Humor and Translation: A Horse Walks into a Bar

By Mark Herman

Most of you have probably read the interview by Lois Feuerle in the May-June 2018 issue of The ATA Chronicle of freelance English<>Hebrew translator Jessica Cohen.If so, you know that A Horse Walks into a Bar,a novel Cohen translated from Hebrew, won the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, and that she and the author, David Grossman, shared the £50,000 prize. Alas, the latter is something that readers of the book would not know, because, while the text on the book jacket proudly proclaims that the book and the author won the prize, nowhere is there any indication that the translator shared in it. Nor do the various snatches of critical praise on the back mention the translator. Oh well, at least she is named as the translator and a short biographical sketch of her is given.

The novel has been called a black comedy. However, while there are several actual jokes, the novel is more black than comedy. It is the tale of a stand-up comedian, a broken 57-year old man, telling of incidents in his rather miserable life during a session in a small Israeli town. The novel is narrated by a former Israeli judge with problems of his own, including those occurring during his childhood acquaintance with the comedian. There are also a few other audience members who knew the comedian long ago.

The title joke, told to the comedian when he was 14 years old by a truck driver, is tellingly missing its punch line:

A horse walks into a bar and asks the barman for a Goldstar on tap. The barman pours him a pint, the horse downs it and asks for a whiskey. He drinks that, asks for a tequila. Drinks it. Gets a vodka shot and another beer . . . [ellipsis in original] (138)

Grossman is not afraid to use black humor to criticize the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Here is one of the few actual jokes in the book:

There’s an Arab walking down the street next to two settlers in Hebron. We’ll call him Little Ahmed. All of a sudden they hear an army loudspeaker announcing curfew for Arabs starting in five minutes. The settler takes his rifle off his shoulder and puts a bullet through Little Ahmed’s head. The other one is a wee bit surprised: “Holy crap, my holy brother, why’d you do that?” Holy Brother looks at him and goes, “I know where he lives, there’s no way he was gonna make it home in time.” (52)

And a less controversial one:

A little baby koala bear stands on a branch, spreads his arms out, jumps off, crashes on the ground. Picks himself up, climbs all the way back, up, stands on the branch, spreads his arms, jumps off, and crashes. Picks himself up again, climbs up, does the whole thing over and over again. This goes on and on, and the whole time two birds are sitting over on the next branch watching him. Finally, the one bird says to the other, “Look, we’re going to have to tell him he’s adopted.”(137)

While the novel is relatively short at 194 pages, the central narrative is actually a long biographical sketch by the comedian about his brief stay as a 14-year old at an Israeli military training camp, cut short after a few days by a family emergency. Interspersed with this narrative, in comments by both the comedian and the ex-judge narrator, are other details of the comedian’s life. As a short skinny child, he endured extreme bullying by other bigger boys, a physically abusive father, and a mother made mentally ill by her experiences in the Holocaust. He learned to walk on his hands, a silly posture that prevented some of the bullying, and continued to do so until his father, considering the posture an embarrassment, stopped him by beating him. As an adult, he had more than one failed marriage, and children with whom he has no contact. He often hits himself during his performance, and at one point steps on and breaks his own eyeglasses.

Most of the other patrons of the basement venue in which the comedian is performing dislike the lack of jokes. For their entrance fee they want to laugh, and many walk out after a while. What the comedian delivers, instead of jokes, is a tour de force by an expert mimic, who by voice and gesture re-creates the various bullies, soldiers, parents, and others he is talking about. And what the English reader gets is a tour de force by a masterful translator who, as “crap” and “gonna” in the text above show, is in complete command of colloquialEnglish.

And now for something completely different. I will close this column with two submissions by Jack Thiessen. First, a mis-heard hymn:

As it happens, parents are curious [about] what goes on in their children’s Sunday School. Last Sunday they asked their children at the William Graham home luncheon table, in Mobile Alabama at the Foremost Baptist Church, what they had been singing in Sunday School today.

All seven piped up in unison, “We learned and sang a very nice song about ‘The Constipated, Cross-Eyed Bear.’”

Even in homes where a command of sound English ranks secondary to clean gospel, such song arouses suspicion.

Pa Graham, cousin to Billy, headed straight to church to raise or threaten hell.

The Sunday School teacher, one Bubba Janz, related to “Sowers of the True Seed,” explained that he had tried to teach his charges the venerable hymn “The Consecrated Cross I bear!”

And second, a limerick of sorts:

Ich bin der Kerl aus Torino,
Und weil ich ein Mensch nunmal bin’o,
Der auch einmal muß
So hielt ich am Fluß,
Und schiffte den Po voll Urin’o!


  1. Feuerle, Lois. “A Conversation with Man Booker International Prize Winner Jessica Cohen,” The ATA Chronicle(May-June 2018), pp. 20-22,
  1. Grossman, David. A Horse Walks into a Bar. Translated from Hebrew into English by Jessica Cohen (New York: Alfred A Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLD, 2017),


Submit items for future columns via e-mail to mnh18@columbia.eduDiscussions 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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