Friday, 3 December 2010

Looking for the Grooves

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.


  1. Great article and examples. In a customer service seminar I instruct, I offer the following facts about face-to-face communication between individuals: 8% of what we communicate is through our actual words, 14% of what we communicate is via our voice (i.e., tone, volume, etc.), and 78% of what we communicate is via body language.

    When we communicate with the written word, we eliminate 92% of our tools. Anyone who uses e-mail understands this fact, right?

  2. Scary stats, Linda. Maybe I should switch from being a writer to being a mime artist.

  3. Then when someone asks you an awkward question, Bill you can just show them your finger.

    Great post BTW.

  4. Ah yes, the mime artist's finger. A gesture flicked angrily from motorist to motorist in an instant but, in mime terms, stretched to an entire 10 minute narrative.

  5. Bill, I like your post, but humor often needs translation not only across the space but also across the time. The context changes. My young niece (who has a good sense of humour) often asks me to explain her some jokes of the Soviet times. For example, I told her a joke about two violinists who travel to a musical contest from the Soviet Union. The grand-prix of the contest is the opportunity to play Stradivarius made by Antonio Stradivari himself . One of the violinists drops out instantly; the second one reaches the semifinal of the contest but can’t get the grand-prix. The second violinist feels extremely miserable and cries. The first one tries to console him “Why do you need to play that Stradivarius, what is so special about it, it is just a violin?” The second violinist answers “You can’t ever understand me. Imagine that you lost an opportunity to shoot from Dzerzhinsky’s gun”. My niece couldn’t understand the joke; I had to explain her that it was almost impossible for people from the former USSR to go abroad without a companion from KGB and the first violinist was actually a KGB person disguised as a violinist. He was supposed to watch over the second one (that was the point of the joke). Dzerzhinsky was the founder of the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka, later known as NKVD and KGB. The same language the same place, but different times.

  6. Thanks Sofisticos. I love jokes which need footnotes, and that one certainly did. Your point about transposing humour over time as well as space is absolutely right. I said that Molière is still funny - and he is - but Shakespeare's comedies, and celebrated scenes such as that of the Porter in Macbeth, need lots of help from the modern director to get any laughs out of them.