International Business: I don't get it: Humor lost in translation

Published: Friday, Dec. 3 2010 7:00 a.m. MST

LaughLab

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Are you planning to start your next international business presentation with a little joke to break the ice? Well, you might want to reconsider or, at least, share a joke that will not fall flat in the other culture.

The story is told of a businessman who gave a speech in a foreign country through an interpreter. Without warning the interpreter beforehand, he inserted a joke into the presentation. The interpreter knew the joke would not translate and knew of no equivalent to substitute in its place, so she said, "This man just told a joke that he thinks is funny, but it does not translate well, and you will not find it funny at all. So, when I stop talking, everyone please just laugh."

The audience did indeed roar with laughter, but not for the reason the speaker supposed. Unaware of what really invoked such a positive reaction, the businessman was so pleased with the first result that he proceeded to tell another joke.

Each culture has different perceptions of what constitutes humor. What may be hilarious in one culture can be far from funny or even offensive in another.

For example, while living in Chile, I often attempted to share great jokes from the United States, only to be met with blank stares and questions like, "Oh, is that a joke? Is that funny in your country?" Likewise, Chileans shared their own popular jokes that were not always amusing to me.

Jokes relying on cultural or linguistic references are less translatable than others. Jokes involving wordplay or colloquial expressions almost never have appropriate translations in other languages. Jokes referencing politics, religion, gender and other stereotypes are dangerous even when speaking to a domestic audience and run an even greater risk of flopping in other countries.

Even humor that appears to avoid obvious cultural or linguistic references can fail in another country. Some cultures prefer exaggerated slapstick humor, while others prefer more subtle humor. However, humor is not completely mismatched from country to country, there is indeed some overlap.

Professor Richard Wiseman and The British Association for the Advancement of Science created a project called LaughLab, which aimed to identify the world's funniest joke (not to be confused with what Monty Python's Flying Circus considers "the funniest joke in the world"). The project began in September 2001, and over the course of one year, LaughLab received more than 40,000 jokes and 1.5 million ratings from around the world.

The project identified various differences in international humor preferences.

Americans and Canadians preferred jokes where there was a sense of superiority, while people from Ireland, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand strongly preferred word plays. People from some European countries enjoyed surreal jokes or those that involved making light of topics that often make us feel anxious, such as death, illness and marriage.

The following joke won the LaughLab contest and received the highest ratings across cultures:

"Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing, and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, 'My friend is dead! What can I do?' The operator says 'Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead.' There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says 'OK, now what?' "

Reader's Digest also holds an annual contest to identify the world's funniest joke. The publication asks readers from each country to select the funniest jokes and then asks readers worldwide to select the best joke from all competing countries. The list of gags in this contest is a great source for humor, which may be appropriate to share in different countries.

If you decide you must share a joke or two in another country, ask the opinion of your interpreter or of a native speaker of the country's language. They may say it is appropriate in that language and culture, in which case you can proceed as originally planned; or they may say the joke may not be appropriate, but your interpreter may know of a culturally appropriate joke that can be substituted and evoke the desired reaction; or the intended humor may be culturally inappropriate and should be avoided entirely.

Whatever resolution is best, you will get your point across more effectively if you are informed about the appropriateness of your planned humor. Otherwise, the joke may be on you.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

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