Humor and Translation – More Than Basic Communication

By Mark Herman

John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel1, a fascinating though somewhat repetitious “natural history of language,” eloquently makes the point that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a “language.” Rather, there are only clusters of dialects. Each dialect in a cluster is constantly changing in its own unique way, but one of them, due to geo-political happenstance, is regarded as the “language.”

McWhorter also discusses the differences between spoken language, with its 150,000-year history, and written language, with its mere 6,000-year history, and how each influences the other. He discusses how written language, or at least formal written language, being an existing palpable “standard” often supported by proscriptive rules, artificially preserves an older form of the spoken language, retarding but not stopping the natural inclination of all dialects to change.

However, some of the most fascinating aspects of language are omitted from McWhorter’s book. These ought to be discussed by McWhorter or someone else.

For example, McWhorter discusses the differences between written French, in which “we” is “nous,” and spoken French, in which “nous” is almost always replaced by the impersonal “on,” meaning “one, a person, it” (224-25). But he does not mention an important third form of French, sung and poetic French. This form of French, still used, though not as extensively as in the first half of the 20th century and earlier, preserves the pronunciation of final syllables that long ago dropped out of the spoken language. They have never dropped out of the written language. Consider the refrain of the folk song “Alouette”:

Alouette, gentille alouette,
Alouette, je te plumerai.

The first word as sung has four syllables, just as it is spelled: A-lou-et-te. However, when the word is repeated in the first strophe, the syllable is dropped and the word is sung A-lou-et, just as it is spoken:

Je te plumerai la tête.
Je te plumerai la tête.
Et la tête! Et la tête!
Alouette, Alouette!

Therefore, translators who want their translation to be singable cannot use the same English word each time the French word arises, but must use different English words for the four-syllable and three-syllable pronunciations.

McWhorter devotes an entire chapter to the many features a language may or may not have, which, according to him, are not necessary for communication (178). He considers them unnecessary because, even in the languages that lack them, the semantic meanings conveyed by them can still be conveyed by means of extra words or simply by context. Every existing language has at least some of these features and they come and go as a language changes. At any given time, native speakers learn the features of their own language from the cradle, and often cannot imagine why any language would not have those features, or why other languages would consider other features to be necessary.

Among the features mentioned by McWhorter that contemporary English speakers will recognize are indefinite and definite articles (a and the), perfect tenses (I have found the money versus I found the money), tense markers (such as -ed to indicate past tense), singular and plural endings (no ending versus or es), and possessive endings (’s and s’). Among the features that contemporary English does not have, either because it has lost them or never had them in the first place, are:

  • Noun and adjective classes (sometimes called genders, especially when referring to masculine, feminine, and neuter, but the West African language Fula has 16 classes).
  • Evidential markers (suffixes or prefixes indicating how a person knows something is true: hearsay, direct observation, whatever).
  • Markers for types of possession (possession of a face being different from possession of a couch).
  • Reflexive markers (indicating whether you wash yourself or wash a pot).
  • Tones to distinguish words and express aspects of grammar.

English does have a hint of the last: a rising tone at the end of a question.

But are all these features really unnecessary for communication? The fact that all languages have at least some of them implies to me that, while any particular language need not have all of them, rich communication requires that it have at least some of them. And this is especially true if the communication in question is a literary one, such as poetry or humor. While the ordinary meanings of words can be used to write poetry and tell jokes, it is often the case that subtle shades of meaning, poetry, and humor depend on the manipulation of just those features McWhorter considers to be unnecessary.

Ezra Pound, referring mainly to poetry, claimed that “Literature is language charged with meaning: Great literature is simply charged with meaning to the utmost degree.”2 One way to add meaning is to make use of those features. For example, the poet e.e. cummings used the English noun ending –ness to invent the word “muchness,” which appears in several of his poems.3 Without this ending (or the ability to convey the fact that the word is a noun by using some other feature, such as by saying “a much”), cummings would have had to say something like “much (noun),” which certainly gets the idea across but is not poetry.

The various features can work in nonobvious ways. For example, articles can do more than express definiteness or indefiniteness. As indicated above, they can turn whatever word follows them into a noun (as in “a much”). They can also change the meaning of the word that follows them. In 1947, John Steinbeck wrote a novella called The Pearl.4 An English speaker who knew nothing else about the book would probably correctly conclude that the title refers to a gemstone. A few people might guess it is the name of something like a boat. But if the title were merely Pearl, most people would assume it is a woman’s name.

One of the works that Ronnie Apter and I have translated is Bedřich Smetana’s comic opera Dvě vdovy, based on the French play Les deux veuves.5 French grammar requires the “the” (in the form of Les) while Czech, like all Slavic languages, has no “the.” So, should the English title be Two Widows or The Two Widows? Both titles indicate definiteness in that an English speaker would assume that the reference is to a specific set of two widows. But the degree of definiteness is not the same. We decided to omit the “the,” thereby allowing the specificity of the pair to be developed throughout the work rather than have it stated right there in the title, which is more like its development in the the-less Czech.

La figlia del mago / The Sorcerer’s Daughter6 is a comic opera by Lorenzo Ferrero designed to introduce children to the conventions of Italian opera. Its libretto is written in an invented pseudo-Italian, which Ronnie Apter and I translated into an invented pseudo-English. Not only did our English language have to be invented, but it also had to be funny. To make it funny, we sometimes took advantage of a feature not mentioned by McWhorter: the huge English vocabulary, with many words differing only slightly in semantic meaning. (An unnecessary feature, someone of McWhorter’s opinion might say, since the various nuances may still be conveyed using fewer words, either by context or by the use of auxiliary adjectives or adverbs). But semantic meaning is only one aspect of a word’s total “meaning.” Other aspects are its sound and register; that is, whether it is commonly used formally, colloquially, slangily, or whatever. And with respect to these other aspects, words very similar in semantic meaning differ greatly. And so, by combining the formal “patricide” with the informal “pop,” we invented the word “popcide.”

Another feature of English we used was the lack of endings (for most words anyway, -ness to the contrary notwithstanding) that indicate whether a word is a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb. In particular, we used the noun “loophole” as a verb when describing the punishment planned for the alleged plotter of popcide:

Pity shall be hight unlawful
lest by con he loophole loose!
Be his chastigation awful:
cast him into the calaboose!


1. McWhorter, John H. The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001).

2. Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading (1934).

3. For example, see “The Poem Her Belly Marched Through Me As,” in Tulips and Chimneys (1923), by e.e. cummings.

4. Steinbeck, John, The Pearl (1947), with and introduction by Linda Wagner-Martin and drawings by José Clemente Orozco (New York: Penguin Classics, 1994),

5. Dvě vdovy / Two Widows (1874, revised 1878), a comic opera in two acts, music composed by Bedřich Smetana, libretto by Emanuel Züngel, after Les deux veuves (1860) by Jean Pierre Félicien Mallefille, translated into English by Mark Herman and Ronnie Apter (1983).

6. La figlia del mago / The Sorcerer’s Daughter (1981, revised 1991), a comic opera in two acts, music composed by Lorenzo Ferrero, libretto by Marco Ravasini, translated from Italian into English by Mark Herman and Ronnie Apter (Milan: Ricordi, 1997).


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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