How Humor Gets Lost in Translation

“The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.” – Mark Twain. 
Laughter has the power to create common ground. If you want to break the ice when you first meet someone, cracking a joke seems appropriate. But, what if you make a joke and it’s met with a blank stare? Have you ever said something that you found funny, while the person on the receiving end looked confused or got offended?
A few years ago, I met a fellow European and our senses of humor could not be more opposite. Friends tell me they enjoy “my dry, witty sense of humor,” but the following story is an example of humor getting lost in translation. I was hanging out with this fellow European and joking around, but each time I would say anything sarcastic, he would interpret it completely seriously. Conversely, when he joked, I would simply not find it funny. I shared this story with a classmate the next day, and she said something like, “But, you’re both from Europe! Doesn’t that mean that you’ve shared similar experiences, and essentially the same humor?”
She couldn’t be more wrong. There has been extensive debate over the universal nature of humor. Humor isn’t as universally translatable as one might think. Sure, humor exists on a universal level (we all laugh for various reasons), but what’s defined as “funny” is highly subjective. How different cultures interpret humor greatly varies. Some people prefer a dry, witty sense of humor vs. others who enjoy slapstick humor. Jokes can get ‘lost in translation’ depending on perceptions and social norms as well. What seems clever wordplay to one person cannot be translated into another language. Interpretation doesn’t always result in a literal expression of the same message, and underlying cultural references can get lost, too.
It becomes even more dangerous when a joke alludes to a stereotype or touches sensitive subjects including religion or politics. In some countries, joking about a political leader is acceptable, while others highly frown upon that.
How can humor bridge (cultural) gaps then?
Should we avoid humor entirely for fear of offending others? Of course not. But, there are ways to go about it that are “safe” when you’re unsure how people may react. 
Humor is a great way to reduce anxiety. It can be an effective way to resolve an interpersonal conflict in trying to bridge gaps and bring people closer. Often, we laugh at ourselves to reduce awkwardness or tension.
If you’re not sure how humor will translate in a different culture, it might be best to ask someone about it directly. When traveling, research a country’s social norms, and avoid anything controversial or “taboo,” even if it’s “normal” in your culture. However, though there are perceptions about certain cultures and how they deal with humor, this doesn’t necessarily translate to the personal level.
Aside from humor, it’s also important to look at body language. If someone is politely smiling at what you’re saying, but not laughing with you, perhaps it’s better to slow down with the jokes. Subtle humor could also get completely lost, and while some think they’re being clever, the other person could easily miss the joke entirely.
Your Take
Have you ever had an awkward exchange as humor got lost in translation? How did you deal with it? How can humor bridge cultural gaps?

17 thoughts on “How Humor Gets Lost in Translation

  1. I teach University students in South Korea. One of my lessons is about telling lies, which I always start with this joke. I act it out in the retelling and have the script up on a PowerPoint slide, but it’s rare for any students to laugh. It always makes me chuckle though:

    A man tried to sell his neighbor a new dog.
    “This is a talking dog,” he said. “And you can have him for five dollars.”
    The neighbor said, “Who do you think you’re kidding with this talking dog stuff? There’s no such animal.”
    Suddenly the dog looked up with tears in his eyes. “Please buy me, Sir,” he pleaded. “This man is cruel. He never feeds me, never washes me, never takes me for a walk. And I used to be a famous dog. I performed before kings. I was in the army and was awarded medals for bravery ten times. The CIA had me flying from country to country, sitting in rooms with spies and world leaders, cause no one figured a dog would be listening. I was one of their most valuable spies for eight years. “
    “Hey!” said the neighbor. “He can talk. Why do you want to sell him for just five dollars?”
    “Because,” said the seller, “I’m getting tired of all his lies.”

    1. That’s a great story! 🙂 I appreciated the humor! Good joke!! But, I can see why/how it might get lost in translation? Hah. Thanks for sharing that!!

  2. This post is so true! We have often spoken of this, and more so since living in Madrid. I’m lucky, mostly my humour has been taken as that and been laughed at. However, I have experienced times when sarcasm has been mistaken for ‘deadly’ serious – and it takes some explaining to bridge the understanding gap! I did have one guy from Switzerland go a little crazy with me for something I said, in sarcastic jest, he was a little anal retentive in general though! I did get myself out of that situation though, and was excused by everyone else, who got my humour – but not the Swiss guy (oh well)!

    1. Hi Savvy Senorita/Bex! Thanks for commenting and sharing your story! Glad to hear that most people take your humor at face value (as they should). I can relate as sarcasm doesn’t always translate (and even in my own language it’s sometimes mistaken for seriousness…oops). Interesting that it was just the Swiss guy who didn’t understand the situation, but the rest did! Can’t win them all 😉 Subscribed to your blog, and look forward to reading your posts!

      1. You are most welcome, I enjoyed reading your post!!
        Yes, I think I have been lucky, so far!
        Oh, I know, I hate it when that happens, but sarcasm has a way of doing that – oops indeed, hehe!!
        Yep, that was weird, he over-reacted completely too, so melodramatic! No idea why (perplexed expression).
        Unfortunately, no you can’t win everyone all the time; much to my dismay!!
        Thanks, and I you (your blog). Look forward to reading more of your work.
        Bex 🙂

  3. “each time I would say anything sarcastic, he would interpret it completely seriously” –> Oh this has happened to me too several times! Then I had to “neutralize” it so conversation wouldn’t continue too seriously, sometimes by simply explaining that it was a joke or bring the conversation to a lighter topic.

    1. Hi Vira, thanks a lot for sharing your take! That’s too funny that that’s happened to you as well. Great approach to neutralize it by explaining the joke and switching topics 🙂

  4. Great post! I’ve come across this issue several times,because when travelling or living in a new country, sometimes all you want to do is make some new friends, and humour seems like the perfect way to start. But of course, I’ve made jokes that was only to be exchanged by stares of confusion. So I tend to start with “lighter humour” sth that people will understand universally and just try to understand the person better before dropping sth more “heavy”. I don’t know if that makes sense haha

    1. Hey Aggy! Thanks for sharing your experience! I definitely understand what you mean. It’s a good approach to try lighter humor and then see how things progress naturally 🙂 the confusion can be so awkward, hah, but once past that, it’s fine!

  5. In North America it is quite common for us to make jokes about ourselves and our friends but in some other parts of the world we would could “lose face”. Sometimes I will also explain a joke to a new immigrant so that they know that we are not laughing at them but give them the opportunity to learn about Canadian culture as well.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I’ve noticed this as well in North America, especially. It happens in Europe, too. I think it’s great that you explain the joke, because that gives it new context. People often react quickly when they’re annoyed, so offering a new perspective allows them to reflect on it differently.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Hamilton! Have you ever experienced a situation where humor just didn’t translate at all? I’m following your blog and looking forward to future posts! 🙂

      1. I have a tendency to tell jokes with a straight face, and I have to remind myself that it doesn’t translate everywhere. Thanks! I look forward to yours as well!

        1. I do that, too! Sometimes it can be confusing to people (and they ask, “wait…are you serious or joking?”). I have a feeling we’d get along just fine!

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