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Lost, but not in translation: cross-cultural humor

May 24, 2012

24-halalbilal-blog480I saw the following blog post by Peter Savodnic about stand-up comics in Qatar:

In this Sunday’s [New York Times]magazine, I have an article about Stand Up Comedy Qatar, a group of amateur comedians that emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring. They tell jokes about traffic, KFC and suicide bombers. And sometimes despots, too.

The trick, and it’s not a simple one, is knowing what or who is permissible to skewer. Hosni Mubarak, the fallen Egyptian despot, is O.K. So is the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. Of course, just because you can make fun of someone doesn’t mean you can make people laugh. A brief despot-themed sampling of jokes that the S.U.C.Q. comedians like to tell:

  • Hosni Mubarak is really old. You know how old he is? He’s as old as the pyramids.
  • Libyans are the most fashionable people in the Middle East. But Gaddafi is the worst dresser in the world. That’s why the Libyans revolted against him — because he’s unfashionable!
  • So, Saddam Hussein is dead . . .

And, as a bonus, one nondictator joke.

  • When I asked my teacher how many kids he had, he told me he had two daughters — both girls!

Now, these jokes are so unfunny that it is to discern what the humorous premise would have been.  You may think that perhaps the problem lies in a faulty translation – the jokes must have been funnier in the original Arabic. 

But it seems that there may be no translation – these jokes may have been performed in English

Kamal, like the other members of SUCQ, at first performed only in English. “In Arabic, the grammar is different, so it’s very difficult to have a setup and a punch line,” Kamal said. “You have to tell the punch line while you’re still doing the set up — they get mixed up.” But there’s another reason too. The comedians say they want to perform in front of bigger audiences — their monthly shows usually draw at least 70 people — but many still perform in English, partly because they remain worried about who might be attending and how their material will be interpreted.

Is this an example of culturally-specific humor – jokes that los their comicality when transplanted out of the country?  Or is the spectacle of stand-up comics so novel in Qatar that anything can get a laugh?

Even though this appears not to be a case of translation (or mistranslation), it still poses a question for translators:  should translators take liberties when translating humorous material so that it is still funny in to the target audience?

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