Translation is tricky enough when fluent in the target language, but Pedro Carolino took things a step further with his 1855 Portuguese-English phrase book English as She is Spoke. Unable to speak any English, Carolino used a French-English dictionary to translate an earlier Portuguese-French guidebook, resulting in such idioms – or 'idiotisms', as Carolino sincerely puts it – as "with a tongue one go to Roma", "friendship of a child is water into a basket" and "they shurt him the doar in face." Even Mark Twain was a fan of the book, declaring that "its delicious unconscious ridiculousness, and its enchanting naivete, as are supreme and unapproachable, in their way, as are Shakespeare's sublimities."

Bite the wax tadpole

Unintentional comedy in translation is a familiar subject to pretty much anybody who has ever looked at a menu while travelling abroad. This often arises from simple human error, as US President Jimmy Carter discovered in 1977 when a speech on wanting to learn about the Polish people's desires for the future was mistranslated as sexual desire for Poland. But it can also be caused by incompatibility between two languages, such as the original transliteration of 'Coca-Cola' using Chinese characters that inadvertently translated to "bite the wax tadpole." Machine translation without oversight also has to shoulder a fair proportion of the blame, although noticeable improvements have taken place in recent years.

But how about maintaining intentional humour in a translated work? No small feat given how much comedy is rooted in wordplay and cultural references, not to mention the fact that humour is typically derived from a subversion of expectations whereas what is expected in any situation depends largely on the audience. This is not something we typically deal with in the science and technology domain, but my interest was recently piqued after encountering a Dutch pun in the title of an inaugural lecture we proofread. In that example, the author saw fit to simply explain the pun in English, removing any sense of humour. But things get tougher when this option is off the table.

French as she is spoke

When I started researching this topic, I wasn't shocked to find a large amount of academic research on it. What was slightly unexpected, however, was just how much of this research centres on The Simpsons. But I needn't have been surprised: the longest-running sitcom in history has been translated into over 30 languages, either through dubbing or subtitles. It's also an ideal case study in both what and what not to do. At the latter extreme, the Arabic version of the show came with network requirements that the setting be depicted as an Arab-majority city inexplicably located in Middle America. The translators had their backs to the wall from the get-go, resulting in a mishmash of ideas like Homer somehow getting drunk on juice. The show was so poorly received that only 34 of the 52 translated episodes even aired.

Better, but still bad, is the much-maligned German dub that makes no attempt at localisation at all – even in terms of language. In one notable scene, Sideshow Bob argues that his 'DIE, BART, DIE' tattoo is German for 'THE, BART, THE'. This is translated completely literally and is thus rendered nonsensical, as is the follow-up, "No one who speaks German could be an evil man." It's tempting to dismiss such dialogue as untranslatable, but the French-Canadian dub found an elegant solution to a similar issue: in an episode where Bart visits France and miraculously begins speaking French at the conclusion, he goes from speaking his usual thick Quebecoise accent to standard French.

The need to stretch

This creative approach to the source material is what seems to make the Quebecoise dub the gold standard of translated Simpsons, ultimately providing a version that retains the spirit of the original jokes without being too beholden to their finer details. In a famous scene of Groundskeeper Willie teaching French using the phrase "cheese-eating surrender monkeys", France's separate dub of the episode causes confusion by having him be teaching English using British stereotypes – never mind the beret and French flag. The Quebecoise version, on the other hand, invents an original joke by having him announce that he'll be teaching a complex grammatical form despite usually speaking broken French.

As far as I can tell from my admittedly very Simpsons-heavy research, the key to translating comedy is remembering that a little bit of localisation goes a long way. If a joke requires a bit of stretching to conform to the audience's expectations of humour – and especially if this is required for it to even make sense – there's no real reason not to do so. In that sense, translating comedy is not quite as far removed from our usual work as I first imagined: a good translator of both science and comedy is rarely the person with the most in-depth knowledge of linguistics but instead someone who can work out how to apply the relevant linguistics effectively in their specific setting. Food for thought if more puns head our way.

By the way, I'm aware of the irony of writing a blog post about humour and not including any jokes so don't bother pointing that out.

- Josh