, c) replace the source VEH with an idiomatic expression in the target language, or d) ignore the VEH altogether. For example, a question is asked in German, “What is your name?” Szpilman, a pianist answers, “My name is Szpilman.” Questioner: “Spielmann? That is a good name for a pianist.” In German, the word ‘Spielmann’ means ‘pianist.’ However the connection is entirely lost on those who don’t know German.

Chapter 1, “That’s Not Funny Here: Humorous Advertising across Boundaries,” is by Charles Gulas, and Mark G Weinberger. These two professors, coming from the field of marketing, are concerned that if their humor is not understood and appreciated by the target audience, their products will not be sold. The first section of the chapter focuses on the myriad of differences that define us. It is funny when people we like disparage people we don’t like, but it is not funny when people we don’t like disparage people we do like. The authors conclude that humor in advertising is a complex process. They quote one of the jurors at the Cannes Advertising Festival saying, “Humor travels, but it gets a bit carsick” [p. 31].

Chapter 2, “Humor in Translated Cartoons and Comics” is by Federico Zanettin. Zanettin wants to distinguish between the translation of humor in cartoons (usually a single panel drawing), and the translation of humor in comic strips and comic books, highlighting differences and similarities. In cartoons, humor usually depends on some kind of incongruity which may be resolved by something in the joke itself. In other cases, the cartoon may simply be nonsense. In translation, the effect depends on the target readers sharing the same set of cultural resources. Zanettin opines that foreign speaking readers of Gary Larson’s cartoons were amused by the funny pictures, but otherwise missed the point. In comic strips and books, humor relies not only on incongruity but also on a specific narrative structure. Longer narrations use many of the same incongruities, but humor is more generally an interaction between the text (including puns, jokes, proper names, spoonerisms), and the visual context.

Chapter 3, “And the Oscar goes to…: A study of the Simultaneous Interpretation of Humor at the Academy Awards Ceremony,” is by Rachele Antonini. Antonini highlights the special difficulties involved in spontaneous translations of humor. Interpreting live for television requires great rapidity as well as a pleasant, lively voice, regular rhythm and good diction.
The author looked at the humor of the American Academy Awards Ceremony to see how it was received in Italian audiences. Most respondents did not find the gags clear and their subsequent appreciation was low. Another important finding was that the number of respondents who did not understand the gags exceeded those who did understand them. In some cases the audience found a remark funny by making associations different than those on which the language was based. The main conclusion of the study was that the simultaneous interpreting fails to preserve the main purpose and function of the original show.

Chapter 4, “Japanese TV Entertainment: Framing Humour with Open Caption Telop,” is by Minako O’Hagan. In Japan any added text on TV programs other than films is broadly referred to as “telop.” Open captions are added in the picture itself, whereas closed captions would be added only if the viewer wished it. Open captioning started as an assist to minority audiences to help with understanding the language, but is also used for the deaf and hard of hearing. It does not involve translation, but is used to highlight comic content, and is now being used more widely. A survey found that 85% of viewers felt that subtitles are necessary. They are entertaining and assist with comprehension. The author then gives the example of the game “Hole in the Wall.” Captions might indicate the name of the contestant and that of the supporter. Various images might be inserted to further highlight the message and the humor.

Chapter 5, “The Importance of Not Being Earnest: Translating Humor in Video Games,” is by Carmen Mangiron. Given that the videogame industry has become a multibillion dollar industry, and given also the difficulty of translating humor, videogame translators have solved the problem of the untranslatability of humor by focusing on the function rather than the equivalence of the text. Games have to be geared to local audiences and at the same time they should have the same look and feel as the original. With this way of thinking, videogame translators have a much more creative role to play. They modify and freely include new elements, and they can actively rewrite the text in order to adapt it. The use of humor in the Japanese ''Final Fantasy'' series is a case in point. Translators have taken the liberty to modify the original game and increase the humor content which makes the game less stressful and more engaging. The translators’ versions might even surpass the original. Mangiron stresses that game localization is not about a sacred source text and unavoidable loss. Rather it is a dynamic process of creating a new text for the target player.

Chapter 6, ''Translating Audiovisual Humour: A Hong Kong Case Study,'' is by Yau Wai-Ping. Yau’s concern is with a diglossic society, that is, a society with high and low varieties of a language. Standard Chinese functions as a high variety, whereas Cantonese functions as a low variety, limited to informal and less serious types of written communication. Cantonese is sometimes considered vulgar, even by its own native speakers. The author uses ''The Simpsons Movie'' to illustrate that Cantonese can be used in ways that do not conform to this stereotype. Dubbing is not necessarily overly domesticating, but rather has the potential to suggest foreign elements. Subtitling has the potential to use Cantonese to express sophisticated humor, and thus eliminate some of the prejudice against this low variety.

Chapter 7, “Audiences and Translated Humour: An Empirical Study,” is by Linda Rossato and Delia Chiaro. In this study, a group of German native speakers were shown a film - “Goodbye Lenin,” which highlights the stereotypes and prejudices of the old Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) toward the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and its citizens. Germans were further divided into the ex-GDR and the FRG. A group of Italians were shown the same film which had been translated and adapted for dubbing. The three groups responded differently to four subjects: dress, food, household furnishings, and means of transportation. The study concluded that the two German groups were more culturally divided than were the Germans and Italians due to their different histories and backgrounds.

Chapter 8, “Language Play, Translation and Quality -- With Examples from Dubbing and Subtitling,” is by Thorsten Schröter. The chapter first delights in the idea of language play in the form of puns or modified puns, and gives reasons why someone would engage in it. The author claims that language play or word play is not at all untranslatable, provided the idea of translation is broadened slightly. Various factors must be taken into account such as the prominence and the complexity of the text. Although it is not easy, language play is regularly subjected to translation and is thus translatable, sometimes even in the very narrow sense of ‘directly transferable,’ even under the special constraints of dubbing and subtitling [p. 143].

Chapter 9, “Woody Allen’s Themes through his Films, And His Films through Their Translation,” is by Patrick Zabalbeascoa. This author dwells on Woody Allen’s style of creative output, and on how translators deal with it. He outlines and gives relevant examples of many of Allen’s humorous subjects: religion; anti-Semitism; New York, Paris, and California; Freud and Psychiatry; sex; the 1940s; antihero; scholars and intellectuals; and wordplay. There seem to be two distinguishable approaches to translating Woody Allen. On the one hand, the translator can intervene and adapt the film to a new contexts to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. On the other, one can cater more to Allen’s fans who might relish the possibility of recognizing cultural allusions and name-dropping by a more literal translation. The author recommends that there be more than one translation so as to appeal to various audiences.

Chapter 10, “On the (Mis/Over/Under) Translation Of the Marx Brothers Humor” is by Adrián Fuentes Luque. The chapter concludes that English speakers define the humor in the Marx Brothers films as ‘witty,’ ‘intelligent,’ and ‘sophisticated,’ whereas Spanish speakers label it as ‘absurd,’ surrealistic’ or ‘nonsensical’ [p. 190]. The humor is so full of expressions that are tied to the culture of the United States, that in many cases, it cannot be understood by one who is not familiar with it. Censorship was another problem in Spain during the Franco years, and in Italy any mention of Mussolini would have to be eliminated. Spanish speakers laughed not because they understood the jokes, but because of what they represent socially and historically.

Chapter 11, “Language, Comedy and Translation in the BBC Sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo!” is by Dirk Delabastita. In this series, ‘Allo ‘Allo!, many of the characters speak varieties of languages. One speaks broken English, one thinks he can speak French, but actually only knows a few words. One speaks English with an Italian accent, another with a German accent. The article analyzes the language of each one of the speakers and gives examples. In Dutch, most subtitles do not carry the accents, but in a few cases, Dutch was rendered as broken Dutch and as an Italianized Dutch. The French version has less of a problem because the story takes place in France. The French women speak in French with a strong Italian accent. The ‘Allo ‘Allo series has been shown in many countries and has had a prolific afterlife in VHS and DVD releases among other outlets.

Chapter 12, “Laughing To Death: Dubbed and Subtitled Humour in Six Feet Under” is by Chiara Bucaria. The Italian version of this series about a family of undertakers is complicated by the fact that death is a taboo subject in Italy, and may trigger superstitious reactions. This chapter presents a comparison between the dubbed and subtitled versions in order to focus on how two different modes of translation deal with these problematic issues and attempts to uncover the reasons why either dubbing or subtitling are decided upon.

Chapter 13, “Dynamic Versus Static Discourse: Will & Grace And Its Spanish Dubbed Version”
is by Roberto A. Valdeón. Will and Grace features gay characters as protagonists who can laugh at themselves as well as provide entertainment in which television audiences can laugh with the gay characters rather than at them. The Spanish version emphasizes what is traditionally viewed as the gay obsession with sex, sometimes even providing it with innuendo that is not in the source text. However, in the process of translation, the writers have weakened existing stereotypes and have limited their use, especially with regard to terms that may be offensive.


The strength of this book lies in its heavy use of examples and charts. Every chapter includes jokes and stories from the source text and then discusses how these texts are translated along with the difficulties involved. This makes the chapters easily accessible to the general reader as well as provides more advanced information regarding syntax and pronunciation. A problem that is mentioned by many authors is that translators want to be funny, but not offensive. They may go so far as to omit the humor altogether or they may change the source text to better accommodate it to the target culture. Another strength of the book is that its authors are from many different countries, illustrating the overall fact that in an electronic age, translation is going on fast and furiously. As one author notes, as soon as a new movie comes out in the United States, every country in the world expects to see it on their screens along with subtitles in their own language. One criticism of the book might be that it is somewhat repetitious. However, when there are thirteen chapters on the same subject, this is understandable. Also, the examples and stories in each chapter make each one of them distinct.

Dr. Win Whelan is professor emerita at St. Bonaventure University in western New York State. She earned a Ph.D. in religious studies from Northwestern University, and recently an M.A in linguistics from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Presently, Dr. Whelan lives in Chicago and is a freelance writer, independent scholar and researcher. Her latest project has been to translate a book from Spanish to English, “The Sufferings, Assassinations and Martyrdom of the Missionary Church in Honduras, 1963-1982,” published by Mellen Press.

Format: Electronic
ISBN-13: 9781441140678
Pages: 288
Prices: U.K. £ 75.00
Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781441137883
Pages: 288
Prices: U.K. £ 75.00