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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Translation Techniques  »  Loss and Gain in Humor Translation; A case study of The Ethics of the Aristocrats

Loss and Gain in Humor Translation; A case study of The Ethics of the Aristocrats

By Farzad Akmali | Published  01/25/2012 | Translation Techniques | Recommendation:
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Farzad Akmali
English to Farsi (Persian) translator
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A part of any literature is occupied by humorous and satirical works, including poetry and prose. Translating humor, as many scalars put it, is of great challenge for literary translators. The translation of humor is a notoriously difficult endeavor, not least because of the close links between humor and identity and between humor and culture (Maher, 2008: 141). Translating humor is difficult partly because being able to appreciate humor does not mean that one is able to create that same effect (Vandaele 2002: 150). What makes humor translation a challenge is the linguistic features as well as cultural concepts bound with humor. “Humor is something that makes a person laugh or smile. [Incongruity theory] states that humor is created out of a conflict between what is expected and what actually occurs in the joke” (Ross, 1998: 1).
These conflicts, at the linguistic level, are mostly manifested by ambiguity of the words or structures followed by a punchline. But it is not limited to ambiguity; a humorous text may include humorous names, allusions and intertextuality. From the viewpoint of its cultural features, the original humor may include a concept or concepts which are totally unknown in the target culture. The concept(s) in question may be abstract or concrete; it may relate to religious belief, a social custom or even a type of food (Bassnett, 1992: 21). The humor translators’ mission is to overcome these challenges; to understand the historical and social nuances of the humor, approximate to its style, transfer the linguistic features and cultural concepts, as much as possible, to the extent that it makes the target audience laugh when reading or hearing the humor in his own language. Nevertheless, while being something that makes people laugh and enjoy, humor is not always expected to do so (cause laughter) since sometimes it serves as a weapon against its subjects and the laughter followed is a sign of fear or embarrassment. However, what is of great importance in this sort of translation is to create such an approximation, or if possible, an equivalent so that the same effect and response are produced on the target readers.
Considering the above-mentioned points and the fact that no two languages are completely the ‘same,’ even when they share many features, (e.g. grammatical and lexical) it is inferred that at some point every translator is faced with making a choice which is to be applied by using his/her linguistic and cultural competency as well as intuition and creativity. Choices are made to produce the dynamic equivalence that, as Nida and Taber (1969: 24) put it, is “to be defined in terms of the degree to which the receptor of the message in the receptor language respond to it in substantially the same manner as the receptor in the source language.” The notion of inevitable loss in translation is related to the fact that there cannot be any perfect one-to-one equivalence between two languages and two cultures. That is why it is regarded as a universal characteristic of all translations. When losses occur due to any reason, if the translator is to retain the level of humor, then compensation is needed. “Loss,” as Koponen (2004: 48) puts it, “does not have to mean that a part of the text has been completely lost, but rather that some aspect that was present in the source text is not there in the target text, e.g. a double meaning, a connotation.”
Review of literature
A great deal of research has been done on humor and humor translation. Koponen (2004), in her thesis, examines wordplay in Donald Duck comics and their Finnish translations in three decades. Her goal, in her own words, “is to compare how wordplay is created and used in the source text and the target text and to analyze the differences between instances of wordplay in one and its translation in the other” (p. 2). In the study she assumes “that a translator of comics will attempt to preserve the level of humor of the source text also in the Target text. However, wordplay and all humor are very closely connected to the source language and source culture. Because of this, the translator will very rarely, if ever, be able to produce a close translation of the wordplay. Thus the translated wordplay will almost necessarily differ to some extent” (ibid). She analyzes the differences between source text wordplay and its translation in a systematic manner and a model based on the General Theory of Verbal Humor is used in comparing the source and target texts.
In the study, she defines comics and their features, therefore tries to explain interaction of word and image and its significance in the translation. Accordingly, she discusses some general issues relating to translating humor in general and then translatability of wordplay. Finally, Examining different aspects of humor translation, she takes up discussions and suggestions on the strategies available to a translator faced with translating wordplay. She argues that “in most cases wordplay appears to have been lost when the English word or phrase has an ambiguous meaning that is not present in the Finnish equivalent…Wordplay involving the onomatopoeic sound […] has been difficult to retain in translation” (p. 64). She found that in cases where Finnish has an equivalent word or phrase with the same connotations, the wordplay has usually been retained.
Eventually, analyzing the results and examining the applied strategies, she concludes that “some evidence was found to support the assumption that wordplay has become an increasingly common and important feature in translation of comics. This was suggested by considerable loss of wordplay in the early decades, and by frequent compensation and addition of wordplay found in the newer material” (p. 84).
Some studies have been done regarding humor and culture. Kočová (2007), for example, in her thesis entitled “Translation of Humor and Culture in Selected Sketches of Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, tries to “show the specificities of translation of humor in Monty Python’s Flying Circus in connection to British culture. The comedy genre is very popular in the United Kingdom and culture-specific expressions (CSEs) are a necessary part of every comedy show (e.g. Yes, Minister, Da Ali G Show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus etc.); moreover, in Monty Python’s Flying Circus they play a central role with regard to understanding humorous allusions” (p. 4).

Comparing two target versions, film and book, with the original work, she presented a corpus of CSEs found in 14 sketches which contained the greatest amount of such expressions. All CSEs were divided into several categories (Names, Organizations etc.) and subcategories (Personal Names, Trademarks etc.). Closely observing each category, she determined all the methods used and tried mainly to determine the predominant translation method. She also “included there the possible reasons why the translator chose a particular method” (p. 58). She proved that “the TR [target readers] are not much familiar with such artistic and television items but the translator managed to find enough cultural equivalents which fitted the context and the mood of the text” (p. 59).

She concludes that “translator’s options, with regard to the subtitles, were basically two. He could preserve the amount of information but spoil the TR’s chance of simultaneously looking at the screen and reading the subtitles. Or he could make the text more reader-friendly and completely accept the subtitling restrictions.” (p. 60).

Eventually, she concluded that the subtitles’ limitations did not have any impact on the change of the translation methods. She suggested that “the translator had to consider the intended readership as well as recognize that all the subtitling limitations were agreed on to enable produce a translation understandable to an utmost number of the viewers...” (ibid).
Another study done by Ewelina Monika Bruździak (2009) examines ‘Shifts of meaning in humor translation as exemplified by the Polish translation of Shrek.’ Bruździak (2009) explores the notion of shifts of meaning in humor translation. The study is based on a popular animated film Shrek. She aims to “prove that shifts of meaning in the case of humor translation in Shrek are unavoidable and even desirable, and that they result from the specificity of dubbing and humor translation” (p. 2).

Comparing the Polish version of the work with the original English one, she analyzes and describes various differences in meaning between them. Discussing and analyzing the results, she concludes that “Translation shifts are frequently involved in humor transfer due to various difficulties connected with it. In order to maintain a humorous effect, translators have to adapt a certain joke to the reality of a target culture, and accordingly, they have to modify the source text”.

Results of the study show beyond doubt that shifts of meaning in humor translation are not a negative phenomenon as long as they result in achieving the same humorous effect as the source text does. They are the consequences of the linguistic differences and of the cultural dissimilarities. That is why, introducing various modifications constitutes a common practice in the translation of humorous dubbed films.
The current study aims to examine and compare Zakani’s Ethics of Aristocrats with its English translation by Hasan Javadi (2008) respectively with regard to humorous discourse in order to categorize different strategies applied according to Newmark’s (1998) framework. Therefore, the researcher tries to find gains and losses of humor translation as well as compensations occurred to introduce those strategies which best save and convey the humorous effect and lead to least loss in translation.
Since the study is a descriptive one, the original text with its English translation has been comparatively analyzed as in the following steps:
1. Exploring the original texts and extracting randomly the items under study.
2. Examining the translations and comparing them with the original texts.
3. Determining the translation strategies applied according to the Newmark’s (1988) framework.
4. Finding gains and losses in the translation compared with the original texts.
6. Analyzing strategies, and gains and losses to introduce those strategies which best convey the humorous effects.

Humorous terms and discourses of the above-mentioned materials are extracted and categorized based on Schmitz (2002) model; ten cases for each category, i.e. reality-based; word-based; and culture-based humor. This categorization is used since it includes all types of humor and is much compatible with humor discourses.
Results showed that literal translation is the most frequently used strategy in all three humor categories with 56 hits. The other strategies from the most frequently used to the least ones are: literal translation (23.93%); modulation
(14.52%); expansion (11.96); componential analysis (8.54%); synonymy (6.83%); descriptive equivalent and functional equivalent (5.98% each); recognized translation (5.12%); deletion and through-translation (4.27); naturalization and cultural equivalent (3.41% each); transference and addition & note (0.85% each). Compensation and translation label are not used at all.
In universal humor discourses, where the whole story is to convey the humorous effect and message, and they can be conceived in all cultures and languages, the translation is carried out with the least possible difficulties and in most cases the literal translation has been the first and most frequently used strategy.However, where the translator opts to be more target-oriented (making benefits of TL cultural concepts and terms), not only no loss of meaning occurs, but also raises the humorous effects. For instance, in rendering کوتاه خردمند, the translator gives a better image of the humor to the audience by adding the word "puny".
Nevertheless, there have been cases where the message and humor are conveyed by the translator but the humor sense the form conveys is not transferred into the translation. These cases include alliteration, rime and rhythm.In cases, where the humor discourse is short in terms of language units, and translated into larger units, for example word into phrase, or phrase into clause, loss of form and humor sense is obvious. In the following example brevity adds to the humorous effects in Farsi, while descriptive translation makes it longer for the target reader to take the humor sense:
آورده اند که داروی قابل بخورد و بمرد.
But it is related that the medicine was lethal so that when he partook of it he died.
Comparing the source with the target, it is found that where brevity is a humor-oriented device and longer units have been used in translation, the meaning is saved and compensated for but the form and humorous effects are not at the same level as are in the source language. But in cases where brevity is saved in translation, and the message is conveyed, the humor style is much similar to that of the source language. Therefore, in universal humor discourses, since the translators do not normally face difficulties in rendering the message and meaning, what is much likely to be lost is the form. The form is lost when it is embedded in linguistic devices such as alliteration, rime and rhythm but are to be compensated with similar devices in the target language. The problem of the lost form remains somehow unsolved because languages are different phonologically, semantically and syntactically and the effects each rhetorical device plays in each language is different from the same device in another language.
In rendering cultural humor discourses, the translator faces with two sorts of problems and difficulties. One is related to rendering cultural notions and concepts and the other one is the linguistic devices. In this category of humor discourses, in cases where the culture-bound units are neutralized and generalized, loss of cultural sense occurs and the translation does not read as humorous as the source does. The cultural senses of some notions, especially the nouns have been compensated using transference and naturalization. But when it comes to the culture-bound verbs, in cases where no parallel equivalent is available or used, loss of meaning and sense occurs. This leads to the most loss of meaning when the cultural humor discourse is embedded in wordplays. In such cases, due to loss of meaning, the humor is not perceived and not obvious. In the following example, this fact is much palpable:
طلخک دراز گوشی چند داشت. روزی سلطان محمود گفت:درازگوشان او را بلاغ گیرند، تا خود چه خواهد گفتن. بگرفتند. او سخت برنجید. پیش سلطان آمد تا شکایت کند. سلطان فرمود که او را راه ندهند. چون راه نیافت، در زیر دریچه یی رفت که سلطان نشسته بود و فریاد کرد. سلطان گفت:او را بگویید که امروز بار نیست. بگفتند. گفت:قلتبانی را که بار نباشد، خر مردم چرا بلاغ گیرد؟
Talhak had a few donkeys and Sultan Mahmud ordered them to be taken for unpaid labor to see what he would do. He was annoyed and wanted to complain to the sultan. Under instruction from the king he was told that he could not have an audience that day. Talhak went around the royal palace and arriving under the window of the room where the king was sitting, shouted, “The cuckold who does not give an audience, why does he need people's donkeys to work for him unpaid?”
The word بار which bears two different meanings and both have to be saved in order for the humor to be traveled into the target culture. Since, no one to one equivalent is available for such cases in two languages, loss of meaning and even the humor itself is inevitable.
In rendering linguistic humor discourses, the translators are facing catch 22s. The difficulties can be examined from two points of view; firstly, when the linguistic devices play a role in making the discourse humor and where they do not. When the wordplay plays no role, but to make the text humorous, the message is saved and conveyed, but the humor is lost in translation and the text reads as a normal, neutralized one, and subsequently no sense of humor is perceived. The following example shows the loss of humor sense in such cases:
ای برادر حرم در پیش است و حرامی در پس. اگر رفتی بردی، اگر خفتی مُردی.
the sanctuary is in front of us and the brigands in the rear
In such cases, the message is conveyed via translation except for that part which is embedded in the form which leads to loss of the humorous sense and effect. However, examples have been found where the linguistic humor is transferred. Following is an example of linguistic humor where the meaning is transferred via the form. This is true for those linguistic humors where there are parallel equivalents in both languages;
زنی پیش واثق خلیفه دعوی پیغمبری می کرد. واثق ازو پرسید که محمد پیغمبر بود؟ گفت:آری. گفت:چون او فرموده است که “لا نبی بعدی”، پس دعوی تو باطل شد. گفت:او فرموده لا نبی بعدی؛ و لا نبیه بعدی نفرموده است.
“A woman went to Caliph Watheq and claimed to be a prophetess. He asked her if Mohammad was a prophet. She said, "Yes." "But he has said that there will be no prophet after him," the caliph argued. The woman said, "But he has not said there will be no prophetess after him.”
But this is not true when there is no one to one equivalent in terms of linguistic units and rhetorical devices like pun, zeugma and so on. In these cases, loss of meaning especially for zeugmas is inevitable.
Comparative study of the source text and the statistical analysis presented in the study lead to the following conclusions:
Different strategies have been applied by the translators in rendering humor discourses; the identified strategies are as follows: ‘transference’, ‘naturalization’, ‘cultural equivalent’, ‘synonymy’, ‘descriptive equivalent’, ‘recognized translation’, ‘componential analysis’, ‘expansion’, ‘addition and note’, ‘deletion’, ‘modulation’, ‘literal translation’, ‘through-translation’, and ‘functional equivalent’.
The statistical analysis showed that ‘literal translation’ is the most frequently used strategy in rendering the Persian humor of this work into English. However, there have been lots of cases where they have applied other strategies along with ‘literal translation’. ‘Modulation’, after 'literal translation' is the most frequently used strategy and it shows that in rendering humor, the translators have tried to convey the humor from other points of view than the source text does. ‘Reduction and expansion’ (in the data extracted only expansion has been found), ranked third and this supports the notion that mostly translations are longer than the source.
In universal humor, ‘transference’, ‘naturalization’, ‘addition and note’, ‘compensation’ and ‘translation label’ have not been applied. In cultural humor, 'compensation' and 'translation label' have not been applied and in linguistic humor, ‘transference’, ‘compensation’ and ‘translation label’ have not been applied.

It shall be noted that due to the nature of humor and that each humor discourse is a specific case, different strategies have been applied even in the discourses of the same humor category. Different strategies and shifts result in different levels of loss and gain in different categories of humor or even instances of one category.

In universal humor, where in most cases, the whole story conveys the humor literal translation leads to most gain and least loss in humor since the form and the meaning are much close to the source. But the rank shifts which make the translation longer than the source text, and where brevity is a humor making device, then loss of form occurs and in some cases this makes the humor vanish or hard to perceive.
In cultural humor discourses, in most cases couplets (more than one strategy for one discourse) have been used. In culture-bound language units, transference, literal translation along with cultural equivalents leads to leas loss and most gain.

In universal humor, literal translation had served well in rendering those instances where there are one to one equivalents in both languages. But when a language unit bears more than one meaning and both meanings are intended to make the text humorous, then no translation strategy can be useful. This is true for instances where homophonic words, or phrases, homographs, etc are used to create humor. Linguistic humor discourses of this kind are like a two-sided humorous image of which only one side can be shown to the audience at a time. In the data extracted, as for the instances of this kind, one side of the humorous image has been deleted; it seems that the translators have been at a loss and had no way but to keep one side of the meaning and ignore the other side, while it is both meanings of the language unit that creates humor. In these cases, loss of meaning is inevitable and inescapable.
Roughly speaking, it is concluded that literal translation, along with modulation, expansion and rank shifts lead to gain in meaning and sometimes loss in form.


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عبید زاکانی (1387). اخلاق الاشراف. ویرایش ع. ا. حلبی، تهران: انتشارات اساطیر.

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