If you are not one of the many Lost devotees that inhabit this planet what I am about to say may not ring a bell, but watch this video and you will get a sense of what I’m trying to communicate.
Fascinating, isn’t it? How actor Josh Holloway is capable of pulling such string of irony-laden, pop-culture referencing, bordering-on-offensive, double-meant words and expressions out of his Southern mouth is beyond me – Frackles, Puddin, Mamacita, Light sticks, Sweet chicks, Pippi longstockings, Barbar, Dr Giggles, Grimace, Jimbo, Java, Hot lips, Tatoo, Jungle boy, Short brown, Muhammad, Babynapper, Ponce de Leon, Thelma, Mongo…
Ever since I watched “Sawyer” do his thing in the Lost island for the first time, I was keen to find the Spanish subtitling to see how the translators managed to get around these expressions. I think they did a pretty good job given the difficulty involved. But, I haven’t been able to find dubbing or subtitling in other languages and what I would really like to see is how languages with a lesser parallelism to English than Spanish manage to pull that through.
Given the luxury of time (and the help of the many resources available to us these days), a translator can attempt to make sense of a humorous expression he or she is not familiar with. The case of interpreters is very different as they have been robbed of the time factor and are forced to interpret instantaneously what is said, in the same way that is intended. In those cases, facing unknown wordplays or one-liners (like those in this list of Texan slang), can be a nightmarish experience.
Why is humour one of the hardest aspects of a language to translate and interpret?
Humour production involves what appear to be conflicting knowledge representations and conflicting cognitive structures by different individuals. A specific cultural background provides each one of us with information on how the world is organised, including how one acts in it. As as result of the symbols and meanings I have been indoctrinated into, I will give certain information a specific association that makes sense in my cultural background but not in someone else’s.
Besides, jokes and humorous texts tend to exhibit the use of a unique mode of thinking within the universe they create and where rules and logic are defied and applied in bizarre ways – Figure/ground reversal, juxtaposition, false analogies are pertinent examples (Attardo and Raskin 1991:304-306). Humour tends to involve two clashing interpretations created by a pun, for instance, or the play with tabooed issues in situations where it is not appropriate (hence the clash). So, if Sawyer says to me “They ate supper before they said grace”, I will not have the sufficient knowledge of the meanings referenced to nor the logical capacity required of me under such specific cultural construct to understand that in fact, he means that these people are living in sin and have had pre-marital relations before formalising their union.
Take for instance the interesting case of attempting to translate Japanese games into other languages. Jordi Mas Lopez explains how translators of the the Japanese anime Crayon Shinchan resorted to rewording techniques to solve the challenge of the idiosyncratic and very Japanese-specific expressions that appear in this series into Catalán:
“Shinchan, the cheeky 5-year-old main character, always uses the set expressionokaeri when he returns home – literally meaning It’s good you’re back – an expression normally uttered by the people who are at the receiving end of returning family members. People returning home should normally saytadaima – I’m back. Furthermore, okaeri is an honorific expression used to show respect to the returning party, thus one should not use it for oneself. This deliberate misuse of okaeri by Shinchan is translated into Catalan simply as adéu (goodbye), so part of its humor is inevitably lost. Worse still, when Shinchan feels like expanding his okaeri into a pun –okaeringosarada (okaeri + apple salad), for example – the translator must come up with something equally ridiculous. In this particular case, it is hola, hola, escarola (hello, hello, endive), which does not make sense, but rhymes and sounds funny.”
Even if a joke is conceptually and linguistically translatable, very often, the intent at parody is lost and there is little that translators can do to prevent it. At most, they can introduce some justification in the lines of the characters for what is going on, or some clues to call attention to the unreality of the whole thing. But, in the end, it is up to the viewers – all types – to come up with an interpretation of what is taking place on the screen. In the case of interpreters, the unforgiving pace of simultaneous interpreting will often force interpreters into offering a compressed explanation of the cultural reference, leaving precious little time to get into the humor itself. What is the interpreter to do? What the interpreter in the case of the Chilean miner being interviewed by David Letterman did, recognise the built-in limitations without being deterred by them and have have enough wit and hilarity to convey something even more humorously without compromising the integrity of the original message.