Sometimes Humor Just Can’t Be Translated

My Nepali friend AD has a very infectious laugh. We met as undergrads and lived together one summer while working on campus. In the shared apartment that year it was my humorous friend AD, P, AC (P’s high school friend) and I. As the only American I was often vetoed on food, daal/bhat (lentils and rice) and curries were favored (in general) over pasta and garden salad, forks were shunned for the more “authentic way of eating” with our hands, and the language was often Nepali instead of English, at least at the dinner table (and always when I wasn’t around).

One thing that stands out as particularly memorable from that summer was my friend AD’s laugh. It came from deep within and boiled over into a loud, room-filling echo. It’s very distinctive. In the dormitory you could always tell it was him laughing, and you heard him quite frequently. AD found many things funny, but he was also quite skilled at telling jokes, which would throw him into a fit of laughter as well. There was hardly a night at the dinner table that summer that he didn’t lapse into one long-winded Nepali joke or another and the three would erupt in endless giggles. I couldn’t help but feel left out.

“Come on, what’s so funny?” I’d ask.

“Oh, I wish you spoke Nepali, you won’t get it otherwise,” AD would answer while the other two wagged their heads in agreement.

“Can’t you just explain it? Try me!” I’d whine.

“Nope, it just won’t work. You won’t get it. It has to be in Nepali or it won’t be funny.”

Okay, maybe the laughter wasn't *this* hearty

Okay, maybe the laughter wasn't *this* hearty

I suffered through this for years. AD, the great joke teller, would crack one out at a party, and all the other Nepalis in the room would heartily laugh, and I’d be left in the dark, my language skills still not adept enough to understand the intricacies of the grammar and vocabulary chosen for this particular joke.

AD never wanted to translate the joke into English. He insisted it was pointless. It simply would not be funny in English and in fact it probably wouldn’t even make sense.

Then once we moved, I met AS at P’s graduate school. Shortly after meeting her I found out that one of the jobs she had back in Nepal was translating for a Danish organization. She would spend the day listening to people speak in Nepali and then simultaneously translate into English for her colleagues. I was immediately psyched when I heard this; one of the first thoughts that came to mind was, “I finally have someone to explain AD’s jokes!”

One night I told AS my story about AD and my years of not understanding or having the jokes explained. “One day,” I told her, “I’ll get the two of you together and you will have to promise me that you will explain his joke.”

I had my opportunity at a holiday party that I hosted whose invitees were probably half Nepali, half other nationalities. AD drove up from his home in another state to attend. As the party got underway, I knew it wouldn’t be long before he told one of his famous jokes, and I was ready for it. AS and I had positioned ourselves nearby when he launched into one and I had AS whisper me the quick translation. AD noticed what was going on and asked what we were doing.

“AS knows how to translate well! I’m tired of not understanding your jokes!”

“But I’ve told you, they don’t make sense in English, you won’t like it.” He insisted.

“I know that humor is cultural, but come on, if they are as funny as everyone says, I’m sure there has to be something there of the original humor, even in translation.”

So AD sighed and said fine. By this time everyone in the room seemed to be listening, Nepalis and non-Nepalis. So AD started a joke and when he finished AS laughed and started to translate, but as AD predicted,  it didn’t really make any sense. It wasn’t funny at all.

laughing3“This is what I was afraid of,” AD sighed, “here let me try it myself,” and he started telling the joke in English. I can’t honestly tell you what the joke was about, there might have been a goat in it, I’m not sure, but it was completely forgettable and not funny at all.

“Wait, let me try again.” AD said, and try again he did, but a non-Nepali friend interjected, “you’re right, it isn’t funny in English. I don’t get it at all.” At this point AD must have felt like his honor was at stake because then he tried to explain the different parts of the joke to help us “get” it, but it didn’t help.

“Hold on,” AD said, turned to the Nepalis in the room and told the same joke again in his language. To his great relief he got a laugh out of them, “Phew, okay, so it wasn’t the joke, it’s just the language. I told you it was a waste to try.”

It is rather commonly know that humor is one of the hardest aspects of culture to translate. Foreign born and foreign language speaking people who are able to perform comedy in their non-native environments are generally thought to be quite impressive. There are so many nuisances involved in humor, plays on words, inferred understanding of the cultural capital that makes up the joke, even the manner in which you tell a joke and the cultural implications of voice, tone, impersonations, etc. Of course there are jokes that are straight forward, and types of humor that tend to cross cultural lines quite easily, but many jokes are only funny in the language and cultural setting they are suppose to be told.

I know this, but I still could not resist hounding my friend AD. Years of jokes and laughter, I was sure it must have been universally funny. However he was right, and I should have known better. Subconsciously I could tell there were a lot of cultural cues I couldn’t pick up on, even if I couldn’t understand the language. He often used a funny voice, and I think he was impersonating some famous Nepali radio or television personality. Using that voice and those mannerisms instantly brought a whole cultural understanding to the joke that I simply wouldn’t get, having not grown up in the country, or having watched that particular television star.

I also grew to understand that AD was quite good at finessing language, he was choosing words and phrasing that would accentuate the joke, which was lost on me as a beginner in Nepali. Special words and phrasing can be recreated in English, but it often doesn’t have the same effect.

I admit defeat… for now. Jokes are culture laden. However someday, when I can finally understand one of AD’s many jokes in Nepali I’ll know that I’ve reached a certain level of achievement in my understanding of the language and the culture. I’m not quite there yet, but perhaps someday it will happen.

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3 responses to “Sometimes Humor Just Can’t Be Translated

  1. What a great story! I laughed, I cried, I might have even killed a goat in between! There’s a joke you should get!

  2. I think the largest difficulty is in trying to translate the cultural background, more than the actual words. I mean, how would you explain any of the humor in, say, Monty Python & the Holy Grail to someone who doesn’t know much about Western culture?

    You run into the same problem with literature – if you don’t know the Bible or Shakespeare, half of the English canon is going to go over your head, since they’re all referencing those earlier works. And I’m sure I miss about half of what’s happening in Rushdie’s works, as well.

  3. HAHA!!!! This is really FUNNY… I can imagine the situation. So true Nepali humor just can’t be translated….

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