Humor and Translation — Fun With Language

By Mark Herman

The number of things that can be done with language is truly amazing. Something new to me appeared recently in a crossword puzzle by David Tuffs, originally published in The New York Times1 and then reprinted several places elsewhere. The puzzle had five examples of an ordinary English word or phrase for which the second part, if considered to be in some language other than English, means the same thing as the first English part. I leave it to the readers to determine the languages of the second parts:

without sin; guest host; the die (as in “the die is cast”); bread pan; firebrand

Here is one more:

poison gift

Readers are invited to submit any other examples they can think of.

Given crazy English spelling, it’s not too surprising that many words which include the sound of a letter are spelled without the letters themselves. Here is my list. Readers are invited to submit examples to fill in the gaps.

a: weigh; c: sea; e: ski; f: telephone; g: jeep; h: nature; i: why; k: came; o: beau; q: cue; s: decimal; u: few; w: double-u; x: decks; y: while; z: daisy

English has triple homonyms:

ay, aye, eye
dew, do, due
do, doe, dough
for, fore, four
knew, new, nu
oar, or, ore
Sioux, soo, sue
their, there, they’re
to, too, two
ware, wear, where
yore, your, you’re

Reader are invited to submit others.

My Medicare Part D plan offers telephone help in many languages, usually with the aid of interpreters. In alphabetical order, the languages are Arabic, Cantonese, English, French, French Creole, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. However, the listing is somewhat peculiar. The notices of help are given in the respective languages, but the language names are all in English except, for reasons known only to the list compiler, Portuguese: Portugués. Also, unlike in my list, the plan lists English first and the remaining languages in random order.

Getting back to “o: beau” above, the sound of “o” can be spelled many different ways in English. In addition to “eau,” there are at least five more spellings. However, all include the letter “o” (an asterisk “*” indicates the possibility of one or more intervening letters):

o: go; o*a: moan, total; o*e: doe, home; ough: though; ow: flow

As many as four of the six English vowel letters, “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” “u,” and “y,” can have exactly the same sound. For example, the sound of “u” in “but” can be made by “a” and “o” (“among”) and “e” (“the”).

I will end this column with some more multilingual puns:

Ah! More! More!: Love and death!
Casanova’s casa nova: a place to see etchings?
faux pa: DNA doesn’t lie!
floor-de-lease: a Paris apartment
hay polloi: peasants
khutz bar: an in-your-face dive
Pacem in Terris or Peitschen in Tukhis!: a divine warning
poète maudlin: a writer of greeting cards
Savoir Fair: a Mensa Exposition
Toots Sweet: a quickie specialist

And here are three from ancient Rome:

Corpus Delectable: a famous ecdysiast
Felix Coniunctio: a famous gigolo
Italian Isis: the goddess of desserts

And finally, music:

Anglo-klaxons: English horns
Hava megillah: music performed at a very fancy Jewish wedding
you say car-MEE-na, I say CAR-mi-na: let’s call the whole thing Orff
Man On!: a little known opera about baseball
Man On! Let’s Go!: a slightly better known opera about baseball
Ill Troubled Tory: an opera about Boris Johnson

Notes

  1. Tuffs, David. Crossword #0811 (ed. Will Shortz) The New York Times (August 11, 2022).

 


Submit items for future columns via e-mail to mnh18@columbia.edu. Discussions of the translation of humor and examples thereof are preferred, but humorous anecdotes about translators, translations, and mistranslations are also welcome. Include copyright information and permission if relevant.

 

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