Translating humor, part I

by Don  

One of the most popular second-year Russian textbooks is “Russian Stage Two: Welcome Back!” One of the things that is nice about the book is that it is accompanied by a well-produced and engaging video that gives a plot arc to the text. In class my students and I came across a couple lines in the video that lacked the same punch in English that they had in Russian. A student asked how we should go about that type of translation. What a great question! Here's the context.

Lena and Tanya are talking on the phone. Lena asks Tanya how her thesis is coming along. Tanya, distracted by her wedding plans, at first does not recognize what Lena is talking about, which reinforces the video's presentation of Tanya's character as somewhat flakey. The lines go like this:

Лена: Как твои дела? Как твоя дипломная работа? Lena: How are you? How is your thesis coming?
Таня: Какая работа? Ах, дипломная? Всё нормально. Tanya: What kind of work? Ah, my thesis. Everything's okay.

The performance of the dialog is slightly humorous in Russian. The Russian phrase for thesis is «дипломная работа», which literally means “diploma work.” Thus when Tanya doesn't quite make out the word «дипломная» but does make out the word «работа», she can ask «Какая работа?» “What kind of work”, then figure it out in her head and say “Ah, diploma work.”

Why does the translation not capture the humor of the original? It fails because in English ‘thesis’ has no obvious connection to “what kind of work?” Ideally a translation intended for a general audience will capture the emotional content (in this case the humor) as well as the informational content. So how do you go about the process of figuring it out? Here is how our discussion went.

Step 1: identify the sources of the humor. In this case the humor stems from a variety of things, including the inherent relationship between «какая работа» and «дипломная работа». «Какая» is one of the things you can say in Russian when you didn't quite catch what the other person has said. Tanya didn't at first figure out what Lena said because she was distracted by wedding invitations, or, alternatively, she didn't understand Lena because Lena's headcold made it tougher.

Step 2: identify the things you can't change in the translation. «Дипломная работа» has a standard equivalent in English, which is ‘thesis.’ Not much you can do about that.¹

Step 3: identify the things you can change and brainstorm on them. In English there are a lot of ways you can ask for additional information when you didn't quite hear what someone said. Let's brainstorm those phrases:

  • Could you repeat that, please?
  • Excuse me?
  • Come again?
  • Speak more clearly!
  • Huh?
  • What did you say?
  • What's that?
  • What was that?
  • Say what?
  • My what?

Somehow we have to find a variation on one of those phrases that has some obvious connection to ‘thesis.’ In a previous blog entry we discussed the word whatchamacallit. Among the variations there were whoziwhatsis and whatsis, the last three letters of which match the word thesis. Ah, there we have it!

Lena: How are you? How is your thesis coming?
Tanya: My whatsis? Oh, my thesis! Everything's okay.

When we reached this point in our class discussion, the whole class laughed, which meant we had a successful connection. Of course, this version is funny for an additional reason: whatsis is a very informal word, one that doesn't quite match the neutral tone of the rest of the conversation.

One last thought. Humor is best when it is spontaneous and not overanalyzed. If nothing here seemed particularly humorous, chalk it up to the academic discussion. It really was funny at the time... but you probably had to be there.

¹ Okay, I'm fudging here. You could also say ‘senior project.’


Comment from: Richard [Visitor]


An interesting post!

Of course humour relies on more than just linguistics. It also relies on culture. People who have a shared cultural history and cultural values are able to create humour using this cultural subtext. The comedian and his audience share an implicit understanding of what is funny and what the boundaries of humour are.
Some cultures joke about sex, some about religion, some about drinking, some about none of the above.

Human beings are united by our love of humour but are divided by our cultural definitions of humour.

“Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite and furthermore always carry a small snake.”
~ W.C. Fields

03/31/14 @ 16:26
Comment from: Shady_arc [Visitor]

I wonder if you could use “How is your (thesis) proposal?” here? Will anyone make the connection and even understand what the ambiguity is?

Don responds: Ah, now that is clever! But it might take a subtle reader to riddle it out.

03/31/14 @ 03:23

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