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Strategies of Interpreting Humor

January 29th, 2013

Real-time interpretation poses multiple challenges to the interpreter, of which the most difficult is perhaps interpreting humor. In a typical business discussion, the interpreter is called upon to translate business and technical conversations which require sufficient knowledge of the subjects discussed and the languages involved. However, once the deal is done or almost done, both parties are bound to relax. This is when humor is likely to enter the conversation.

Not so Simple

Humor is difficult to interpret because it depends on meta-linguistic and cultural specifics apart from the language used. For instance, some humor depends on puns and others on the specific socio-cultural situation familiar to the speakers of the language. This makes it difficult to translate the joke for the benefit of the speakers of the other language. If the translator can deliver the right punch line and emphasize certain words over others, that even makes the joke or story more entertaining as well. But this may be asking for too much.

Brevity is the Key

As far as possible, the interpreter needs to do more than just translate the humorous sentences. Instead, the interpreter needs to fill in the listener with a brief socio-cultural context and explain why the speaker considers it a joke. The key here is to make the explanation brief as analyzing a joke can kill it faster than anything else. The role of the interpreter here is that of a facilitator, not that of someone who is dissecting the joke.

Being Tactful  

Another concern that interpreters have to keep in mind at all times, but especially when interpreting humor is the cultural sensitivity of the listener. This is because what is acceptable humor in one culture might include taboo topics or politically insensitive in another. This happens because humor relies on bringing up new perspectives on various issues by juxtaposing the accepted with the unexpected. An interpreter needs to be true to the overall expectations of the clients and ensure that humor is represented appropriately so that neither party feels offended or left out. Of course the interpreter should be honest with the listener so the listener can decide whether or not this is the correct venue for them to be at.

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