Thursday Thoughts: Translating Humour

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During one of my internet roams, I stumbled upon Smartling, a translation software. As someone who once dreamt of becoming a book translator, the website’s contents got me thinking about that once desired career path, and one of the reasons why I did not follow it.

If there is one thing all Portuguese fantasy book lovers have to deal with is the scarcity of such books published in our language. As Portugal is a small country with a readership that much prefers books grounded on reality, few publishers dare to publish fantasy stories by Portuguese authors. It’s much safer to buy the rights to international successes, after all. So, if you go to the fantasy corner of any bookshop, you’ll see the same handful of Portuguese authors in a sea of Neil Gaiman, Patrick Rothfuss, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, and other worldwide household names. And yet, there is one very famous series missing from Portuguese shelves: Discworld, by Terry Pratchett.

Yes, shocking, I know. Even more so when you know that a) a couple of books in the series have been translated, b) Good Omens, written with Gaiman, sells like wildfire, c) there are always copies of at least one of the Discworld novels in the English section, and that d) the Portuguese adore satire. So what gives? Is it the number of volumes? Maybe, but I doubt it. I think the issue lies elsewhere: in the translation of humour.

Back in the day, when I was starting out in English, I thought translation was easy peasy. You pick a word in English, remember the Portuguese equivalent, do the necessary grammatical changes, and voilá! All done. Sadly, that is not so. All tongues have nuances, and there’s an insane amount of not-translatable expressions. And puns? How is one to translate puns?

What opened my eyes, you may ask? This gem:

“Europa’s covered in ice, not mice.”
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K.Rowling

I first encountered this quote in Portuguese, which reads something along the lines of “Europa está coberta de gelo, não de ratos.” You don’t need to know the language to see that “gelo” and “ratos” don’t sound (or look) anything alike. They only share one letter. For ages, I was convinced Harry was a complete idiot in mixing the two words up. When I first read it in English, it was as if a glorious sun peeked out from the clouds. Everything finally made sense. Now, it’s one of my favourite passages in any book. (I’m a sucker for puns, I’m sorry.)

So, if this one pun in Potter made me think of Harry as an idiot for ages, what would it be like to read the translation of a series like Discworld, covered in glorious puns and world play? I don’t know. How could anyone translate such things as:

“I believe in reincarnation,” [Bjorn] said.
“I tried to live a good life. Does that help?”
Men at Arms, Terry Pratchett


“There was always something that needed transferring from A to B or, of course, to the bottom of the C.”
Hogfather, Terry Pratchett

Maybe there are some brilliant translators out there who can make it work. Something tells me, however, that there would be a lot of footnotes involved. Either way, I’m sure it’s one herculean job to make puns not just understandable but enjoyable in another language. Personally, I have no idea how, but again, I am no translator. If you are one, props to you. Seriously. That is one difficult job you have there, one that is probably very under appreciated. Believe me when I say you have my thanks for doing it. I wouldn’t have found Potter, and my life, otherwise.


What do you guys think? Have you ever puzzled over something meant to be humorous in a translated book? Have you ever translated fiction? Do you read foreign books at all? Have you read Discworld in another language? Tell me what you think!

(Note: Sadly, this post has nothing to do with  OK, Let’s Read’s Thursday Thoughts. To my knowledge, the Thursday Thoughts meme is still in hiatus. I just borrowed the name.)


2 thoughts on “Thursday Thoughts: Translating Humour

  1. I usually practice translation in my head while watching The Muppets. That show is a goldmine for hard to translate puns. Take, for example, this conversation between Statler and Waldorf, at the end of a sketch:

    WALDORF: What was that?
    STATLER: It’s called “the medium sketch”
    WALDORF: “The medium sketch”??
    STATLER: Yeah! It wasn’t rare, and it certainly wasn’t well done!

    BOTH: Dohohohohohoho

    Trying to find adequate translations for these kinds of things wrinkles my brain. But it can also be a fun challenge.


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