Interpreting jokes

Jokes are a nightmare. I dread them. Interpreting between French and English people has taught me that humour is definitely culturally defined. I’ve often had to say to French people, curious to hear why their English partners were giggling at the very plain sentence I had just translated for them: “They’re laughing at an untranslatable pun/play on words/cultural reference/joke”.
Once I was interpreting for a very nice French woman in a meeting with four English people, two Spaniards and two Germans. At some point she pronounced the dreaded words: “I’ve got a really good joke to tell them.” It involved an Italian woman, a pair of red knickers and was wholly inappropriate. With a heavy heart, knowing full well that the joke wasn’t going to translate well, I did my job. Polite smiles all around. The worst reaction you could have after saying a joke you find hilarious.
Thanks Caroline for sending me the link a CNN article on translating humour, which starts like this:
Pssst! Did you hear the one about the American businessman whose lame joke drew a hilarious response from his Japanese audience?
The American, curious why they liked the joke so much, later asked his official translator, who replied: “The joke was not appropriate, so I did not translate it. I simply said: ‘The gentleman has told a joke. Please laugh.'”…

By | 2016-10-18T15:52:04+00:00 April 7th, 2004|Interpreting|2 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Jemima April 8, 2004 at 9:46 am

    I think it was Clifford Geertz (an anthropologist) who argued that you know you understand a culture when you understand its jokes.

  2. céline April 8, 2004 at 9:57 am

    I know that I started feeling at home here when I could finally share a laugh with British people.

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