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Humour Translation – Interdisciplinarity at its Best
Scientific research on humour and humour translation has a long tradition, but the topic itself is not always humorous at all. After reading the state-of-the-art literature on humour translation (even the contributions made by a recently created discipline like Humour Studies), a young scholar as well as any interested newcomer soon feels very lost in the middle of a humorous jungle. In my opinion, this feeling of disorientation is mainly due to two kinds of problems of (1) terminological and (2) methodological natures (Santana 2005b: 846). Therefore, this paper aims to illustrate the challenge of translating humour and to propose a methodological approach based on interdisciplinarity in order to tackle the complexity of this research object.

(1) One of the first obstacles most humour researchers have to overcome is the object definition. As the Austrian writer Egon Friedell (1878-1938) wrote: "Probably nobody has tried to explain what humour is, and I believe that any mere attempt to define this concept proves a complete lack of humour. This is of course the reason why mainly academic scholars deal with this question." In fact, a semantic analysis of the lexical field of the word humour both in German [Humor] and Spanish [humor] shows that this concept is related to 36 different words or semantic neighbours in each case (Santana 2005a: 52ff; 88ff). This conceptual complexity is repeatedly mentioned in literature as well. In his introductory article to the special issue of the journal The Translator, devoted to translating humour (2002, Vol. 8-2), Jeroen Vandaele admits the limitations of the volume as far as proposing translation strategies is concerned, but insists on the potential advantages of a thorough humour analysis for descriptive purposes:

"It follows that the present volume cannot hope to offer straightforward tools that teach translators how to reproduce humour. However, the conceptual complexity of humour can be analysed and appreciated; moreover, its analysis may help scholars and trainers alike (a) to see structures in effects that are fuzzy but still bear strong (meanings), (b) to understand the ways in which these effects are encoded in language (means), and finally to compare source and target texts with respect to (a) and (b)." Vandaele (2002: 150).

Unfortunately, even by presenting excellent case studies, none of the contributions included in the volume succeeds either in proposing a clear definition of humour or in approaching the research object in a holistic way. Moreover, Vandaele's quote puts into practice the terminological consensus reached within the field of Humour Studies on the English word humour as an "umbrella-term", meaning the humorous effect. This agreement is of course very much welcomed in order to encourage worldwide communication and make academic exchange easier. However, this convention should not be an excuse for not addressing the terminological question properly on a multilingual basis. Unfortunately, in this paper I shall participate from this pragmatic consensus, too, for reasons of space, but not without referring to a deep semantic analysis comparing the lexical fields of humour in Spanish and German to be published soon, which tries to shed light on the problem of terminology (Santana 2005a, chapter 2).

(2) As far as the methodological aspect is concerned, the concept of humour is related to a considerable number of sciences. Translators, anthropologists, doctors, psychologists and theologists, as well as linguists and literature scholars, have dealt with this question. Such plurality of methods is a double-edged sword, because on the one hand the researcher can benefit very much from seeing further than his nose but, on the other hand, most scholars talk on cross purposes, thus making any real exchange of ideas quite rare. This lack of communication is especially relevant if we take into account that the study of humour does not consist in the mere addition of specific aspects. In the same way that a humorous short story, for example, is not an addition of single jokes and the translation process cannot be described as a chain of isolated decisions, the study of humour translation must be regarded holistically.

Some of the negative consequences that arise from this situation are (a) an extreme reduction of focus in most scientific approaches, (b) problems of relevance concerning corpus selection (jokes do not usually belong in a translator's everyday job!), and © a lack of parameters regarding factors external to the text which affect the profession, like translation deadlines, publishing conditions or the financial aspect. In this last respect Patrick Zabalbeascoa's work is a happy exception since he succeeds in including such aspects in his research (Zabalbeascoa 2005: 205). Another example of Zabalbeascoa's insight into the real world is his description of common practice when translating humor:

"So the common practice and general rule, when it comes to translating humor, could be summed up as 'translate the words and/or the contents and then keep your fingers crossed and hope that the humor will somehow come across with the rest'." (Zabalbeascoa 2005: 188)

My proposal in order to change this situation is a method for translating humour based on interdisciplinarity. By this word I mean an integration of different approaches coming from more than one discipline, but keeping in mind that interdisciplinarity doesn’t mean vagueness, but rather real interaction. I have tried to apply this principle to my doctoral dissertation, which focuses on the translation of humour as a culture-specific element in the translation of contemporary (European) Spanish literature into German (Santana 2005a). This method is illustrated in the following sequence:

1. In order to define humour and its related concepts and because I have been working with the language combination Spanish-German, I have resorted to a semantic method (Linguistics), namely the analysis of lexical fields, and enhanced it by an intercultural perspective. The result of this semantic analysis is a model that pretends (a) to be useful for identifying and analyzing humour in a Spanish source text (ST) —in Zabalbeascoa's words a proposal for humour "mapping" and "prioritizing" (Zabalbeascoa 2005: 187)—, and (b) to give the German translator some guidelines in order to reproduce (or not!) the humour of the original in the target text (TT) (Santana 2005a: 55; 95).

2. This model is then applied to a literary corpus (Literature Studies) in order to test its validity. The corpus consists of three fragments (both the original and the German translation) taken from two novels written by two of the most successful contemporary authors in Spain. The novels are: The Mystery of the Haunted Crypt (1979) by Eduardo Mendoza and A Heart so White (1992) by Javier Marías. The humorous strategies used in the STs, mainly parody and irony, are classified according to the semiotic dimensions of every text (syntactic, semantic, pragmatic and cultural levels).

3. The corpus is finally analyzed for translation purposes and followed by a translation critique (Translation Studies). This analysis concentrates on the TT in order to find out which translation decission has been taken for which humorous strategy in the ST and whether the TT has an equivalent humorous effect. My aim here is neither to point at the translator nor to flatter him, since we all know that a translation is always subjective and never perfect. For this reason I have given both translators the opportunity to raise their voices, express their opinions about humour as a translation problem and explain the circumstances surrounding their work. The dissertation ends with an examination of complementary ways of addressing the translation of humour as a research subject, i.e. through empirical studies based on the audience's perception of both ST and TT (cf. Antonini 2005).

Although any attempt to explain a joke acts as a joke-killer, I believe that a serious, in depth, holistic analysis of humour may help to activate the translator's conscience about what he is doing and to develop certain guidelines that might be useful for both translation students and professionals. In the words of Aristotle, one of the first humour researchers: "Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit."


Antonini, Rachele, 2005. "The perception of subtitled humor in Italy", HUMOR, special issue Humor and Translation 18:2, pp. 209-225.
Santana López, Belén, 2005a. Das Komische als Kulturspezifikum bei der Übersetzung spanischer Gegenwartsliteratur. Berlin: Humboldt Universität. Doctoral dissertation.
Santana López, Belén, 2005b. "La traducción del humor no es cosa de risa: un nuevo estado de la cuestión", in Romana García, M.L. (coord.), II Congreso Internacional AIETI 2005. Formación, investigación y profesión, Madrid: Universidad Pontificia Comillas de Madrid, pp. 834-851.
Vandaele, Jeroen, 2002. "Introduction: (Re-)Constructing Humour: Meanings and Means", The Translator, special issue Translating Humour 8:2, pp. 149-172.
Zabalbeascoa, Patrick, 2005. "Humor and translation – an interdiscipline", HUMOR, special issue Humor and Translation 18:2, pp. 185-207.

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