Category Archives: Nepali Language

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.

Learning Nepali

In my office I have a beach ball with about 150 questions written all over it in black Sharpie marker. I call this “Icebreaker Beach Ball” and use it for new student orientations. It has everything from “do you sing in the shower?” to “if you were invisible for 24 hours what would you do?” Students toss the ball to each other, introduce themselves, and whatever question is under their right thumb they have to answer. The students get a kick out of it, and the game can even be fun at large dinner parties. One of the questions on the ball is “if you could become instantly fluent in another language- what would it be and why?” whenever I get this question I want to yell from the top of my lungs… NEPALI, SO I CAN FINALLY UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING!!!!

Yep, that's my Icebreaker Beach Ball... I'm very proud

Yep, that's my Icebreaker Beach Ball... I'm very proud

I fully admit that my lack of Nepali aptitude is my own fault… there are a million different times that I could have picked up a book and studied Nepali vocabulary or verb tenses instead of watching a movie, or going for a walk, or even writing 150 icebreaker questions all over a beach ball, but heck, I like to think that I’ve had some factors working against me.

First of all I don’t have a natural talent for languages–I do have to work at it–but with that said I’ve taken classes in French, Spanish, Arabic, Kiswahili (Kenya), Wolof (Senegal), and Hindi. I was a French minor as an undergraduate and at one time could write short plays and read short chapter books in Swahili. It is tough to try and keep a descent level of communicability in several different languages at the same time, particularly when you learned them as an adult, and when your language aptitude is being evaluated for a grade, it is harder to focus on a language that isn’t part of your academic curriculum. Plus there always seemed to be something else going on- whether writing a thesis or tired from work, or needing another language for another project at the time. Not to mention that Nepali is not a frequently spoken world language, so Rosetta Stone and other highly rated language programs do not have it as an option (although the minute Rosetta comes out with Nepali- believe you me- I’ll be one of the first to purchase it!  You can actually fill out a “request a new language” form through Rosetta’s website. I did my part, please support the cause!)

Plus, I know how I learn languages. Yes books are great, but I know I need a class, and I need to practice communicating with a teacher who can drill me on conversations for which I already know vocabulary. I can’t tell you how many times P and I have tried to “practice Nepali” on a long car trip, only to have my pronunciation critiqued to the point where the conversation goes nowhere… “its BuddHa not Buddha or BudDHA… can’t you hear the difference??” (no!!!) or an older Nepali neighbor will insist on talking to me in Nepali but will use complicated or sophisticated words that I don’t understand and again the conversation goes nowhere.

The Nepali alphabet uses Devanagri script like Hindi

The Nepali alphabet uses Devanagri script like Hindi

So I often wind up sitting at Nepali get-togethers and I am one of the few if not the only person who can’t understand all of the conversation. While it is not so much of an issue now that I know everyone very well and can easily have my own side conversations, when we first moved I felt really lonely and isolated due to my language bonding barrier, and I don’t want to be in this same situation again.

I can sympathize with the Nepali students, I’ve lived abroad before, and I know how comforting it is to speak in your mother tongue when you are far from home. Plus I don’t want to be the one party-pooper who declares “please, everyone, speak in English for my benefit” (although occasionally I don’t mind being that person when the gathering is a mixed crowd and I see other non-Nepali speakers feeling uncomfortable).

Speaking of these gatherings… In fact, there used to be a trio of older Nepali grad students (R-dai*, M-dai and S-di)  who loved to sing. Once the party was off to a good start you could tell that the eldest, R-dai, was just itching to break into song. Nothing killed a mixed gathering (Nepalis/non-Nepalis) more than R-dai’s singing, and a few of us would be on “R-dai singing distraction” duty to make sure he didn’t start for a few hours to give the mixed gathering a bit of a chance.

It’s not that he was bad, quite the contrary, many of the Nepalis complimented him on how well he sang, but the killer was—once he started he would literally sing for hours–and almost exclusively in Nepali, not even Bollywood hits that other South Asians in the group could relate to. The non-Nepali guests would be polite and listen to a few songs, but when it became clear it would not stop, they would start making their excuses, say goodnight and tiptoe towards the door.

I admit there were many nights where I valiantly tried to stay interested as long as possible (there is only so much you can listen to when you can’t understand or participate) but eventually grew bored after the 12 or 13th song- there were even a few times when I attempted (unsuccessfully) to get some of the younger Nepalis to sing an English song over the Nepali songs, competition style, but it wouldn’t really work. R-dai was into it, half the room would be singing along, S-di would be in the middle of the floor shaking her hips with traditional dance moves while M-dai brought out his wooden flute or his drum to keep up the rhythm.

Although I didn’t know all the words, eventually I recognized a lot of these older folk songs, and could do some of the dance steps if need be. I didn’t truly appreciate this until I went to a wedding outside of Kathmandu in June and most of the music was Nepali folk. I’m sure I got quite a few surprised stares when I recognized one of M-dai’s favorites, jumped onto the dance floor and started crouching over, waving my arms airplane style and stomping my feet while spinning around in the fashion I’d seen him do back in the US (I’m pretty sure its this song below–Chari Ma Mero).

Typical Nepali gathering... S-di (back row- 5th from right), M-dai (front row, 3rd from right) and R-dai (front row, most right). P and I are back row 4th and 2nd from right respectively

Typical Nepali gathering... S-di (back row- 5th from right), M-dai (front row, 3rd from right) and R-dai (front row, most right). P and I are back row 4th and 2nd from right respectively

Anyway, I digress… the point of the story is that I’m frustrated with my lack of Nepali speaking abilities. In fact, at this point, it is kind of embarrassing that I can’t say that much, even if I can understand a great deal more than I ever could before. In one exasperated moment while visiting Nepal P’s dad said, “after all these years all you know is namaste and dhanyavad” and although not true, it was fair enough, since I couldn’t carry on much more than the simplest of conversations. I am fully committed to being a bi-lingual household once P and I have kids somewhere down the road, and even encourage P to talk to our dog in Nepali. At some point, I’m going to have to get my linguistic act together and do some hardcore learning. So I wanted to declare that I am going to make a committed effort to learn far more Nepali this year than I have been able to do thus far, and hopefully the blog will keep me on track. So- enough with the excuses…

* “dai” is the Nepali suffix meaning “elder brother,” used to denote respect for someone elder to you, but not old enough to be considered an uncle. “Di” or “didi” is the Nepali suffix meaning “elder sister,” used in the same way as “dai.”

Other Links…

  • One of my favorite Nepali folk songs and one that I can actually sing along with at the parties… Kehi Mitho
  • I also quite like this one… Resham Feriri
  • S-di would dance similar to this kind of style
  • Another popular Nepali song to sing…especially if you can’t speak the language, just belt out a confident “NE-PA-LI HO!!” at the end of the chorus… Yo Manta Mero Nepali Ho
  • Okay, okay, I’ll stop with the Nepali music videos before I turn into R-dai… but while on the subject of Nepali songs, here is a fun NPR article about an American who became a bit famous in Nepal from singing in music videos with a popular Nepali singer (although if you ask most Nepalis they would hardly call this American a “Rock Star”) “My Brother, the Rock Star in Nepal”