Humor and Translation

Manipulating Language for Humorous Effect
By Mark Herman

A child, even a very young child, may laugh when an adult makes a funny face or a funny noise, and may even repeat the face or the noise in the hopes of also eliciting laughter. However, it is not until the age of nine or ten that most children begin to consciously manipulate language in order to achieve a humorous effect. Such conscious manipulation is called “metapragmatical” by researchers, and a recent book, Metapragmatics of Humor, explores metapragmatical manipulation for humorous effect in various contexts.1

From a translator’s point of view, this is a curious book. Though written in English, many of the authors of the various articles are affiliated with the Universidad de Alicante in Spain, have Spanish surnames, and therefore presumably speak and write Spanish as their first language. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, provided that the authors have near-native fluency in English, which appears to be the case, and that the entire manuscript is proofread before publication by a native English speaker, which appears not to be the case. As a result, there are strange word choices here and there, and one howler, where the author fails to get the point of a joke.

In the chapter “Lawyers, great lawyers, and liars” by Miguel Ángel Campos, also of the Universidad de Alicante, there are many good jokes, most based on underlying assumption that lawyers are liars. (Interestingly, lying, like humor, is a use of language to relate an untruth, the difference being that the liar’s intent is to deceive, whereas the humorist’s intent is to provoke laughter.) However, as shown in the passage below, one joke about a lawyer on an airplane was misunderstood by the author of the chapter:

In the following story, the lawyer prefers to “lie by omission” by failing to admit he is a lawyer [because lawyers have a bad reputation]—and thus loses a valuable possession—rather than risk any retaliation by the remaining passengers (while earlier he was quick to say that he was a lawyer). Note the intentional detail of the [presumably dumb] blonde stewardess:

 A lawyer boarded an airplane in New Orleans with a box of frozen crabs and asked a blonde stewardess to take  care of them for him. She took the box and promised to put it in the crew’s refrigerator. He advised her that he was holding her personally responsible for them staying frozen, mentioning in a very haughty manner that he was a lawyer, and proceeded to rant at her about what would happen if she let them thaw out. Needless to say, she was annoyed by his behavior. Shortly before landing in New York, she used the intercom to announce to the entire cabin, “Would the lawyer who gave me the crabs in New Orleans, please raise your hand.” Not one hand went up…so she took them home and ate them. (115)

(For those not fluent in English, one meaning of “crabs” is “pubic lice.”)

A joke of particular interest to translators, in the chapter “A look at metalinguistic jokes based on intentional morphological reanalysis,” by Isabel Balteiro (also of the Universidad de Alicante), is:

What do you call a rancher ghost? A boo-ckaroo. (143)

“Boo-ckaroo” is a distortion of “buckaroo,” which is itself a distortion of the Spanish vaquero, meaning “cowboy.”

Some of the so-called humor in the book, especially that translated from Spanish, while clever, is not really funny. For example, in the chapter “Humor and advertising on Twitter,” by Ana Pano Alamán (Università di Bologna) and Ana Mancera Rueda (Universidad de Sevilla), there is this advertising tweet about the cocoa powder Cola Cao:

Tarda menos en disolverse, que tu hijo en pedir un smartphone nuevo.
It takes less time to dissolve than your child asking for a new smartphone. (45)

An interesting chapter on American humor is “Truthiness and consequences,” by Craig O. Stewart (University of Memphis), which compares Stephen Colbert’s satire on the television show The Colbert Report with Colbert’s speech at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner.

At the dinner, as on the television show, Colbert spoke in the persona of “Stephen Colbert,” a parody of the right-wing Fox News television pundit Bill O’Reilly. The chapter’s author makes the point that the satire at the dinner was unmistakable, with the targets of the satire, the Bush administration and the media, being right there, growing more and more uncomfortable as Colbert continued. The satire (untruth) of the television show could have been mistaken by some viewers for truth, albeit stated in a humorous way, and some of the television show’s targets may not have been watching. One of the jokes Colbert made at the dinner, quoted in the chapter, is:

I am appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media that is destroying America, with the exception of Fox News. Fox News gives you both sides of every story: the president’s side, and the vice-president’s side. (185)

Another interesting chapter, “Variability, adaptability and negotiability in conversational humor: A matter of gender,” by M. Belén Alvarado-Ortega (Unversidad de Alicante), claims that women mainly use humor to build closer ties with the conversational group, whereas men mainly use humor to protect themselves from attacks within the conversational group. However, I do not believe that the limited data cited actually support these findings.


1. Metapragmatics of Humor. Edited by Leonor Ruiz-Gurillo (John Benjamins, 2016),


Submit items for future columns via e-mail to 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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