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Humour has various faces and forms, deriving from double meanings, situations, wordplay, often with hidden or obvious cultural references. It may also be subjective; the same things may seem humorous for some people and not funny at all for others. Probably most translators would agree that translating humour is definitely a very challenging task, especially when it is strictly related to the language itself or to a certain culture or community. However, there are certain forms of humour, especially situational or anecdotal, which focus on universal aspects or elements of human life, and therefore may be understood and considered as funny by people from different cultures. In this study, we discuss some theories, principles, recommended techniques and strategies related to translating jokes, wordplay, and humorous idioms which in our opinion may be included in the translator-training curriculum. We also examine the strategies and techniques used by a group of translator trainees in their second year of studies in translating humour from English into Hungarian, focusing on the difficulties they encountered, in order to assess their needs and include more practice and useful tips in the training process .
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Translating Humour – A Didactic Perspective
Gabriella KOVÁCS
Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania (Cluj-Napoca, Romania)
Department of Applied Linguistics, Târgu-Mureş
Abstract. Humour has various faces and forms, deriving from double
meanings, situations, wordplay, often with hidden or obvious cultural
references. It may also be subjective; the same things may seem humorous
for some people and not funny at all for others. Probably most translators
would agree that translating humour is denitely a very challenging task,
especially when it is strictly related to the language itself or to a certain
culture or community. However, there are certain forms of humour,
especially situational or anecdotal, which focus on universal aspects or
elements of human life, and therefore may be understood and considered
as funny by people from different cultures. In this study, we discuss some
theories, principles, recommended techniques and strategies related to
translating jokes, wordplay, and humorous idioms which in our opinion
may be included in the translator-training curriculum. We also examine
the strategies and techniques used by a group of translator trainees in their
second year of studies in translating humour from English into Hungarian,
focusing on the difculties they encountered, in order to assess their needs
and include more practice and useful tips in the training process.
Keywords: humour, jokes, wordplay, idioms, translation, translator training
1. Humour and translating humour
Translating humour can be challenging even for seasoned translators, so it may
be helpful if future translators and interpreters get a taste of it during the course
of their training process. In the rst part of our study, we focus on some theories,
principles, recommended techniques and strategies related to translating jokes,
wordplay, and humorous idioms which we believe may be included in the
translator-training curriculum.
The difculties of translating humour are frequently discussed in the literature.
One of the problems may be that humour in its various forms joke, wordplay,
ActA UniversitAtis sApientiAe, philologicA, 12, 2 (2020) 68–83
DOI: 10.2478/ausp-2020-0013
69 Gabriella KOVÁCS
pun, idiom – is signicantly dened by culture and language. In an article about
translating humour in literary works, Venuti approaches target texts as relatively
autonomous products, domesticized adaptations of the source language texts,
reecting more the target culture and language but also preserving its relation to
the source text. He points out that certain losses and gains always occur in the
process of translation. We may always observe “a loss of the foreign text at various
levels: a loss of form and meaning, syntax and lexicon, sound and meter, allusion
and intertextuality” (2002: 7). Martínez-Sierra (2006) and Jankowska (2009) also
note that loss in the translation of humour can occur both in a quantitative and a
qualitative sense. Studying jokes, they both found that, regardless of language pair
and translation method, the target text is less humorous than the source text, which
may result from having fewer humorous elements but also from the fact that the
humorous elements are less humorous. Losses, however, may be compensated with
other humorous elements placed elsewhere in the text (Klaudy 2014).
On the other hand, there may also be gain in translation, both on the linguistic
and cultural level, “because translating is radically recontextualizing, actually
exorbitant in its creation of another context” (Venuti 2002: 7). Primarily in literary
translations, the linguistic and cultural gain often exceeds the source text and
has signicance mainly for the target language reader, conjuring elements of the
receiving culture, its values and traditions. The formal and semantic dimensions
of the source text are altered. Venuti calls these effects “domestic ‘reminder’ in
a translation because they exceed the communication of a univocal meaning and
reect the linguistic and cultural conditions of the receptors” (2002: 8).
The success of translating humour can be relative because of the subjectivity of
what individuals may or may not nd humorous. It also depends on the genre as
certain forms of humour, especially situational or anecdotal, focusing on universal
aspects of human life, considered equally funny by people from different cultures,
are usually more easily translatable than culture- and language-specic wordplays,
puns, or idioms. However, a translator should bear in mind that the transmission
of the humorous effect ought to be considered a primary factor in the success of
humour translation, and, in agreement with Attardo, we should consider the text
whose perlocutionary goal is to be perceived as humorous to be humorous because
“the essence of a humorous text, its raison d’être is that of being perceived as funny,
and that is reected in the text itself” (Attardo 2001: 33).
1.1. Translating jokes, wordplay, and/or puns
A broad denition of joke is given in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “something
said or done to provoke laughter” or “a brief oral narrative with a climactic humorous
twist”.1 Jokes usually consist of a build-up, or set-up, followed by the punch line. The
70Translating Humour – A Didactic Perspective
build-up is usually a narrative, while the punch line is the nal portion of the text,
which is in incongruity with the set-up, producing a humorous effect (Attardo 2001).
Jokes can be isolated units, or they may be inserted in longer texts. They are
dened by the cultural and social contexts and situations in which they are
negotiated. Therefore, according to Popa (2005: 49), in order to translate them
adequately, translators must bear in mind the complexity of the phenomenon and
focus on the transfer of the linguistic, situational, and cultural content of the joke
into the target language while respecting the skopos of the translation.
Low claims that translating “a joke in a way that cannot elicit a smile is a betrayal,
no matter how semantically accurate it may seem” (Low 2011: 69), and he proposes
eight strategies to translate them:
1) Delivery followed by preparation means that punch lines are translated rst,
possibly making them even “tighter and punchier”. This is followed by the work
on the preparation part, adding explanations of implied details, if necessary (Low
2011: 69).
2) Compensation in kind means that translators can use other forms of verbal
humour: for instance, if they cannot translate an anagram, they “may use a pun or
a spoonerism or a silly mixed metaphor. Any statement can be made amusing just
by adding an exaggeration, a malapropism or a simile as silly as a sausage” (Low
2011: 69).
3) Compensation in place means inserting a funny, witty allusion in the next
4) Dilution refers to translating a certain number of puns with less.
5) Explicitation means that in some cases a one-liner can be better translated in the
form of a two-liner. If in the source text we have “Consumerism has made invention
the mother of necessity”, it may be translated in two clauses, as “Consumerism has
reversed the old proverb and made invention the mother of necessity”, which is
denitely less humorous but still more than nothing (Low 2011: 69).
6) Exaggeration is exemplied with the translation of a French joke about Nicolas
Sarkozy, a “Super-Sarko joke”, in the case of which instead of translating it in
English as “Nicholas Sarkozy can tag the sound barrier”, it was amended by Low to
“Sarkozy can leap over the sound barrier and tag both sides” (Low 2011: 69).
7) Signalling means to mention the existence of a joke instead of translating it.
For example, an interpreter who does not have enough time to think about how to
translate a joke can at least say: “’That’s very droll in Chinese’ or ‘Here the speaker
would like you to laugh’” (Low 2011: 69).
8) Substitution refers to the use of a humorous text with different meaning but
equally funny. Low nds this solution acceptable, but he does not consider it a form
of translation (Low 2011: 70).
The issue of untranslatability in the domain of translating humour most often
occurs related to wordplays because of their accentuated language specicity. As
71 Gabriella KOVÁCS
the term wordplay itself suggests, it is a play with words, with their pronunciation
and meaning. In order to translate wordplays or puns, it is important to understand
their features.
The various perceptions and attempts to dene this concept point to its
complexity. There is no universally accepted denition, but there are several
important characteristics that scholars agree upon. Delabastita gives a concise
denition of wordplay or pun, stating that it is “the general name for the various
textual phenomena in which structural features of the language(s) are exploited in
order to bring about a communicatively signicant confrontation of two (or more)
linguistic structures with more or less similar forms and more or less different
meanings” (Delabastita 1996: 128). Different meanings may be activated by similar
or sometimes identical forms such as in homonyms, homophones, homographs, or
paronyms, and these structures may occur in the same part of a text (vertically) or
one after another (horizontally).
Related to form, Giorgadze claims that “wordplay can be expressed in ambiguous
verbal wit, orthographic peculiarities, sounds and forms of the words, in breaking
the grammar rules and other linguistic factors” and also highlights the importance
of context in actualizing the wordplay, or pun, “as its pragmatic role (mainly
humorous, satirical, sarcastic, etc.) is fullled and actualized in a specic context”
(Giorgadze 2014: 271).
Regarding the denition of pun, it seems that scholars have not reached a
consensus either. It is often regarded as a synonym of wordplay; for example,
Delabastita (1996) uses the terms wordplay and pun interchangeably, as synonyms.
Others dene pun as a type of wordplay or joke. According to Low, puns are “those
kinds of wordplay that exploit the ambiguities of words or phrases. Since the
majority of puns have a humorous intent, they form a subset of ‘jokes’”, and he
highlights that puns may cause extra difculties for translators because “they use
the specic features of a particular language” (Low 2011: 60).
The translatability of wordplays or puns raises many questions, and it is denitely
a challenge for translators. Ballard points out that translation is an exercise in
reading and construction of meaning, and therefore, in the early stages of translator
training, students should be shown how and why incorrect readings may occur.
Therefore, the paradigm of ambiguity should be explored, which can result from
identity of sounds and spellings in homonyms, identity of sounds in homophones,
partial similarity of sounds and spellings in paronyms, or a signier with different
meanings in polysemy (Ballard 1996: 334–335). Because of the involved ambiguity,
any of these phenomena may become the source of humour.
According to Benő (2016: 61), translating wordplays requires in a way the
preservation of the source language form, which contradicts the habitual translation
procedures that involve a disengagement and abstraction from the source language
forms by expressing the meaning of the original, source language signs with the
72Translating Humour – A Didactic Perspective
means of the target language. If the intention was to preserve the source language
form, most wordplays would be untranslatable. And yet, in everyday translation
practice, they are translated. Translation is more than an exchange of words,
replacement of source language lexical units with target language words. Literal,
word-for-word translation may lead to poor, incomprehensible results, and this is
especially relevant when translating puns.
Low proposes six tools for translating puns: 1) replicating the source text pun; 2)
achieving dynamic equivalence by creating a new pun, verbally connected with the
source text; 3) using “a different humorous device, particularly where the humour
is more important than the meaning”; 4) compensating in place by ensuring a
wordplay near the pun; 5) giving an expanded translation, an explanation of the
pun, which usually leads to the loss of humorous effect; 6) ignoring the pun, giving
a partial translation of the phrase, without wordplay (Low 2011: 67).
The rst ve tools imply that creativity is essential. In a study about the didactics
of translation focusing on the issues of wordplay, Ballard (1996) concludes the
following: “Creativity, we should teach our students, can be far more effective than
accuracy in the translation of wordplay. Wordplay is an area par excellence where
word-for-word translation usually misses the point. What is more relevant than
semantic meaning in many instances of wordplay is the stylistic device itself, the
relationship between words” (Ballard 1996: 344).
1.2. Translating funny idioms
We discussed the denition and typology of idioms and the difculties of their
translation in two previous studies (Kovács 2016a, b). We concluded that idioms
are an essential part of any language, but because of their large variety and culture
and language specicity there is no complete agreement regarding their denition
or typology. A concise denition is given by the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “an
expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in having a
meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such
as up in the air for ‘undecided’) or in its grammatically atypical use of words (such
as give way)”.2 There are different types of idioms, and there might be differences
regarding the ways they are understood and translated. Lexical items referring to
objects, living creatures, humans, phenomena, concepts, or various culture-specic
elements can all be part of what we call idioms. In order to translate idioms from
the source language into the target language, the translator should rst recognize the
idiom in the text, understand its meaning, and then choose the most appropriate
strategy, taking into consideration the peculiarities, function, culture specicity,
and the semantic and structural unpredictability of these expressions.
73 Gabriella KOVÁCS
We also discussed and exemplied Baker’s (1992) ve proposed strategies
for translating idioms (Kovács 2016a, b). Here we focus on idioms considered
humorous,3 and therefore we give examples of English–Hungarian translations for
the rst three of Baker’s strategies:
1) Using an idiom of similar meaning and form means to use an idiom in the
target language that has approximately the same meaning as the source language
idiom and contains equivalent lexical items (e.g. cat got your tongue – a cica elvitte
a nyelvedet).
2) Using an idiom of similar meaning but dissimilar form means to nd an idiom
in the target language with a similar meaning to that of the source language idiom
but containing different lexical items (e.g. kick the bucket – feldobja a talpát).
3) Translation by paraphrase can be considered the most common way of
translating idioms when it is inappropriate to use idiomatic expressions in the
target text because of differences in stylistic preferences or when no match can be
found in the target language (e.g. out of the blue a semmiből). However, when
translating funny idioms, the humorous effect can be easily lost in a paraphrase.
4) Translation by omission is the case when idioms can be omitted from the target
text mainly because they cannot be easily paraphrased, they do not have a close
match in the target language, or because of stylistic considerations. If we omit a funny
idiom from the target text, not only the meaning but also the humorous effect is lost.
5) The strategy of compensation “means that one may either omit or play down
a feature such as idiomaticity at the point where it occurs in the source text and
introduce it elsewhere in the target text” (Baker 1992: 78).
In line with Baker, we believe that the most fortunate case is when the translator
manages to nd an idiom with a similar meaning in the target language, and this
may be especially relevant when translating humorous idioms.
1.3. Attardo’s General Theory of Verbal Humour
Attardo (2001, 2002) developed a General Theory of Verbal Humour (GTVH) relevant
and applicable to all types of humorous texts, which may be used by translators
to evaluate how much the translated text differs from the source text. According
to this theory, the manifestations of verbal humour can be analysed based on six
parameters (Knowledge Resource):
(1) Language (LA) “contains all the information necessary for the verbalization
of a text. It is responsible for the actual wording of the text and for the placement
of the functional elements that constitute it” (Attardo 2002: 176). It is important
to understand that the same message or information can be expressed in various
ways (with synonyms or different grammatical constructions). Therefore, jokes or
74Translating Humour – A Didactic Perspective
humorous stories can be paraphrased, told and written in different ways, conveying
the same meaning and effect. Ideally, when translating humour, only the level of
language is changed, and the other Knowledge Resources remain intact.
(2) Narrative Strategy (NS) refers to the narrative organization of the text, which
may be, for example, a dialogue, a simple narrative, or a riddle.
(3) Target (TA) is an optional parameter; it can be identied mainly in humorous
texts that have a target or a butt, something or somebody that is being ridiculed. It is
usually the name of individuals or groups that can be stereotyped.
(4) Situation (SI) involves that humorous texts or jokes are usually “about
something”, and it includes the objects, participants, means, tasks, and activities of
the humorous statement.
(5) Logical Mechanism (LM) refers to the resolution of incongruities; however, it
is not necessarily present in all humorous texts as the resolution of the incongruity
is optional in humour (for example, in humour based on absurd or nonsense). LMs
can range from juxtapositions (e.g. Gobi Desert Canoe Club) to errors in reasoning
(e.g. “Madonna does not have it, the Pope has it but doesn’t use it, Bush has it short,
and Gorbachev long. What is it? Answer: a last name.”) (Attardo 2002: 181).
(6) Script Opposition (SO) is present in every humorous manifestation, and it is
considered the most abstract Knowledge Resource. For its presence, two conditions
must be met: the text must be partially or fully compatible with two different
scripts, and these two scripts are opposite in such a way that, at the same time, they
partially or completely overlap in the given text. The opposition either dissolves
at the end (e.g. jokes) or it does not (e.g. nonsense, absurd), but its presence is
necessary in order to achieve a humorous effect (Attardo 2002: 181–182).
Based on the General Theory of Verbal Humour, Attardo proposes a mini-
theory of humour translation, offering practical advice for translators who may
encounter humorous texts: “if possible, respect all six Knowledge Resources in
your translation, but if necessary, let your translation differ at the lowest level
necessary for your pragmatic purposes” (Attardo 2002: 183). He admits that it
may be utopian to respect all of the Knowledge Resources, but if none of them is
respected, then the outcome cannot be called a translation “and may be either the
refusal or acknowledged failure of the translator to render the text in TL, or the
creation of humour in TL that was not in SL, or failure of the translator to spot the
joke in SL” (Attardo 2002: 184).
2. Students’ translations
In this part, we aim to analyse some of the solutions which translator trainees
chose while translating various types of humour – jokes, puns, and funny idioms
from English into Hungarian. For this assignment, the jokes, puns, and funny
75 Gabriella KOVÁCS
idioms were carefully selected in order to cover several types from these categories.
The members of the target group (26 second-year students) study translation and
interpreting at Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania, Faculty of Technical
and Human Sciences Târgu-Mureş. The sample of this study is not large enough
to draw general conclusions regarding the strategies of translating humour from
English into Hungarian. We present a short qualitative analysis of our students’
translations referring to some of the above mentioned theories and principles in
order to obtain a better view of the difculties our students encounter, assess their
needs, and utilize our ndings for curriculum development.
2.1. Jokes, wordplays, and puns translated from English into Hungarian
In order to illustrate and discuss our students’ difculties related to the translation of
jokes, wordplays, or puns, we chose some examples of successful and unacceptable
translations from their assignments.
Table 1. Translating a joke (1)4
Source text Example for successful
translation (Student 1)
Example for unacceptable
translation (Student 2)
A linguistics professor
was lecturing his class
the other day. “In
English”, he said, “a
double negative forms
a positive. However, in
some languages, such
as Russian, a double
negative remains a
negative. But there isn’t
a single language, not
one, in which a double
positive can express a
A voice from the back of
the room retorted, “Yeah,
A minap egy
magyarázta az
– Az angolban a
kettős tagadás állítást
eredményez. Viszont,
egyes nyelvekben, mint
például az oroszban, a
kettős tagadás tagadás
marad. De egyetlen
olyan nyelv sem létezik,
amelyben kettős állítás
tagadást fejezne ki.
Egy hang beszólt a terem
hátsó részéből:
– Igen, persze.
Egy lingvisztikai tanár
tanítás közben:
– Az angolban két negatív
egy pozitívat formál, de
más nyelvekben pl. orosz
két negatív negatív marad.
Nincs egy nyelv sem,
amelyikben két negatív
egy pozitívat hoz létre.
Egy hang hátulról:
– Hát tényleg.
If we examine the second student’s unacceptable translation with the help of
Attardo’s GTVH, we can observe various losses regarding LA. In the rst sentence,
the student uses an expression which is incorrect and unacceptable in Hungarian:
“lingvisztikai tanár” (linguistical teacher). He also omits the translation of the
76Translating Humour – A Didactic Perspective
phrase “the other day”, the conjunction “but” introducing the fourth sentence of
the source text, and the verb “retorted” from the last sentence. He does not use the
conventional terms from Hungarian linguistics for “negative” and “positive”. And,
nally, the total transformation of the last two words – the punch line – kills the joke
in the target text. Regarding the NS, the student successfully followed the narrative
organization of the source text. TA does not exist in this source text. Regarding the
SI, most elements are present (the teaching situation, the characters a teacher
and the student who makes the comment from the back of the room). The student
failed to convey the LM, the resolution of incongruity by mistranslating the punch
line of the joke. In the source text, the nal comment consists of two positives
“Yeah, right” exposing the inaccuracy of the professor’s reasoning, while in
the target text the “voice from the back of the room” agrees with the professor,
saying “Hát tényleg.” (meaning “Well, of course.”). Regarding SO, the two opposing
but overlapping scripts in this joke would be the professor being right or wrong.
However, this opposition does not dissolve in the end because of the inaccurate
translation of the last remark.
While the rst student managed to respect all the existing ve Knowledge
Resources (LA, NS, SI, LM, and SO) in her translation, the second student failed
to respect three of them (LA, LM, and SO). The following reasons can be detected
regarding the second student’s failure to translate the joke: he probably did not
spot the humour in it, or, if he did, he could not convey it in the target language; he
also had difculties in nding acceptable equivalents for certain source language
elements and used omission too often.
Table 2. Translating a joke (2)5
Source text Successful
Poor translation
Poor translation
A teacher asked
a particularly
dull, lazy, and
objectionable pupil
if he was ignorant
or apathetic.
The pupil replied:
“I don’t know, and
I don’t care!”5
A tanár
megkérdezett egy
szembeötlően lassú
észjárású, lusta
és kifogásolható
magatartású diákot,
hogy ostoba vagy
A diák azt
– Nem tudom és
nem is érdekel.
A tanár
megkérdezte egy
lusta, kifogásolható
diákját, hogy mi
lenne, ha nem
viselkedne ilyen
tudatlanul és
érzéketlenül. A
diák válaszolta:
– Nem tudom és
nem is érdekel.
A tanár
egy unott, lusta
diákot, hogy mi
lenne, ha tudatlan
és nemtörődöm
lenne. Erre azt
válaszolta a diák,
hogy nem tudja, de
nem is érdekli.
77 Gabriella KOVÁCS
If we examine the two poor translations comparing them with the successful one
with the help of Attardo’s GTVH, we can observe various losses and errors regarding
LA. The students who produced poor translations omitted one of the pupil’s attributes
the rst did not translate “dull”, while the second omitted “objectionable” and
mistranslated “dull” as “unott” (bored). They also encountered difculties in the
translation of the second part of the rst sentence: “if he was ignorant or apathetic”.
This is a simple reported question, but both of them translated it as a complex
reported sentence containing a conditional sub-clause, altering it signicantly on
syntactic level, thus also changing its meaning: (1) “mi lenne, ha nem viselkedne
ilyen tudatlanul és érzéketlenül” (what if he did not behave so ignorantly and
insensitively); (2) “mi lenne, ha tudatlan és nemtörődöm lenne” (what if he were
ignorant and careless). However, all the students who translated this joke rendered the
punch line in acceptable forms. Regarding the NS, the students successfully followed
the narrative organization of the source text. Regarding the SI, most elements are
present (the characters – the teacher and the student). In the two poor translations, the
students failed to convey the LM, the resolution of incongruity, because, even though
they translated the punch line correctly, they failed to convey the build-up phase of
the joke by altering the meaning of the second sentence. Regarding SO, the opposing
but overlapping scripts in this joke would be that the pupil’s answer proves one of
the options given by the teacher to be true or none of them. This opposition does not
dissolve in the end because of the inaccurate translation of the teacher’s question.
The student who translated the joke successfully managed to respect all the
existing ve Knowledge Resources (LA, NS, SI, LM, and SO) in his translation,
while the other two students failed to respect three of them (LA, LM, and SO).
The following reason can be detected regarding these students’ failure to translate
the joke: they had difculties in nding acceptable equivalents for certain source
language structures, thus altering the meaning signicantly.
Table 3. Translating a pun (1)
Source text Successful
Poor translation
Poor translation
She (tearfully):
You said if I’d
marry you,
you’d be humbly
He (sourly): Well,
what of it?”
She: “You are not;
you are grumbly
hateful.” (Benő
2016: 62)
„Feleség: Azt
mondtad, ha
hozzád megyek,
férjuram leszel.
Férj (mogorván):
Na és mi lettem?
Feleség: Rémséges
kényuram.” (Benő
2016: 62)
A nő (könnyezve):
– Azt mondtad, ha
a feleséged leszek,
szerény és hálás
A fér (keserűen):
– S akkor mi?
– Nem lettél az.
Zsörtölődő és
utálatos vagy!
Az asszony:
– Azt mondtad, ha
a feleséged leszek,
alázatosan hálás
A férj, savanyúan:
– Na, és?
Az asszony:
– Nem vagy az,
szörnyen utálatos
78Translating Humour – A Didactic Perspective
This text was chosen from an article about puns and translation by Attila Benő
(2016). It is a wordplay which presents a sad and painful situation in a humorous light.
When faced with an English wordplay, our translator trainees’ rst reaction would
often be that it cannot be translated. None of them managed to translate this wordplay
successfully. Eight of them did not translate it at all, while the others tried but failed to
convey the humour resulting from combining words with similar forms but opposite
meanings, mainly because the Hungarian equivalents of these words (humbly
grumbly, grateful – hateful) are not formally similar: they do not rhyme, and they do
not have the same number of syllables: humbly grateful – alázatosan/szerényen hálás;
grumbly hatefulmorgóan/zsörtölődően gyűlöletes/utálatos). The wordplay, which at
rst sight may seem untranslatable, was the result of linguistic creativity. This means,
as Benő (2016) suggests, that the translator, like the author, should use creativity and
nd playful and witty expressions, taking advantage of the possibilities offered by the
target language, as we can see in the example for successful translation. Obviously,
this domesticizing process involves compromise, resulting in some loss, which, on
the other hand, can be counterbalanced with linguistic and cultural gain. This can
be observed in the example for successful translation, where, in order to preserve
the wordplay as a source of humour, and also the message of the joke, the translator
did not use the equivalents mentioned above but word pairs with different meaning
(készséges – rémséges, férjuram – rémuram), forming the phrases készséges férjuram
(my willing/attentive husband) rémséges kényuram (my terrible oppressor/tyrant).
Besides these, Benő (2016: 63) proposes two other alternatives: engedelmesen édes
(obediently sweet/gentle) – rettenetesen rémes (horribly terrible/terribly horrible) or
édesen hálás (sweetly grateful) – rémesen lármás (terribly noisy/boisterous).
The students’ translations render the meaning of the source text correctly, but
neither of them is humorous. Instead, both examples of poor translation highlight
the sadness and bitterness of the situation.
Table 4. Translating a pun (2)6
Source text Successful translations Unsuccessful translations
Why does the teacher
wear sunglasses? Because
his students are so
Miért visel a tanár
napszemüveget? Mert a
diákjai annyira ragyogóak
/ sziporkázóak.
Miért visel a tanár
napszemüveget? Mert a
diákjai annyira fényesek/
világosak / okosak.
The pun in this example is based on polysemy, the two meanings of the word bright
(literal meaning: shining, glittering, sparkling; gurative meaning: clever, intelligent,
smart). Twenty out of the 26 students managed to translate it successfully, using a
Hungarian equivalent, which has the same literal and gurative meaning as the English
word. Those who failed did not understand the joke and chose equivalents covering
79 Gabriella KOVÁCS
only one of the two meanings, thus forming absurd answers (meaning: Because his
students are so shining, glittering.), or they understood it but failed to choose an
equivalent with the same literal and gurative meaning, thus giving answers which
did not relate to the question (meaning: Because his students are so clever, intelligent.).
But not all puns are so easily translatable, as demonstrated in the following
Table 5. Translating a pun (3)7
Source text Translation (1) Translation (2)
“I was arrested at the
airport. Just because I
was greeting my cousin
Jack! All that I said
was ‘Hi Jack’, but very
– A repülőtéren
tartóztattak le. Csak
azért, mert köszöntöm
Jack unokatestvérem!
Csak annyit mondtam,
hogy „Hi Jack”, de
nagyon hangosan.
– Letartóztattak a repülőtéren.
Csak azért, mert köszöntem
Jack unokatestvéremnek! Pedig
csak annyit mondtam, hogy „Hi
Jack”, de nagyon hangosan.
(Ez angolul úgy is érthető,
mintha azt mondta volna, hogy
Here the humorous effect is based on the homophony between “Hi Jack” and the
word hijack (to commandeer a ying airplane especially by coercing the pilot at
gunpoint).8 As shown in the selected examples, our students applied mainly two
strategies. 12 of them assumed that the target reader would know enough English to
understand the joke even if the key element of the humorous effect was not translated.
Even though it may work in some cases, this version cannot be accepted as a
completed translation. The other 14 students used a strategy which can be considered
an expanded translation (dened by Low 2011: 67), an explanation of the pun, which
leads to the loss of the humorous effect, but their effort might trigger a polite smile.
When humour is the main purpose of a text, and we have to choose between
sacricing language play and making minor changes to the conceptual meaning, it
is more advisable to preserve the language play by slightly changing the meaning
than to produce an accurate but dry outcome.
2.2. Funny idioms translated from English into Hungarian
In this section, we propose to exemplify the applied strategies and the difculties
encountered by our group of 26 students when translating twenty funny English
idioms9 into Hungarian. The students’ choices were categorized into acceptable
9 The idioms were selected from the following sources:
80Translating Humour – A Didactic Perspective
and unacceptable translations, and the acceptable ones were further divided into
translations preserving and losing the humorous effect. The main strategies chosen
were also examined. From Baker’s ve strategies, we could identify three: (1) using
an idiom of approximately similar meaning and form, (2) using an idiom of similar
meaning but dissimilar form, and (3) translation by paraphrase. We also identied
(4) omission and (5) literal (word-for-word) translation, two options which in this
case we cannot be accepted as productive strategies. Examples:
(1) The idiom all mouth and no trousers, meaning full of boastful, arrogant,
or shallow talk, usually by a male, who then cannot deliver on his claims”,10 was
translated successfully by the majority of the students:
Table 6. Translations of the idiom “all mouth and no trousers”
Students’ translation of
the idiom – TL (HU)
nr. of stud.
but not funny
nr. of stud.
nr. of stud.
Be careful. Politicians are known to be all mouth and no trousers.
szájhős 2 4
szájkaratés 2 2
lyukat beszélnek a
hasadba, de nem
tesznek semmit
2 /3 1
csak a szájuk jár 2 9
politikusok ígéreteiből
lesz gazdag a szegényből 3 1
hajlamosak arrogánsan
beszélni, de nem
csinálnak semmit
3 1
politikusok ígéretei
nem teszik gazdaggá a
3 1
fűt-fát megígérnek,
aztán sehol semmi 2 1
sokat ígérnek, de
keveset tartanak be 3 1
bort isznak s vizet
prédikálnak 2 2
amelyik kutya ugat, nem
harap 2 1
nagy a kotkodácsolás,
kicsi a tojás 2 1
csak a szájukkal
merészek, tetteikkel
3 1
81 Gabriella KOVÁCS
(2) The translation of the idiom hairy at the heel, meaning dangerous or
untrustworthy11 proved to be the most difcult for our students.
Table 7. Translation of the idiom hairy at the heel”
Students’ translations
– TL (HU)
nr. of stud.
but not funny
nr. of stud.
nr. of stud.
I can’t say I like Bob. I’ve once or twice had a row
with him. He’s a bit hairy at the heel.
alvilági ckó 3 1
agresszív tud lenni/
kicsit agresszív 3 2
forrófejű 2 1
ravasz, mint a róka 2 2
olyan, mint az időjárás 2 1
galád/szélhámos 3 1
olyan, mint a jó idő 2 2
furcsa 3 1
pongyola 3 1
kecskére nem bíznám a
káposztát 2 1
szőröstalpú 2 4
veszélyes/kétes alak 3 3
fel van vágva a nyelve 3 1
- 4 4
szőrös a sarka 5 1
As we can see in the examples, in the translation of funny idioms, the main
reasons for unacceptable translations were mainly misinterpretation of the SL
idiom or failure to nd an acceptable equivalent. In many cases, students managed
to translate the idioms but failed to preserve their humorous effect. The most
frequently chosen strategy was the attempt of using an idiom of similar meaning but
dissimilar form, followed by paraphrasing, which contradicts Baker’s (1996) and
our own (Kovács 2016b) conclusion that paraphrasing would be the most frequently
used strategy in the translation of idioms. The reason why students tried to use
more often idioms in the target language in this particular assignment may be that
they believed this way they had better chances to preserve the humorous effect.
And, indeed, most successful translations were a result of using an idiom of similar
meaning but dissimilar form (e.g. did a runner olajra lépett; give him the cat’s
arse – lapátra teszi/pipa lesz/kiteszi a szűrét; when pigs y – sohanapján/majd ha
piros hó esik/majd ha fagy; to chew the fat – hogy kibeszéljék a krumplit a földből;
82Translating Humour – A Didactic Perspective
as cool as a cucumber – laza mint a biciklilánc; kick the bucket – feldobja a talpát;
they’re as dead as a doornail – kihaltak, mint a dínók; raining cats and dogs – esik,
mintha dézsából öntenék).
In conclusion, we suggest that recognition and comprehension, creativity and
exibility may lead to successful translations when dealing with funny idioms in
the translation process.
Final notes
In this study, we conducted an overview of some theories, principles, recommended
techniques and strategies related to translating humour – jokes, wordplays, puns,
and funny idioms. We believe they may be helpful in translator training, especially
if they are combined with the analysis and explanation of examples from English–
Hungarian translations and sufcient practice.
In the assessment of the difculties and problems that our students encounter
in translating humour, we found that the main reasons why they often fail are the
following: insufcient knowledge and understanding of source language (English)
lexical and grammatical structures and lack of creativity and exibility necessary
for the translation of humour.
Even though translating humour may not be their priority in their work as future
translators, we believe that working with humorous texts can be a helpful means
in developing our students’ language skills, creativity, openness, and problem-
solving skills. Based on this study, a further step in our work will be granting more
importance to humour translation in the curriculum. The study and evaluation of
the designed and applied solutions in curriculum development may be the topic of
a further study.
Attardo, Salvatore. 2001. Humorous Texts: A Semantic and Pragmatic Analysis.
Berlin–New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
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Baker, Mona. 1992. In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation. London–New
York: Routledge.
Ballard, Michel. 1996. Wordplay and the didactics of translation. The Translator
2(2): 333–346.
Benő, Attila. 2016. Nyelvi játék és fordítás [Puns and translation]. Korunk 2016 (4):
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Delabastita, Dirk. 1996. Introduction. In Dirk Delabastita (ed.), Wordplay and
Translation: Essays on Punning and Translation. Special Issue of “The Translator”
2(2): 1–22.
Giorgadze, Meri. 2014. Linguistic features of pun, its typology and classication.
European Scientic Journal. Special edition 2: 271–275.
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Kovács, Gabriella. 2016a. About the denition, classication, and translation
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