And then he said, "How do you think I rang the doorbell?"
May 3, 2014 10:31 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of jokes that just don't translate.

It's notoriously the case that a lot of jokes are only funny in their original language. I'm looking for examples of these: either foreign jokes that lose something translated into English, or English jokes that non-English-speakers find baffling.

I'm not especially interested in jokes that rely on puns and wordplay -- of course these won't translate -- although if they are particularly befuddling it would be a helpful contribution. I'm also not that interested in jokes that rely on cultural context that speakers of the target language wouldn't have (e.g. the Russian joke about Karl Radek in the prison). I'm really looking for cases where the humor just disappears in translation and it isn't clear why -- which is of course funny in its own way.
posted by vogon_poet to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
This article is full of them:

Sample from Hungary:

What do you call a man who wakes up early in the morning, wears a white apron, bakes bread, but is not a baker?
No, it is a baker!
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 11:53 AM on May 3, 2014 [9 favorites]

You might look at Manzai routines. Some are funny in an obvious way, others are simply mystifying as to why everyone is laughing so hard. Here's one with subtitles I picked at random.
posted by Sokka shot first at 12:13 PM on May 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Dorothea: I thought most of the jokes worked in that link. As an aside the Japanese one didn't work but was adorable in Japanese. But that one qualifies as a word pun because pan means bread and da is a form of the word 'to be'.

I think it is going to be hard to find jokes that qualify because cultural context and language are so important.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:34 PM on May 3, 2014

TVTropes: World of Pun

Pungeon Master
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:47 PM on May 3, 2014

I agree with Alexia, but the French joke seems absurd to me, unless there's some sort of pun about kiwis or cultural gag about New Zealanders?
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 12:48 PM on May 3, 2014

Kiwi fruit, Conrad.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 1:46 PM on May 3, 2014

I know what a kiwi is, but it doesn't work as a conventional joke. "You are a funny-looking X" "That's because I am a Y" is not really a joke without something more here, like a pun or contextual reference. So I think this qualifies as a "joke that does not translate."
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 1:53 PM on May 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Basically any Russian-language joke relying around mat. You lose all the humor when you just translate it as e.g. "fuck you fucking fuckers" or whatever.
posted by griphus at 2:20 PM on May 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

In the book "Les Miserables," the students are known as the friends d'abaissé. They are also known as the friends d'ABC, because abaissé and ABC sound the same in French.
posted by Melismata at 2:28 PM on May 3, 2014

I doubt this one translates universally, although I'm sure it works in some cultures.

Q: How many hipsters does it take to change a light bulb?
A: It's kind of an obscure number, you probably haven't heard of it.

Not only does it rely on the concept of "hipster", it's also probably not funny unless you've heard light bulb jokes before.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 3:20 PM on May 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

This old fave Deaf/ASL joke twists twice, so to speak.

Dave drives down the street and comes to a railroad crossing. Didn't see the flashing lights so he's stuck. How does he get out? DIFFERENT!
posted by Jesse the K at 5:59 PM on May 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was just watching the anime Hyperdimension Neptunia. There's a mouse called Warechu who is the henchman of an enemy boss named Arfoire. One of the good guys is a really pretty girl named Compa, and the mouse has a crush on Compa. There's a critical scene where the good guys confront Arfoire and she's giving a typical bad-guy speech about how they're too late and they have no chance of winning, and the mouse interrupts her and calls out "Compa-chuan!"

It would take about fifteen minutes to explain why a Japanese person would snicker at that pun. Or why it even is a pun.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:30 AM on May 4, 2014

I'm not quite sure what you're asking for, if you exclude language and cultural differences then there's very little to separate people in different countries, so excluding those criteria, I'd be surprised if there were any jokes that don't translate.

If you only mean culture in a narrow sense, (say, recognising a person as in your example) then there are jokes that can be drawn for wider culture, e.g. those that rely on some religious familiarity or something similar.

A good example is the meta-joke: it depends on familiarity with the structure of a joke, and makes little sense if that structure (which may be a formal structure, or simply a topic that is recognised as open to humour) isn't known, for example:

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar, and the barman says: 'what is this, some kind of joke'.


What do you call a Muslim driving a plane? A pilot you racist.
posted by Ned G at 1:44 PM on May 4, 2014

Although not what you asked for, I was reminded of the apocryphal story of an attempt to program a computer to translate (this was waaaaay before Google Translate). The researchers took the English proverb "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" and had the computer translate it into Russian, then translate it back into English. It came up with: "The vodka is strong, but the meat is rotten".

There are heaps of untranslatable jokes in Japanese (the one in the Guardian link is a good example: a panda eats bread because "pan" = bread, "da" = variant of 'is', so the answer is literally: pan da = it's bread). They also have even more complicated puns based on the fact that the characters used for a particular word can be used for multiple meanings. I'm not explaining it well. Have a look at this page.

Ultimately, my inner pedant wants to protest that these jokes are not untranslatable. It's just that by the time they are translated, they often aren't funny anymore.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:58 PM on May 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

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