Translation is a delicate thing, and gets more fragile as you dig deeper.
The problem with translating a joke is that humour is often very subtle. If you consider some of the English comedy that has become popular in, say, France, it’s always very physical and very visual – Jerry Lewis’ classic comedies from the 1950s and 1960s, or the Three Stooges. These are films you can watch with the sound off and still enjoy and comprehend.
The more verbal and cerebral the humour, the harder it is to translate because it often relies on subtle details or observations. Think about Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up routine, and how closely tied to New York life it is. Trying to translate those jokes into a German context would be almost impossible.
The problem isn’t the language – translating the routine literally into German would be easy enough for a trained translator – but somehow finding ways to make the jokes funny in German would be nearly impossible! We’re not comedians, after all – we’re translators. We sit in darkened rooms scratching away at texts and when we make ourselves laugh, believe me, no one else understands why.
Another reason translating comedy is so difficult is because of the cultural touchstones that most jokes use. I remember watching old Benny Hill reruns on television as a child and only getting about half the jokes, because the rest were simply too English for me – they referred to facts of British life that I simply could not possible understand. A joke about something individually Australian may simply have no cultural counterpart in Germany or England or France, and thus it is a joke that can never be translated effectively.
One reason I know how difficult humour is to translate is simple: I have attempted to tell many jokes when on my travels, and failed more often than not. You have not lived until you’ve had a few glasses of wine and attempted to amuse a table full of German friends with a simple joke, and received blank stares in return, then polite smiles, and then an awkward change of subject. Comedy is hard enough in your native language. Making the leap into another is impossible – take it from me!