Over the past few weeks, Transcription Global has brought you numerous examples of humorous translations. However, while a bad translation can make something serious funny, it can also have the opposite effect.

Comedy is one of the hardest things to write – you’re never going to make everyone laugh. While plenty of people feel as though their sides might split when they watch Michael McIntyre, others will be left cold by the comedian’s gags. And that’s when everyone can actually understand the jokes.

Translating humour into a different language and ensuring the joke still makes people laugh is one of the subjects addressed by David Bellos in his book Is That A Fish In Your Ear?. According to Bellos, the trick is using a little creative license to translate the words and idioms, jokes and wordplay so that the result strikes the chord in the reader that the author wanted to strike. This is more likely to happen when the translator is not being so vigilant in exactly translating the words that the humour is sucked out.

As Jascha Hoffman, writing in the New York Times, points out, humour is often so much more than the punch line. It’s in the telling of the joke, the journey to the pay-off or – in the case of many works of literature – simply the tone of the writing. In these cases, translators have to get into the mind of the book’s narrator to understand their personality. This is what helps them correctly convey the wit in a different language.

The great translation balancing act

The translator also has to get the writer’s humour. You wouldn’t want someone who detests Michael McIntyre translating his autobiography, as the resulting jokes will probably fall rather flat if the person translating doesn’t find them funny in the first place. Myrsini Gana, a Greek translator, tells Hoffman in his New York Times article: “I feel that when the translator is laughing, the humour will manage to get across.”

Yet if a joke simply isn’t working in the target language, it’s best to just let it go. It may turn out that elsewhere in the text there is a pun that will work even better in the translation than it did in the original – so everything balances out in the end.

Most importantly of all, it’s vital that the flavour of the original is retained and that translators do not go to such great lengths to get laughs that the entire prose is altered. We have said it before and we’re saying it again: to be a translator is to be a tightrope walker, as far as getting the balance right is concerned.

If a story is set in Paris, there’s no point in the characters within it dropping slang into their speech that would only be heard in the West Midlands – unless they are from the West Midlands, of course. Part of the charm of books is that they transport the reader to a different place and time, and this should not be lost for the sake of getting a chuckle.

Once upon a time…

Literary translation should never be underestimated – a good one can make a novel a success overseas. Just look at the popularity of the likes of The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, all of which are international bestsellers.

If ever there was an example of a novel that has not got lost in translation, it’s Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James. It might not be an intentionally humorous book, but to give it a chance of succeeding abroad, the characters, their actions and the language they use all have to be correctly translated for the target readership. The French version of the erotic novel, Cinquante Nuances de Grey, sold 150,000 copies in France in two days after it went on sale – proof its translator certainly got the balance right.

Translation can make a hit of English language novels, but some of our favourite stories were originally written in a different language. From Cinderella to Planet of the Apes, many of the greatest works of fiction are non-English.

So, let’s hear it for the translators out there, without whom we might never have met and fallen in love with the likes of Tin Tin, Dr Zaius or Lisbeth Salander.