Someone Else's Sense of Humor


Here's a link Spike sent me (one of these days he'll have to stop giving me all this stuff for my blog and use it on his own) to an article in the Guardian UK about the problems of translating jokes in English into German and vice versa. Stewart Lee, the author, notes that "a commonly held contemporary British view is that the Germans have no sense of humour," then asks (and eventually answers, in fairly interesting ways) "But can this be possible? Can there genuinely be a nation incapable of laughter, or is it just that the German language of laughter differs so greatly from our own, that it appears non-existent?"

My favorite observation (and this is the kind of thing I would have liked to have been able to cite during grad school) is this, about attempts to depict a British stand-up comedian in Germany, where stand-up comedy is "alien":

this instinct to formalise a genre of comedy we accept as inherently informal is not indivisible from the limitations the German language imposes on conventional British comedy structures. The flexibility of the English language allows us to imagine that we are an inherently witty nation, when in fact we just have a vocabulary and a grammar that allow for endlessly amusing confusions of meanings.(Emphasis added, of course.)

Lee notes that humor in English relies on

Pull back and reveal. But German will not always allow you to shunt the key word to the end of the sentence to achieve this failsafe laugh. After spending weeks struggling with the rigours of the German language's far less flexible sentence structures to achieve the endless succession of "pull back and reveals" that constitute much English language humour, the idea of our comedic superiority soon begins to fade. It is a mansion built on sand.

Lee comes to the conclusion that the German "sense of humour was built on blunt, seemingly serious statements, which became funny simply because of their context." He admits that

Since watching jokes I co-wrote for our German production withering in the translation process, all their contrived weaknesses exposed, I have stopped writing jokes as such, and feel I am a better stand-up because of it. I try now to write about ideas, that would be funny in any language, and don't rely on pull- back and reveals and confusion of meaning. Germany kicked away my comedy crutches and taught me to walk unaided.

He also acknowledges that he is

hugely grateful to the Germans.... To paraphrase Simon Munnery, a British comedian so rigorous in his intellect he is almost German, there is much we can learn from watching the Germans. Not as much, however, as they can learn from watching us.


one of these days he'll have to stop giving me all this stuff for my blog and use it on his own

But your writing is so much less indecipherable than mine! (I almost wrote "so much clearer than mine" but that would have been uncharacteristically clear).

Very interesting, Holly, er, Spike, er, Holly.

I love this kind of analysis, too. Language is definitely a fascinating maze allowing "for endlessly amusing confusions of meanings."

Humor sometimes just doesn't translate. I think there's more to it than just words. It's rooted in your way of looking at the world.

When visiting Germany about (yak is it?) twenty years ago I was with a table full of relatives and a group of folk dancers. The Germans were telling jokes a mile a minute, and although I was catching on I wasn't giving forth with the belly laughs enough to suit them. Guess I didn't have a tight enough hold on the language to understand all of the subtleties. So, in order to make me feel more included, the dancers asked me to tell an American joke in German.

All I could come up with at that point was the one about the Swedish guy that goes into the Norwegian bar and offers to tell a Norwegian joke, and the bartender says "hey, whaddya mean, we're all Norwegians here!" and the Swede says "Oh, then I'll speak v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y."

But, I "translated" it to be the German guy that goes into the Austrian bar. When I finished, they just looked at me in silence. Turns out, people in Austria naturally speak more slowly than most Germans, at least, that's what the consensus around the table was. They didn't see the point at all.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on May 24, 2006 10:34 AM.

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