As anyone who’s been following my blog for a while surely knows, I love puns and bad dad jokes (often the same thing). And I often use them in my work, especially in my children’s books. Which becomes rather problematic when translating them into Greek. How can someone translate puns decently?
Rick van Mechelen, aka “that translation student“, recently shared an interesting post on this very subject. He cites Dirk Delabastita 1996 work* to divide puns into four categories of ambiguity. These are homonymy, homophony, homography, and paronymy, each of which is better suited to different forms of communication:
|Homonymy||A pun where a word with multiple meanings is used to give multiple meanings at once.||A hard-boiled egg in the morning is hard to beat.|
|Homophony||A pun using two words that sound identical, but have different spellings.||‘Mine is a long and a sad tale! said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing. ‘It is a long tail, certainly,’ said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail; ‘but why do you call it sad?’|
|Homography||A pun using a word with multiple meanings, but different pronunciations for those meanings||You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless you play bass.|
|Paronymy||A pun using two words with similar, but not identical spellings and pronunciations.||A skunk fell into a river and stank to the bottom|
Rick then goes on to point out that translating puns can cause several difficulties because most puns are specific to their own language. A pun that works in Dutch most likely won’t work in English and the other way around. Exceptions to this are puns using loanwords from the language you’re translating to, but realistically, you won’t see many of those.
When translating puns, there are a lot of factors to keep in mind. We need to know where the ambiguity lies and how it’s used in the source language. We also need to keep the topic of the dialogue or text in mind, as a pun about bananas in a text about monkeys makes sense, but a pun about bananas in a text about fish won’t work at all.
Thirdly, don’t use overly complicated puns. A pun should add humor to a sentence, without becoming the focal point of said sentence. This means that the puns need to be easy to understand and make sense to the reader.
Like every translation, we need to keep in mind what we’re translating for. If it’s a book, we can use more words to get our pun across, but in the case of subtitling, we have a limited amount of time and space to make the pun.
The most important factor is also the most straight-forward one: Don’t try too hard. If you can use a pun in the translation without too much effort, that’s great! If you can’t, don’t worry about it. Sometimes the situation just doesn’t work with a pun in your translation, so then just leave it out, or compensate by adding a small pun later in the translation.
Pun translation is often one of the most difficult parts of translating media, but it can also be the most fun part. There are only a few other situations in which you get to go so deep into the language, and you’re guaranteed to learn something new every time.
And if you’re stuck for a pun, you can always try the pun generator!
- Delabastita, Dirk, and André Lefevere. 1996. Wordplay and Translation: Special Issue, Dedicated to the Memory of André Lefevere (1945-1996). Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing.