Difficulties of translating humour: From English into Spanish using the subtitled British comedy sketch show "Little Britain" as a case study

Bachelor Thesis, 2012

44 Pages, Grade: B+


Table of Contents



Chapter 1: Humour and Subtitling
1.1 What is Humour?
1.2 Overview of Theories of Humour
1.2.1 Humour of Little Britain The Schema Theory
1.3 Humour in Spain
1.4 What is Subtitling?
1.4.1 Limitations and Constraints of Subtitling Humour

Chapter 2: Humour, Translation and Culture
2.1 Translating Humour
2.1.1 Target Parameter (TA) Stereotypes ...
2.1.2 Language Parameter (LA) – Intertextual Features Verbal Allusion Verbal Irony
2.2 Translating Humour Linked to Culture
2.2.1 Translation Loss
2.2.2 Cultural Transposition Exoticism Cultural Transplantation Communicative Translation
2.3 Audiovisual Aspects of Translating Humour

Chapter 3: Case Study of ‘ Little Britain’
3.1 The Deleted Scenes..
3.2 Misinterpretations – Translation Loss
3.3 Intertextuality Issues
3.3.1 Verbal Allusion
3.3.2 Verbal Irony
3.4 Cultural Issues
3.4.1 Exoticism
3.4.2 Cultural Transplantation
3.4.3 Communicative Translation
3.4.4 Stereotypes
3.5 Visual Humour Issues





The focus of the dissertation will be the discussion of the difficulties that the translator encountered when faced with translating humour using the subtitled comedy sketch show Little Britain as a case study.

For the benefit of the reader, the first part of this dissertation is going to shed led on various theories of humour. Moreover, it will discuss how humour is created in the comedy sketch show Little Britain and by taking a linguistic approach will show thus how humour can be produced. In addition, as subtitles will be used for the analysis of the case study, limitations and constraints will be discussed as the translator cannot merely focus on the linguistic features and possible problems like she/he would do in any other form of translation.

The second part will discuss a theory of translating humour established by Attardo (1994). Using this theory, the dissertation will aim to explore and focus on aspects that raise a certain degree of difficulty, if not the highest, always in relation to humour that is seen in a comedy sketch show. Furthermore, translating humour linked to culture will be discussed, as one of the major difficulties for the translator was to overcome the vast amount of culture-specific terms and expressions.

The last part will concentrate on the case study of Little Britain and examples will be drawn on each aspect of translating humour that was discussed in the previous chapter. The reader will understand how this particular aspect of translation poses difficulty for the translator and he/she will be shown, where necessary, possible alternative solutions that the translator could have chosen when tackling a particular situation.

Concluding, the dissertation is set to confirm the high degree of difficulty the translator faces when dealing with translating the humour that is seen in this particular comedy sketch show.


Humour is apparent in every culture and its function and meaning are difficult to define due to its vastness and sense of humour will differ from person to person. It can be produced through the use of language, sounds, visual aids and body gestures. Humour is found in many means of communication and those that contain the most humorous content are in a comedy sketch show, comedy programmes and comedy stand-up acts. With the introduction of the Digital Versatile Disk, (DVD), the ability to watch a comedy programme with subtitles is possible, whether it is in the same language in which it is originally produced or a translation into another language.

A challenge which every translator aims to overcome is when they are faced with cultural aspects of the TL (target language). Each culture contains its unique form of humour. Therefore, understanding the humour within a culture and all its cultural elements, is essential to produce a good translation. In recent years, more attention has been focused on the translability of humour as the complexity can make it unequivocally untranslatable.

Little Britain is a TV programme that has achieved huge success in Britain and as it is steeped in British culture, proved to be highly constructive for the purposes of this dissertation as the humour in many cases was very culture-specific and difficult to translate. The show, in general, deals with the social, political and economical situations in Great Britain. These situations are seen under the scope of extreme humour and in order to achieve humour, parody is employed which creates familiarity for the viewers.

The study aims to focus on the translation of the British comedy-sketch show known as Little Britain and find out how it has been translated from the SL (source language) which is English, to the TL which in this case will be Spanish .

Chapter 1 introduces some background information in relation to the topic of humour and the humour of Little Britain will be discussed in order to understand how it is produced. Although humour is not easily generalised, chapter 1 includes an overview about the Spanish sense of humour which becomes relevant in the final chapter. This dissertation does not attempt to discuss the subtitling or the subtitling, however there are certain subtitling limitations that need to be mentioned as the case study is a subtitled TV programme thus difficulties of translating humour extend beyond lexical and grammatical issues.

Chapter 2 explores the translation of humour, examining potential problems that translators need to overcome. It expands on this by investigating the difficulties that arise when translating culture-specific issues. In addition, as this is an audiovisual translation, potential problems will be highlighted that will become relevant in the case study.

In order to support all the different issues that will be raised in the dissertation a DVD of the programme has been provided with the subtitles in Spanish of the British comedy show. The deleted scenes taken from second series has been selected, lasting approximately fifty-two minutes. The deleted scenes is compiled of many different sketches which focus on many aspects of the British culture. Therefore, the third and final chapter will discuss all the different aspects of British culture that are implemented into the sketches which have been used for the translation of the humorous elements into Spanish and the potential problems that were raised in chapter 2 will be discussed.


This chapter will first discuss how humour can be described, the main theories connected with it and also the humour which is used in the sketch show Little Britain.

1.1 What is Humour?

Humour is one of the characteristics associated within each culture and many academics argue that having a sense a humour is healthy. They also argue that humour previously referred to those who were ignorant and foolish but that is far from the case and nowadays it is a form of entertainment within each culture and society (Chapman & Foot, 1976: Morreall, 1983: Ross, 1988). Jokes have evidently changed in the form of how they were worded a hundred years ago, but the subject matters have still remained the same; based on such issues like the weather, the mysterious class system, politicians, celebrities, ourselves and our bizarre habits.(Duguid, n.d.)

Humour is “something that makes you laugh or smile” (Ross, 1988, p.1). Academics highlight that this is the case when referring to humour. However is there an absolute theory as to why we laugh? Morreal (1983, p.1) argues that there is no general theory for laughter and that “we laugh in such diverse situations that it seems difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a single formula that will cover all cases of laughter”.

1.2 Overview of Theories of Humour

There is no general theory; however, there are diverse theories that discuss the different aspects of humour.

The first theory is known as the superiority theory, proposed by Plato and then later strengthened by Hobbes. This theory focuses on the suddenness of when we laugh and the reason why we laugh, which, according to Morreall (1983) is because we feel we are superior to others. Morreall (1983, p.10) disagrees with the notion that superiority is a theory as he claims that a baby’s laughter when playing the game peek-a-boo cannot be categorised with the superiority theory because the baby is too young and incapable to compare itself with others. La Fave, Haddad & Maesen (1976, p.64) also disagree with the suddenness aspect claiming that Hobbes refers to the suddenness element when talking about surprise however this is not a necessary element to create humour because jokes heard before would then prove not to be as funny told again. If modern theorists now disagree with this theory and all agree that humour is now viewed as an overall positive impact on society, is it right to assume that this theory can now be disregarded?

The second theory is known as the incongruity theory which originates from Aristotle.

This theory concentrates on the ambiguity which “misleads the audience, followed by the punchline” (Ross,1988, p.20). Rothbart (1976, p.52) agrees with this theory however claims that the incongruities in a joke should not be problematic but should be used for entertainment, play or fun. Morreall (1983, p.19) believes that this theory does not cover all areas of laughter and cannot be categorized as a theory which is able to determine and explain each case of humour i.e. Incongruities can also trigger fear and not always laughter

The last theory to consider is the relief theory which is associated greatly with Sigmund Freud and Herbert Spencer who focused on humour as a way to “release or save energy generated by repression”(Smutts, 2009). This theory discusses the aspect of humour which doesn’t necessarily involve laughter, but rather a smile. Smutts (2009) and Morreall (1983) both disagree with this theory as it does not account for all cases of laughter and Chapman (1976, p.134) makes a contrast with this theory claiming that “arousal increases with the intensity of humour response and is necessary for humour”.

Humour is a complex concept which tends to use the ambiguity of language. Unintentional humour occurs when there is a lapse in expression thus resulting in a conflict between what is expected and what actually occurs in the joke (Ross, 1988, p.7). This type of humour is apparent in everyday life; however, the humour which is created is not using any form of cultural element. Unintentional humour therefore is seen to be used when manipulating the language in order to create humour, however, in a sketch show how is humour achieved?

1.2.1 The Humour of Little Britain

Little Britain was produced in the UK and first aired by the BBC in 2003. It could be said as being form of a satirical comedy as all the shows sketches use characters to exaggerate on many situations familiar to British people within British society. The humour was so successful with the target audience that it won comedy awards three years in-a-row from 2003-2006 (The British Comedy Awards, 2011). It also appears in the 2008 Guinness World Records as the highest-selling comedy DVD in the world (Dugan, 2007).

In this particular sketch show which is under study, parody is employed to satirise everyday life of British society. Satirical humour can be seen as a success by some and by others not, therefore when translating it into the TL, this could create more of a difficulty for those to accept this form of humour

Research into the field of humour has shown that there is no terminological consensus for the term, thus resulting in many authors discussing different aspects such as the laughter, a smile, fear, etc. Oxford dictionary defines it as “ the quality of being amusing or comic, especially as expressed in literature or speech”(Oxford Dictionary,2012). With this in mind, if we take into account the different theories put forward by different authors, can the comedy sketch show be categorized into any of them?

Each theory contains elements of humour which have been incorporated into the programme; however there is not one theory which could be considered as the primary focus to make the target audience laugh. In Little Britain, there is no humour theory which can define exactly how humour is constructed in the show to illustrate how it has become such a success. A linguistic approach is required to give more of an understanding into the topic of how humour is produced from a general perspective in the comedy sketch show. The Schema Theory

The schema theory has been described by Simpson (2004,p.89) as:

“…an umbrella term covering a range of individual cognitive models at the heart of which are situated the core concept schema and the attendant concepts frame, scenario and script”.

Cook (1994, p.11) states that schemata are “organised packages of knowledge based on previous experience of objects, events and situations, which are stored in memory; they may be defined as mental representations of typical instances”.

The schema theory focuses on the interpreter’s background knowledge of a text. Like the case of Little Britain, the programme creates sketches of situations very familiar to British people. These situations contain cultural elements in which background knowledge is required to understand the humour. However, when the ST (source text) is translated into the TT (target text), difficulties will arise in order to convey a similar humorous message if the target audience do not have a cultural awareness of the country in which the humorous messages are being implemented. Even though this linguistic approach is not described as a theory of humour as it does not cover all aspects, it could be used to describe how humour is created in this form of comedy focusing its full attention on the country’s culture and the audiences’ background knowledge in order to understand the joke. Thus, once activated, schemata generate expectations by the audience and these expectations may be incongruous which gives rise to humour (Snell, 2010, p.54) The case study will discuss latter in more detail specific instances where incongruities are based on verbal humour and also visual humour.


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Difficulties of translating humour: From English into Spanish using the subtitled British comedy sketch show "Little Britain" as a case study
University of Portsmouth
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Little Britain, Translation, English, Spanish, Humour, Humor, Übersetzung, Englisch, Spanisch, Subtitles, Untertitel, Comedy, Theory of Humour, Humour in Spain, Culture, Case Study, Intertextuality, Visual Humour, Difficulties
Quote paper
Charles Harrison (Author), 2012, Difficulties of translating humour: From English into Spanish using the subtitled British comedy sketch show "Little Britain" as a case study, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/196451


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