One for Humor, And Humor for All

When we bring up the difficulties that may be encountered in a translation process, we tend to think about very complex legal or commercial documents, or even poetry. Indeed, translating Victor Hugo’s or Baudelaire’s verses in English is not a piece of cake ! However, it’s not what this article will be focusing on today. I’d rather propose you to give a round of applause for all those who have to translate humoristic messages.


Thanks to streaming websites –that are getting more and more numerous over the years- American series live beyond their shores. Nevertheless, some like The Big Bang Theory or Two Broke Girls are sometimes really hard to deal with. Indeed, whether humor can be translated or not has led to many studies and debates. Some authors like Zabalbeascoa have even decided to create a classification for the different types of jokes, in order to make it less tedious for audiovisual translators.

If humor is something universal, its translation is way more complex, as puns are usually specific to a culture. Thus, translators have to succeed in adapting these references to the targeted culture so they can be understood..This can turn into a real nightmare, considering they also have to respect translation techniques and restrictions which exist in subtitling, for example.

Below are few examples to help you understand :

  • I assume you haven’t forgotten about the Game of Thrones episode in which the origin of Hodor’s name is revealed. Admittedly, this passage is not humoristic at all, but it does a good job of depicting the challenge that is translating puns. The sentence “Hold the door” works pretty well in English, but it’s not as easy to find a translation that makes sense in other languages. The Dubbing Brothers chose to translate it by “Pas au-dehors” in French, (litteraly “not outdoors”), which then becomes “Au-dehors” and finally “Hodor”. In Spanish, it became “Obstruye el corridor” (“Obstructs the corridor”).
  • Did you know that during the Cannes Festival, the directors of the movie Intouchablesmade a guide book adapting the dialogues and jokes for the foreign audience ? Therefore, the joke “Pas de bras, pas de chocolat !” (which literally can be translated to “no arm, no chocolate”) was translated by “No handy, no candy !” or by “No feet, no sweets !” in order to keep the rhyme.
  • Sometimes, the translation choice itself makes us laugh : John Snow’s name was kept in the French version of the show, but not in the Quebec’s one. They decided to translate it literally, which leaves us with a wonderful Jean Neige, as testifies the French Tumblr “Les sous-titres de la honte” (“The subtitles of shame”).

Written by Déborah Rivallain

Translated by Zohra Lepeigneul


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