Volume 17, No. 4 
October 2013

Luis D. González León


Front Page


Index 1997-2013

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
How I Learned the Alphabet—and a Few Other Things Along the Way
by Kenneth Kronenberg
Jane Maier, Candidate for ATA's Board of Directors
by Marion Rhodes

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant and Worker Bee
Driving the Bus both Ways
by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini

  From the Editor
Time to Change the Guard
by Gabe Bokor

  Translation Nuts & Bolts
Translation Workflow
by Paula Gordon

Humor in Conferences
by Luis D. González and Glenda M. Mejias

  Advertising Translation
The challenges of translation of tourist e-text
by Vasyl Stefanyk

Translators Around the World
Remembering Sarajevo
by Midhat Ridjanović

Translators and the Computer
Social Investments
by Jost Zetzsche
  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal

The Interpreter´s Ultimate Challenge:

Humor in Conferences

by Luis D. González and Glenda M. Mejias



Interpreting humor in conferences has always been a difficult task for professional interpreters. Much is lost on the way to convey the exact message, especially humorous notes made by expert speakers. This article gives an analysis of some of the most commonly used forms of humor and why speakers insist on using humor in their talks. Some examples are given to corroborate the challenges posed to interpreters, both consecutive and, particularly, simultaneous.

Key words: interpreting, humor, message, speaker, conference.


ver recent decades the explosive growth of globalization and regional integration has fueled parallel growth in multi-lingual conferences. Although conference interpreting has come of age as a profession, interpreter training programs have had varied success, pointing to the need for an instruction manual to cover the subject comprehensively (Nolan, 2005).

Failure to convey humorous messages in the target language to the audience is only compared to defeat in a battlefield.
Interpretation can be defined, as conveying understanding between two cultures. Its usefulness stems from the fact that a speaker’s meaning is best expressed in his or her native tongue but is best understood in the languages of the listeners (Nolan, 2005). Interpreting occurs in real time. It conveys every semantic element and every intention and feeling that the source language speaker is directing to the target-language listener. Therefore, interpreters should have a good understanding of what is communicated and be able to make clear and accurate verbal expressions. Strong memory and research skills are also important. Interpreters should always be interested in familiarizing themselves with different cultures, customs and international political setups.

However, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible for interpreters to render a complex verse form into other languages, while preserving the humor. In such cases it is helpful but not indispensable for the joke to be accurately interpreted; the joke is merely an opening gambit. Many speakers use humor to revive a somnolent debate or to break the ice when a negotiation has come to deadlock. Others will begin a speech on a humorous note just to be clever or simply to establish rapport with the audience. The rest use jokes to convey a key point of the speech. In those cases, the message is more important than the humor, and it is the content of the message that the interpreter should strive to interpret.

Interpreting is an essential service rendered at conferences. It makes exchange of criteria among participants easier the; likewise, it helps listeners to be aware of what is being said.

The Challenges of Interpreting Humor.

Among conference interpreters, the usual practice is to obtain background materials from the conference organizer prior to the meeting and study the materials to gain a basic understanding of the subject and the specialized vocabulary. A translator or interpreter who works regularly for a particular organization or client will soon become familiar with the subject and its jargon.

By bridging the gap between languages, the interpreter helps speakers to discharge their duty to make themselves understood, and helps listeners to satisfy their need to understand what is being said.

Numerous are the challenges posed to conference interpreters, like the speed of the speaker, the topic being dealt with in the hall and the kind of audience. A consecutive interpreter listens to the speaker, takes notes, and then reproduces the speech in the target language. Depending on the length of the speech, this may be done all at one go or in several segments. The consecutive interpreter relies mainly on memory, but a good note-taking technique is an essential aid. He has little time to think ideas over in order to look for adjustments in the message.

The simultaneous interpreter, on the contrary, has no time at all to organize the message as it is interpreting “on the go.” Still, with appropriate training both physical and mental he or she will come out successfully from the battlefield of instant communication. There is no memory support, no mental rehearsal, and very few notes.

Still, that can be overcome with dignity. The trick lies slyly hidden, very hard to anticipate when it is coming: the crack of unexpected jokes. They come at the hottest moment, in the middle of the most boring meeting, at any time.

The interpreter must be attentive to the purpose of humor; it is preferable to preserve it whenever possible, since it can often be part of the message. In such situations humor is not incidental to the speaker’s intent, and an interpreter who fails to get across the humor has failed to get across the point (Nolan, 2005).

All humor is fundamentally a communicative activity. At its most basic level humor is an intended or unintended message interpreted as funny. Jokes play an important part in determining who we are and how we think of ourselves, and as a result, how we interact with others. A sense of humor has been an essential part of humankind and societies throughout the ages (Chapman and Foot, 1976). Humor has no boundaries, it permeates every social context. Undoubtedly, humor and laughing are essential parts of what is to be human (Lynch, 2002).

This is a particularly problematic field, as it is closely linked to the very idiosyncratic cultural background of a society (Bravo Gozalo, 2002). The interpreter should have bilingual and bicultural knowledge (Castro Roig, 2002). Therefore, cultural referents, puns and other humorous devices must be transferred to the interpreter’s repertoire so that the target audience enjoys what is being said. In order to sense when a joke is in the works, it is helpful to study different types of humor and joke-telling techniques, and to practice trying to interpret jokes and puns. A recommended source is Isaac Asimov’s anthology of jokes, which analyzes and categorizes jokes by type (Isaac Asimov, Treasury of Humor, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1971). Isaac Asimov (1971) observes in his joke anthology that all types of humor depend, for their effect, on an anomaly or an absurdity. Does the fact that humor depends on absurdity make humor harder or easier to interpret? Is absurdity the same in every language?

Since joke-telling ability can improve with practice, an interpreter should cultivate this art in order to improve his or her chances of being able to interpret humor (Nolan, 2005). The key concepts are the theories of Vermeer´s scopes (1996) and Venuti´s neutralization (1995), which are model evolutions, like free translation of Hatim and Mason (1996), functional translation of Nord (1991), communicative translation of Newark (1988), acceptance of Toury (1980), and dynamic equivalence of Nida (1964). All of them call for a more adapted interpretation of the source text message, into the target language, as most elements dealt with in the former do not exist in the latter. In other words, at times when it is almost impossible to interpret a joke, at least, the interpreter should ask the target audience to literally show a laugh”, as all the rest is already doing it. In this case, as a last resort, the interpreter has sacrificed meaning to favor audience rapport with the speaker and support to the interpreter.

Types of Humor

“Humor is the ability or tendency to think that things are funny, or funny things said to show someone has this ability” , and the quality in something that makes it funny and makes people laugh” (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 2002). Defined by Word Web on-line (2006), humor is a message whose ingenuity or verbal skill or incongruity has the power to evoke laughter”. A joke is defined by Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (2002) as something that is said or done to make people laugh.” WordWeb on-line (2006) defines joke as a humorous anecdote or remark intended to provoke laughter”, and a “ ludicrous or grotesque act done for fun and amusement.”

Several authors (Isaac Asimov, 1971), (Lynch, 2002) have dealt the two terms indistinctively, as jokes are the concrete act of expressing humor, which, in turn, is served by different stylistic devices. In practice, it is impossible to analyze humor in verbal speech only attached to one or two forms. Thus, based on all previous information it is recommended to study all kinds of humor (jokes) as a set, not as separate parts, since they may occur all together, or combine with comings and goings.

One of the most widely used types of humor in formal speeches is sarcasm. This caustic form of humor does not require as much finesse as irony. Puns, paronomasia, or punning is the exploitation of different meanings of words that sound similar. Puns based on a single word with multiple meanings in the source language should generally not be attempted by interpreters, as the result will probably not be funny. Irony is usually reserved for serious subjects. Its effect, for both the speaker and the interpreter, depends on preserving a cool and even tone. Irony is sometimes so low-key that it is almost an “undertone” or a “sub-text” that may go unnoticed if the interpreter is not sensitive to its presence. Critique is often used in various forms of artistic criticism, from literary reviews to theater, film, or sports criticism. Social criticism sometimes surfaces in speeches in international fora. A good sense of humor can be an effective instrument of social change.

Below, there are three instances where humor has been produced by real speakers in real settings, with a real public. It is important to note that cold black-and-white transcriptions do not convey the “stir” of oral presentations. However, for the purpose of sheer analysis, a fragment from an oral presentation in international scenarios is analyzed hereafter.

Albert Gore’s presentation on Global Warming--

Documentary: An Inconvenient Truth

In this passage, the speaker makes three jokes.

1. “…I used to be the next President of the United States of America (laughter). I don´t find that particularly funny…” (Louder Laughter)

In the first part of this joke the speaker uses straight-faced sarcasm, as he wants people to laugh at something that really happened and affected him in real life, when he lost the 2000 presidential election to George Bush Jr. To the target audience the joke can be effective as well. Its Spanish interpretation would be: “Yo era el próximo presidente de los Estados Unidos…” But the effect would not be complete if the target listener were not familiar with the political circumstances that originated it.

The second part of the joke: “I don´t find it particularly funny”, involves irony mixed with deadpan, as the speaker put it very seriously with the mere intention of drawing laughter from the audience. And he did, even louder. The interpreter has to convey the exact effect in the target audience or would be risking incomplete rapport with the speaker, who is also trying to break the ice with the joke. The equivalent to the expression would be: …pero eso no es tan gracioso…” In fact he wants to achieve the opposite, and he did greatly. But, did the target listener get it right?

2. “I had a great school teacher who taught Geography […] I had a classmate on the 6th grade who raised his hand and pointed to the outline of the east coast of South America and he pointed to the west coast of Africa and he asked: “Did they ever fit together?”

“Did they ever fit together?”, seems to have posed no laughing intention; however, the speaker is beginning to arouse attention from the audience with a shift in intonation; he is leading them into the wrong direction in order to surprise them with a total unexpected response from the geography teacher : “Of course not, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard” (loud laughter), told by the speaker in a clearly different voice, as if mocking the professor. In this case the speaker has a sarcastic and ironic tone at the time he tells the joke. This is yet another instance of combined styles to steal a laugh from the audience. The interpreter has the choice to follow the ironic-sarcastic tone of the speaker, or either, try to be literal and risk laughter. So, it would be like: “_¿…alguna vez estuvieron pegados?” _”Por supuesto que no, esa es la cosa más ridícula que he escuchado en mi vida!”

3. “That student went on to become a drug addict in the nerd world. The teacher went on to become science adviser in the current administration.” (Laughter and applause).

Interestingly enough, in this joke the speaker again combines tone, rhythm and words to draw laughter. Irony, sarcasm and social critique are clearly observed in this example, as a tool subtly used to produce high emotions in the audience and make them stand on his side.

To the interpreter´s perception there is an escalade in the joke, as its second part is even more aggressive and critical, not just social but political to the Bush Administration. An approximation to the target text would be: “Ese estudiante se metió a drogadicto en el mundo de los lerdos. El maestro ahora es asesor científico de la actual administración.” But humor is not conveyed in the same way as in the source language.


This paper has shown that new approaches or strategies are needed to develop very specific skills that help interpreters do their job right. Even though there are different stylistic devices to express humor, it all comes in bundles and must be treated like that, as a whole set.

Joke-telling ability can improve with practice; therefore, an interpreter should cultivate this art to improve his or her chances of being able to interpret humor.

Failure to convey humorous messages in the target language to the audience is only compared to defeat in a battlefield; interpreters are there to provide a reliable and trustworthy version of what is said in a hall.


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