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The Hardest Things to Translate

September 19, 2008 3 Comments »

If there is one thing that almost all translators can agree upon, it’s that two of the most things to translate, no matter what the language, are jokes and poetry. Jokes, because they usually have a play on words or phrases with a “double meaning” that are practically impossible to transfer from one language to another.

Take this English one-liner for example:

“Did you hear about the guy whose whole left side was cut off? He’s all right now.”

One possible translation would be: “¿Te enteraste de ese chico al que le cortaron todo el lado izquierdo? Ahora está bien.” It would be technically correct, understandable, but missing the punch line. The joke works in English because “right” here means “bien” and “derecho.” Maybe you could make a play on words with “derecho” in the sense of “recto,” or maybe in the sense of laws… Eventually, and with a good bit of work, a good translator could get some kind of humor out of it.  But it would never be the same joke.

And poetry holds even greater challenges, even if it the original does not rhyme or you decide not to try and make the translation rhyme, it still involves meter, cadence, and rhythm that tend to be most difficult to translate. If it’s not a translation, you’re writing a new poem… A poem is a unique combination of special words- and not others– that are also laid out in a unique arrangement. How does one do that? So then, does everyone need to learn the original language in order to read the poem? Exactly how many languages do we need to learn? Right.
Every language has its own ways to twist words around, its own double meanings and plays on words. It’s not exactly vital to translate jokes since every country or region has its own style of humor. But for poetry, I feel that we translators don’t have a choice. we wouldn’t have access to Russian poetry, Greek classics, Latin sonnets, or Japanese haikus if a translator hadn’t first taken on the task of translating them. And although it may not turn out “perfect,” I think we should keep trying…

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3 Responses to “The Hardest Things to Translate”

  • Commented on September 23, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    […] After being in France for couple of years, I was at a point where I could actually “get” most French jokes. Also, I was already familiar with my boyfriend’s humor since he had explained his own jokes to me before. But something happened when I translated them for my American family. They made absolutely no sense at all. That’s how I learned that jokes are the hardest thing to translate! […]

  • Commented on October 15, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    Q: “¿Te enteraste de ese chico al que le cortaron todo el lado izquierdo?”
    A: “¡No hay derecho!”

    You’re right, of course: it’s not the same joke.

  • Commented on October 15, 2008 at 11:10 am

    Q: “¿Te enteraste de ese chico al que le cortaron todo el lado izquierdo?”
    A: “¡No hay derecho!”

    You’re right, of course: it’s not the same joke.