Humor and Translation

By Mark Herman

Intertextuality refers to the fact that all texts (except perhaps the very first one thousands of years ago) refer to some extent to other texts or are even based on them. Translations are obvious examples of the latter. And so are parodies.

Parodies usually fall into one of two categories: those that make fun of the original, and those that use the original in some way to make fun of something else. An example of the first is the incongruous parody of the words to the trio section of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” substituting “Be Kind to Your Web-footed Friends” for “Hurrah for the Flag of the Free!”1 Examples of the latter are the many song parodies created by the Capitol Steps to satirize politics.2

What is the translator’s responsibility when translating a parody? How much of the parodic nature of the original must be conveyed in the translation? Is a footnote or preface sufficient to convey to the reader that the work is a parody? Does a translator even have to know that a parody is a parody? Until well into my adulthood, the only words I ever knew to “Stars and Stripes Forever” were the parodic ones.

The classic case of a parody that has received many translations is, of course, Don Quijote.3 This novel has long stood on its own, and the fact that it is a parody of overblown 16th-century chivalric romances—which no one reads today—is usually relegated to introductory notes. Don Quijote is also an example of false translation, in which an original poses as a translation, but that, as they say, is another story.

Here are two song parodies submitted by Larry Yelowitz, which readers are invited to translate into any language and send to me for possible publication in a future column.

First, “Larry’s in His Gown,” a parody of a medical procedure. The original song, “Lulu’s Back in Town”4 is used for its meter and rhymes:

Got a new aorta in my chest,
Now my heart’s a-thumpin’ like the best,
New valve, good flow, I’m all aglow,
Larry’s in his gown!

Take a beta blocker, slows the pace,
Lucky, no effect below the wais’
So my big smile can last a while,
Larry’s in his gown!

Coumadin rules the day,
No more vitamin K,
No more broccoli and booze,
Nothing else to lose.

Soon I can pump iron, watch the burn,
My new parts keep workin’, no concern,
Bionic man, that was the plan,
I’m out of my gown.

Next, a parody that uses ideas in the original song to comment on a political/economic issue: “Congress, Can You Spare a Bill[ion],” based on “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”5:

Once I built a hedge fund, made a ton,
Stole much more than my fill,
Ripped off all my clients, now they’re gone—
Congress, can you spare a bill?

Bought a lot of artwork, cars, and jets,
Flipped new homes with great skill,
Started up a dot-com, huge regrets—
Congress, can you spare a bill?

Marched for lower taxes, why should I pay
For all those good-for-nothin’ bums?
Found an offshore haven, hid from the fray,
Now I am begging for crumbs!

Say, don’t you remember high P-E’s,
Paper profits that thrill,
Now we’ve got a big bad credit freeze—
Congress, can you spare a bill?

  1. “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” by John Philip Sousa, was first published in 1897. Congress made it the official national march of the U.S. in 1987. Many renditions are available online. The parodic words are credited to Charles Randolph Grean and Joan Javits, and have been heard many times on television. There is also a popular alternate patriotic version beginning “Three Cheers for the Red, White, and Blue.”
  1. The Capitol Steps is an American political satire group that has been performing since 1981. The group has released more than 40 albums, consisting primarily of song parodies. Their motto is “We put the MOCK in Democracy.” Their website is
  1. El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Volume 1 was published in 1605, and volume 2 in 1615. The edition by the Royal Spanish Academy (2010) is available at
  1. “Lulu’s Back in Town,” by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics), was written in 1935. A 1935 recording by Fats Waller is available at
  1. “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” by Jay Gorney (music) and E. Y. Harburg (lyrics), was written in 1930. The song is an anthem to the shattered dreams of the Great Depression, best known through the recordings of Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee (


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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