This is a version of a lecture I had to give in the USA. It was linked with the fact that I’d been commissioned by the Theater Department of the University of Rhode Island to translate three plays by Molière. His plays, written for audiences in 17th century France, are still funny in France and elsewhere. So, for the lecture I chose to talk about humour in translation. I used the theme and ideas in a guest blog I did for Scary a while ago, but this is a much shortened (and updated) version of the lecture itself.
Words are weird. They’re not just labels we stick on objective ‘truths’; they actually create them. We all know that the Inuit have many terms for snow, each one identifying a separate ‘thing’. But why do Russians have separate expressions for light blue and dark blue, making them not shades of the same thing but two distinct primary colours? And what about Ionesco’s claim that the Spanish for Paris is Madrid, the Italian for London is Rome, and so on? And is a ‘horse’ the same as a ‘pferd’, a ‘cheval’, an ‘equus’ or a ‘hippos’?
So language is tricky. But humour’s worse.
Its original meaning, from the Latin humorem, was moisture. That’s helpful, isn’t it? Well, maybe the psychologists can help. According to one, in an article called Functions of humor in conversation: conceptualisation and measurement, ‘humor appears to be a facilitative form of communication that fulfils interpersonal functions’.
Hmmmm, even ‘moisture’ was more useful than that.
Another suggests that ‘the amount of humour is a monotonic inverted U function of the time and effort required for interpretation and re-interpretation’. Isn’t it great when academics explain the world for us?
Arthur Koestler had a better idea. He called it bisociation. Usually, we experience things in a single context and there's no surprise or disorientation involved. With bisocation, though, you get a second, totally different context. When you hear ‘You scoundrel, you deserve to be horsewhipped’, you know exactly what’s going on. There’s just one frame of reference. But Groucho Marx has a different take on it. His version is ‘You scoundrel, I'd horsewhip you if I had a horse’.
And there’s a third element to put in the mix – culture. Whether we like it (or agree with it) or not, there’s some truth in the idea of national stereotypes, and what makes people laugh is strikingly different in different countries. (I frequently feel the need to point out that something I’ve said or written is an example of British humour because if that’s not clear, it may seem not funny but offensive.)
The beauty of humour in translation is that it can create a comic effect which transcends cultures. Take the language school in Spain which was trying to attract English students to its courses. It sent a circular letter to British universities saying: ‘The pryces are totality accesibles by your students can to displace to Spain, in order to study in situ all our wonders. If any teachers will be intereted in amplify this activity, can to write us, and only too happy delighted, we enlarge details about itinerarys, pretext, loams’.
Or how about this, from a brochure inviting tourists to visit the Cévennes? ‘The development of the Alps and Pyrenees have drived the Mediterranean limestone against The Central Massif. Pleated and crackled, these sedimental masses were mould, chased into deep mysterious grooves. Absorbed by the cracks and engraves, the rock dissolved and became undermined. The wild and furious waters had groved a fantastic underground univers, and Man settlled down in this country of legends looking for the grooves.’
You see? Translation creates a language and a type of humour free from any specific culture. Words are elusive and unreliable. They define us along with our cultural stereotypes. But when they’re used in what seems a haphazard way, or they carry baffling echoes of the language from which they’ve been translated, they actually increase the possibility of experiencing Koestler’s bisociation – but in an area beyond language and culture alike.
We just need to keep looking for the grooves.