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Home » Interpretation » Simultaneous Interpretation Series Part 5 of 6: Handling Humor During a Simultaneous Interpretation Assignment

Simultaneous Interpretation Series Part 5 of 6: Handling Humor During a Simultaneous Interpretation Assignment

11th February, 2014 I by Harry Hogue

It happens to everyone and it’s unavoidable. We’ve all felt out of place at one time or another. No matter if you’re taking a vacation to an unfamiliar city and have to ask directions in order to find your way or if you feel

uncomfortable after agreeing to an afternoon out with a friend who invited several others without asking you first, these kinds of situations happen all the time.

Interpreters, too, have to find ways of coping with unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations, regardless of what their script may say, since no script will be able to take such situations into account. Speakers or presenters do not always follow their written script, and this can be jarring for the interpreter if he or she is not prepared for that eventuality. Humor is an even more challenging situation. How does an interpreter convey humor during a presentation if a script was not provided beforehand? Humor involves cultural references and linguistic plays on words, and can be difficult to translate on paper, never mind during a simultaneous interpretation assignment.

Simultaneous interpreters need to be prepared to cope with a variety of situations, and one kind of situation involves humor during a presentation. Whether or not the humor is planned, the speaker’s intention is to relax the audience and to build his or her confidence as a presenter. Since humor is often spontaneous, especially during otherwise serious business meetings (a presenter tells a quick and funny story about something which happened just before entering the conference room; for example), an interpreter should give more attention to the audience receiving the humor than the speaker telling the joke. By understanding her audience’s culture, the interpreter is able to find a quick and equivalent bit of humor which fits well within their cultural and linguistic frameworks. Interpreters should therefore familiarize themselves with short and familiar pieces of humor common to the languages and countries they interpret for. This way, they will never find themselves at a loss of what to say when confronted with what could otherwise be an uncomfortable or unfamiliar situation. Since the humor’s main goal is to relax the audience and make them laugh, the joke doesn’t matter. It is more important for the humor to be culturally and linguistically relevant to the audience, and familiarity works best in most cases. The interpreter has a tremendous advantage, since he does not have to spend a lot of time finding clever ways to change existing humor. Finding equivalent humor should do the trick rather nicely. Because of the nature of most presentations, the audience expects a short humorous story that is relatable. They do not expect a ten minute stand up routine.

Interpreters should be relaxed about potential uncomfortable or unfamiliar situations that may come up during an interpretation assignment. If the presenter and interpreter are relaxed, the audience will be relaxed.

Interpreters: What would you do in this kind of situation? Audience members: Do you feel like you’re missing out on something important if the interpretation is different from the original?

7 responses to “Simultaneous Interpretation Series Part 5 of 6: Handling Humor During a Simultaneous Interpretation Assignment”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    I found myself in this uncomfortable situation about two weeks ago. It was one of the most frustrating experiences I ever had in the booth. But I did not feel bad for not being able to produce a humorous quip off hand: the whole material was not targeted to the audience (attendees were half listening, and there was a lot of chatter in the room) and the presenter was speaking rather fast (as if his greatest accomplishment would be to be out of the room in the shortest time possible). There was so much information to convey, I simply notified the audience he had told a joke and continued interpreting – the speaker did not even take a breath to let the joke sink in to the native speakers.

    • Harry Hogue says:

      Thanks for sharing your story! It can be challenging to interpret for presenters who aren’t used to working with simultaneous interpreters.

    • Marcinha says:

      Once I made a joke, the Brazilians had a belly laugh it broke the tension, then I had to explain to the presenter he also seemed to love it.
      but the other interpreter nailed me. The agency did not like at all. Never again………

  2. Nisar Nikzad says:

    Alright, now that you have practiced steps 1-4 (to see steps 1-4, please read part 1-4 of this series), I am sure by now you have noticed that it is easier to interpret certain topic or for certain presenter and it is extremely difficult to interpret for some topics or speakers. Therefore, it is crucial for the interpreter to not only know the vocabulary but also have some knowledge of the field being interpreted. It is very important to do some research and gather as much information as possible about the subject matter before you show up for interpreting. It is also a great idea to be briefed by the speaker before you start interpreting.

  3. Dave Quesada says:

    At my class of simultaneous interpreting a few years ago I remember the teacher suggested that, in those cases in which the joke has local cultural references and could not be translated, the interpreter could say something like: “The speaker has just told a joke. Please laugh.” People listening to the interpreter do not expect such a request and it usually takes them by surprise making them laugh and feel relaxed (same effect intented by the original joke) 🙂

    • Harry Hogue says:

      This is a very nice strategy for those times when you do not have an equivalent bit of humor off hand and when the content of the joke really doesn’t matter as much for the target audience. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Israfil Khakiyev says:

    Humor could be one of the most challenging issues in the field of interpretation. However, one, particularly interpreters, must understand the following: it is not all about sending the message clearly, but ‘correctly.’ Different people may have different understanding of and reaction to what is implied by humour. Also, much depends on whether the audience are in good or ill – no or out of – humour to listen the humour. Once a colleague of mine, who got an interpretation assignment from a well-known multinational oilfield service company with operations close to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, did not consider the powerful impact of cultural fluency and interpreted the ‘humor’ (about what many call a trite love triangle) presented by the instructor from the United States. The audience were furious. “Tell him, if he does not stop I will stuff a pole up into his ass,” was an answer by a middle-aged grey-headed male participant from one of the regions of Azerbaijan. That was enough to get the instructor out of the training room. Honestly, he left the country. It happened in the 1990s, several years after Azerbaijan, my homeland, had regained independence from the Soviet Union and immediately emerged as a nation with promising oil fields – a magnet for oil majors and world powers with ‘strategic interests’ on the one side and the ‘culture’ of respect for human rights on the other side. Later it turned out that the context was inappropriate due to pure coincidence of several factors: the influx of refugees from the territories of Azerbaijan that were occupied by Armenia (and the indignant participant was from that part of Azerbaijan), the glaring difference between the mentality of urban and rural inhabitants, the lack of culture to hold and attend training courses, and overall economic plight in the population. That was a major lesson learnt by many.
    I would say it is much better to refrain from interpreting humors given that you do not know where that can lead to.

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