Just For Fun

By Mark Herman

Jokes are among the hardest expressions to translate. Especially difficult are jokes that depend on word play. For such expressions, the very meaning of the word “translate” can be debatable, especially if the original is itself in more than one language. Below are examples, some old and some new, of several kinds of word play. Readers are invited to attempt translations, into any language, of any of them.

First are bilingual jokes. Here are four in French-English:

  • The food truck was labeled coq au vin, but the driver refused to sell me any chocolate.
  • Mowing the lawn was the coup de grâce needed to win the neighborhood beautification contest.
  • Who is Jack Hughes? The brother-in-law of Jim Peach.
  • Je t’adore! Why should I? You opened it.

and one in Latin-English:

  • I like to be on terra firma, the more the firma, the less the terra.

Even monolingual expressions can try a translator’s patience. My brother Bruce submitted examples of three different kinds. There are ordinary puns:

  • The fattest of King Arthur’s knights was Sir Cumference, who acquired his great girth from too much Л.
  • “Oh,” said a hydrogen atom, “I’ve lost my electron.” “Are you sure?” “I’m positive.”
  • An eye doctor on an Alaskan island is an optical Aleutian.
  • She was only a whiskey maker, but he loved her still.
  • A dog gave birth by the side of a road and was cited for littering.
  • Those who jump off Parisian bridges are in Seine.
  • Two silk worms had a race. They ended up in a tie.
  • An atheist society is a non-prophet organization.
  • A sign on the lawn at a drug rehab center reads: “Keep off the Grass.”
  • In a democracy, your vote counts. In feudalism, your count votes.
  • A vulture boarded an airplane carrying two dead raccoons. “Sorry, sir,” said the flight attendant, “only one carrion allowed per passenger.”
  • Out of ten puns, surely one would make people laugh. But no pun in ten did.

There are made-up definitions. Here are a few of the entries to a contest run by the Washington Post, asking for new definitions for existing words:

  • abdicate: to relinquish the hope of having a flat stomach
  • willy-nilly: impotent
  • gargoyle: olive-flavored mouthwash
  • oyster: someone who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms

And there are both made-up words and made-up definitions. Another contest run by the Washington Post asked for words altered by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, together with new definitions. Here are some of the winners:

  • cashtration: financial impotence
  • intaxicaton: temporary euphoria upon receiving a tax refund, lasting until the realization that you are only getting your own money back
  • bozone: the gas layer, impervious to bright ideas, surrounding certain people
  • giraffiti: spray-paint, very high up
  • sarchasm: the gulf between the speaker of a sarcastic barb and the person who doesn’t get it.
  • osteopornosis: a degenerate disease
  • glibido: all talk and no action

Of course, some expressions do meet their translation match. Tony Beckwith gives the Spanglish translation of “more bang for the buck” as “more beso for your peso,” and a true Spanish translation, mi manera o la carretera, for “my way or the highway.”

If a joke does not depend on word play, it is relatively easy to translate. Jack Thiessen submitted these inscriptions taken from four actual Mexican tombstones:

  • Recuerdo de todos tus hijos (menos Ricardo que no dío nada) [Remembrance from all your sons (except for Ricardo who contributed nothing)]
  • Buen esposo, buen padre, mal electricista causer [Good husband, good father, bad household electrician]
  • Aquí descansa mi querida esposa. Señor, recíbela con la misma alegría con la que yo te la mando [Here rests my dear wife. Lord, receive her with the same joy with which I send   her to You]
  • Ahora estás con el Señor. Señor, cuidado con la cartera [Now you are with the Lord. Lord, watch your wallet]

Finally, mistranslations are funny, or at least they are to translators, and the more egregious the better. Barbara J. Collignon tells of a friend who told her of a Saturday Review crostics puzzle for which the answer was a quotation about French subtitles for a Sam Peckinpah film. A German soldier, spotting an oncoming Russian armored column, shouts, “Tanks!”, which was rendered into French as “Merci!”


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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