There was a forum of comics on television years ago (PBS, Dick Cavett, ???) where some truly funny people sat in a group and kibitzed about “What is funny?” It went back and forth with the likes of (from memory) Rodney Dangerfield, Buddy Hackett, and Shecky Greene, telling jokes that they offered as good examples of what made them funny. At one point Buddy Hackett interrupted and suggested to the joke teller that he change one word in the joke, explaining that his word was funnier than the stock word—and he was right—the joke was then that much funnier. At this time I realized how comics were like scientists in the lab concocting funny with a beaker of this and a dash of that, stirred not shaken.
If funny is almost an exacting science, then no wonder it seldom translates well. Then again, I personally never experience the promised “you’ll laugh out loud” praise promised on the back covers of highly touted humorous books.
As far as poetry: the only way to read poetry that is written in a language other than your own is to learn the other language. Barring that, make sure you look for dual-text editions. Having the original and a translation in front of you is invaluable for understanding (and will help you learn that new language, pronto).
Here’s a challenge:
Take a book written by Wodehouse, or by some other comic writer who appeals to your sense of humour; pick a passage that makes you laugh; and, neither adding nor subtracting anything in terms of content, rewrite that passage in your own words, and in your own sentences. Chances are, your re-write is not funny. Or, at least, nowhere near as funny as the original.
This is the problem with translation – especially translation of comic writing, or of poetry: the literal meaning of the words is so often the least of it.
Not that I don’t think that literal translations have their place: nowadays, when there are so many different translations of the acknowledged classics of Western literature, there is room for all sorts of approaches. And it is certainly interesting to know precisely what the original text says. But a translation that is slavishly literal…
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