Humor and Translation — Groaners

By Mark Herman

One of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s plays was a real turkey: Hedda Gabler.

The Romanovs took control in Russia because Boris wasn’t good enough.

Many people, misapplying the rule that most Latin words ending in a vowel are stressed on the next-to-last syllable, mispronounce the first word of CAR-mi-na Burana as “Car-MEE-na”: You say “Car-MEE-na,” I say “CAR-mi-na,” let’s call the whole thing Orff.

  • If there are hand trucks and tow trucks, why not foot trucks and finger trucks?
  • votagra: the cure for electile dysfunction.
  • toute suite: a French candy whistle.
  • ecdysiast: a woman with a peel.
  • Baden-Baden: site of the waters-waters.
  • Semiramide: half an opera.
  • This coffee tastes like mud. It was recently ground.
  • One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian.
  • La Trevi-Otter: opera about an animal living in a Roman fountain.
  • komerex or khesterex, because there is no such thing as a static Klingon.
  • Rudolph the Red knows rain, dear: talking to one’s beloved about a Soviet meteorologist.

From Gilbert and Sullivan:

Behold the Lord High Executioner!
A personage of noble rank and title –
A dignified and potent officer,
Whose functions are particularly vital! The Mikado

Famous puns from Shakespeare:

A little more than kin and less than kind. (Hamlet)
Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. (Romeo and Juliet)

In The Nation for December 31, 2018, cryptic crossword puzzle no. 3484 by Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto has “groaner” as one of its answers. The puzzle features the friends of the famous mathematician Lois Carmen Denominator, listed here by permission of The Nation: Xavier Breath, Justin Case, Ben Dover, Polly Gone, Ophelia Pane, Warren Peace, Jean Pool, Barbara Seville, and Anita Shower.

Finally, two more groaners freely adapted from Crosbie’s Dictionary of Puns.1

A man’s sister had two children, one named Denise, the other Denephew. (65)

Hawaii, mister! You must be Hungary!
Yes, Siam. And I can’t Rumania long. Venice lunch ready?
I’ll Russia table. What are you Ghana Havre?
Turkey. Can Jamaica cook step on the Gaza?
Could you put a Cuba sugar in my Java?
Sweden it yourself. I’m only here to Serbia.
I don’t Bolivia know who I am.
I don’t Caribbean! You Ararat!
Samoa your wisecracks! What’s got India? Why be so Chile? Be Nice!
Don’t Kiev me that Boulogne! Alamein do! Spain in the neck!
Abyssinia! (261)

As you know, translators are often asked to work for free by submitting a “sample,” by being offered the hope of a remunerative job in the future, or because the work is for a “good cause.” Or for no reason at all. Free online translators like Google Translate have not helped establish the notion that translation is something worth paying for. But what if people expected other services to be free? The following excerpt from Nathaniel Tapley’s blog appeared some time ago and was submitted by Peter Gergay. It has also appeared on the Facebook page of Translators Anonymous and has been quoted online by others:2

Electricity & Gas Providers,

I’m writing to you because I’ve been given your name by a mutual friend / saw your stuff and really loved it. I’m currently looking for someone to heat and light my house, and was wondering if you’d be interested in doing it?

Unfortunately, there is no pay at this time, but it’s a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor as in the future I hope to be heating and lighting ever-bigger houses. It’s also a great chance to showcase your work to the sorts of demi-celebrities I spend much of my life with.

You’d be boiling the tea for Darren Strange who was in Parents on Sky. You’d be powering the phone calls I make to all sorts of household-name comedians, all of whom would be exposed to your work that way. You’d be powering tweets that are occasionally retweeted by Josie Long and Mark Thomas!

While I understand the remuneration might not be quite what you’re hoping for, I hope you’ll be excited by the opportunity to be a part of the incredible project that is my household. It’s going to be huge!

I can also offer you drinks if you’re ever in town, and tickets to an exclusive viewing of the work you do in our house next time you come to check the meter.

I know you’ll be as excited by this as I am!

Nathaniel Tapley


1. Crosbie’s 1 Dictionary of Puns, edited by John S. Crosbie, New York: Harmony Books, 1977.

2. Of Course I’d Love To Work For Free


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