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Written by Traduality

Traduality helps organizations protect and get closer to its customers, employees, and partners in their native language.

October 1, 2018

The biggest challenge for a translator: Puns


Translating is always difficult, but translating punsthat make sense in the target language and adapt to its culture is a major challenge.

Punscan be present in all kinds of texts, however, they are more common in advertising, literary and comedy content. And the complicated thing is that their deep rooting in the language of origin makes it difficult to reproduce the same effect in a different language and culture.


What is a pun?

They are linguistic structures that generate ambiguity and a certain touch of humour, because the words used have a double meaning.

The problem is, what works in a specific language and culture may not work in another. This is why there are different ways to translate puns, but it all depends on the final audience that will receive the translation.



What is the challenge?

The translator has several options at the time of facing a pun. But the difficult thing is that the translator should not only be fluent in both languages, but also know some popular culture, especially if it is advertising content, because if it is not possible to reach the public and produce the proper reaction, the campaign is likely to be a complete failure.


What strategies do we have?

There are five strategies that we can use to translate puns without dying in the attempt, but it all depends on your client’s instructions and the target audience of the final product.

  • Making a literal translation, losing the ambiguity of the phrase to a large extent (or completely), but maintaining the structure of the statement.
  • Making a literal translation, keeping the ambiguity in the words, if both languages share similarities in that pun.
  • Replacing the phrase with another that has an equivalent meaning or an ambiguity that can produce the same reaction in the target audience.
  • Replacing ambiguity with another humorous resource, such as irony, using the idea of the original phrase.
  • Omitting the message, if there is a more extensive content to translate and that can be taken advantage of. This one is the least recommended, but it could be used in cases where the translation of the pun is completely impossible.

Some examples of puns

Every once in a while, we can see some clever puns in US comedy series. But when these series are broadcasted for the Spanish-speaking market, the meaning can change completely.

Many Spanish speakers (mostly those who have no knowledge of English) are often lost in the subject and the scene may not be funny at all, since a forced and unambiguous literal translation is sometimes not the most appropiate.

I have often heard many people say: “People in the United States can’t make jokes.” Which is not true, it’s just that translating certain phrases into our language makes it lose the sense of the original, both because of the language itself and the cultural differences.

While people with some knowledge of English, understand what the original joke refers to and immediately criticize the translator for not doing a better job. But what else can we do in these cases?

There are no strict or general rules to work with puns. The most important thing is to do some research (which is part of the translation process), leave the door open to creativity and try to give it the best sense possible.


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