Comedy is notoriously difficult to translate and is often culture and country-specific. Nobody is more aware of this than the top global brands, who have long made faux pas when attempting to convey humour in their multilingual marketing and advertising.
But what actually makes comedy work in different cultural or linguistic contexts? And what can make it a spectacular failure?
Let’s explore some of the successes, as well as the trials and tribulations, of humor in translation – and how you can make it work for your brand.
More than words
If a picture speaks a thousand words, then Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean must be one of the world’s greatest communicators.
Mr Bean’s physical, slapstick comedy was and still is a global success. His 15-part 30-minute live-action adventures were sold to over 190 countries in the 1990s, whilst the 2007 feature film Mr Bean’s Holiday took profits of £156 million across 65 countries.
Mr Bean plays on the stereotype of the clumsy, hapless Brit which, coupled with the lack of dialogue, creates a type of comedy that seems to be able to transcend linguistic and cultural barriers. It’s not hard to see why the character became an international smash hit.
Clearly, this is a formula that works. It proves that, regardless of what language you speak, physical comedy can be a unifying force.
If you are a brand looking to expand internationally, consider the impact of using humorous imagery and visuals in your marketing rather than words.
It is a wise idea to invest in professional localization services to ensure that your content is perfectly suited to your target market. This will avoid your images causing unnecessary offence or misunderstanding – A very real possibility in cross-cultural marketing.
Punny or not?
Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime boast a vast comedy library, whether it be the latest stand-up comedy special, an original romcom or a classic Monty Python-esque romp.
The brilliant thing about these services is that, regardless of the original language of the content, there is a myriad of languages available as subtitles or dubbing options.
But with time and space constraints, subtitlers and voice-over artists are usually forced to truncate, paraphrase or take a more word-for-word approach to the translation, often resulting in a very literal rendering of the humor.
This means that most puns lose their meaning when translated into other languages, especially when translated from English.
The language of humor
According to Ted Mentele, Didactics Editor for Babbel, “Ambiguity of meaning is a common trope in English-language humour. This stems from the fact that we have so many homophones — words that sound the same but have different meanings.”
“Since homophones in one language are rarely also homophones in another language, this makes translating them pretty useless.”
“When we derive humor from playing with language itself, we step into difficult territory for non-native speakers.”
So, if puns and ‘dad jokes’ are important to the voice of your brand, consider that it may be better to steer clear of using them in video content – subtitles can often kill a comedic timing or a cleverly-constructed joke.
But don’t write off using humor in your international marketing strategy altogether.
While translating humor may be one of the most difficult elements of translation, a skilled professional translator will be capable of finding an alternative joke or pun in the target language that packs the same punch as that of the source text.
The key is finding a translation agency that you trust and has plenty of experience working
with similar projects.