Translating TV-comedy. How humorous elements seem to have changed in the German version of "How I Met Your Mother"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

23 Pages, Grade: 2,0




1. Aspects of humor

2. Aspects of translation

3. Problems of translation
3.1 Problems of translating humor
3.1.1 Linguistic problems of translating humor Ambiguity More semantic aspects Rhetorical devices A pragmatic occurences A phonological occurence



Humor is such a universal phenomenon and yet it differs from individual to individual.

The occurences people consider funny is also of completely individual nature and thus a special kind of humor can neither be connected to an entire culture nor to an entire group of people for that matter. This is merely one thing to keep in mind when researching the elements of humor. In this paper, humor shall be looked at from the angle of translation. In order to demonstrate that certain humorous elements are being changed while translating, I observed the comedy series <How I Met Your Mother> in English as well as in German. With the help of former scholarly works, I tried to establish a pattern of categories for the very complex aspect of humor and will try to connect these categories to the variables they are depending on. Since this paper deals with the translation of humor I researched the interrelation of both, which is not fully elaborated yet and bares lots of difficulties. By looking at the differences between the original and the translated versions of <How I Met Your Mother>, I will try to demonstrate the above mentioned difficulties of translating humor and show how these problems affect the perception of the TV show in the target language when it comes to funniness.

I picked <How I Met Your Mother> due to its incredible amount of funny aspects and the great diversity thereof, which opens up the content of the show to a wide range of viewers.

1. Aspects of Humor

Humor is hard to define. Apart from connecting humor to laughter and amusement, lots of attempts have been made to establish a universal definition of humor, yet there is no set definition to be found and it appears to be a hard task narrowing down, what exactly humor is. However, according to Richard J. Alexander, the phenomenon of humor can be related to Jakobson's modes of speech, thus humor can appear as being referential, poetic, appelative and metalinguistic (Alexander 1997, 2). Furthermore, the scholar names the disciplines concerned with humor which are psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature as well as philosophy (Alexander 3).

Already, the wide range in which one has to operate while studying humor becomes obvious. Moving away from a merely linguistic point of view on the subject, the perception of humor is as individual as human beings themselves. Surely similarities exist in what amuses people, yet a comedy series like <How I Met Your Mother> does not have to be percepted well in a universal sense, due to characters like Barney Stinson, who some female viewers might find offensive. Hereby the diversity of humor becomes apparent. Not only does what people find humorous rely on the joke or the utterance itself but on their momentary feelings and general level of happiness (Chiaro 2011, 372). Creating a comedy series which is appealing to a great viewership is one thing, stretching the number of viewers across continents and thus relying on its suitable translation poses a challenge.

2. Aspects of translation

While watching <How I Met Your Mother> in German when one has only seen the original up to this point, it appears to be an entirely different show. One reason is, of course, the different voices which naturally seem strange after hearing the actors' actual ones. By taking a closer look at it, one has to admit the loss of certain jokes due to the process of translation. The following chapters shall shortly demonstrate the challenges that go hand in hand with translating and why it is especially difficult to translate humor.

A translation “involves the mediation between two code systems” (Lefevere 1999, 75), whereupon the choice for the term describing the action happening between the two code systems represents the challenge that translation in itself most definitely represents.

3. Problems of translation

Jakobson describes meanings of words as semiotic facts constituted by their verbal code while considering the application of a meaning to a sign a form of translation already (Jakobson 1959, 232). In case a verbal sign needs to be specified, circumscribed, one has to make use of “code units” (Jakobson 233) in order to build a proper definition. One could also call what has just been described as finding a synonym, whereas Jakobson states that even in synonymy there is never “complete equivalence” (Jakobson 233). Immediately, the question arises, how a translation would ever be “complete” if a sign cannot even properly be replaced by a sign of its own code system. Many problems in translation arise on the linguistic level. As has just been explained, one occurs on the level of lexicology. Comparing English and German, there are no exact equivalents for some words - such as “ creepy ”. Thinking of a German equivalent, “ gruselig ” immediately comes to mind but it does not cover what “creepy” really means to a full extent, since “ gruselig ” operates on the level of “ scary ” only, whereas “ creepy ” can be related to a “ weird person ” as well - you would then call this person a “ creep ”. This is merely one example to demonstrate the diversity of German and English on the lexicological level, showing that no perfect homology is possible between target and source language (Tymoczko 1999, 22). In order to compose a literary translation, meaning upholding the context, omissions and additions must be made, since two languages inherit two diverse linguistic systems. Bassnett creates the hypothesis of translations always being simpler than the original (Tymoczko 22), a theory which I will relate to the research carried out within this paper. Concluding to say, translation as a discipline does much rely on the linguistic systems of both the target and the source language. Linguistic influences are not the only variables to look at, though.

A language spoken by a community depicts their identity. Edward Sapir elaborated that all higher levels of thinking were dependent on language, so that the language one uses influences the manner in which one understands one's personal environment (Whorf 1956, 134). Language being the identity marker of a group, translation would not just mean to transfer languages but to “redefine the meaning of cultural and ethnic identity” (Tymoczko 20). According to Delia Chiaros remarks on untranslatability, the cultural and linguistic variables are joined by a third force: pragmatics. Chiaro describes translating as an “issue of pragmatic nature” (Chiaro 365), since “whenever translation is involved, there will be an underlying implication of a variety of pragmatic rules” (365). For example, if a joke is appropriate and being laughed at in the source language, there is no guarantee concerning the positive perception in the target language. This exact joke might be considered inappropriate by the target society. In case of humor within a TV show, writers aim at hooking viewers of the show by possibly making everybody laugh. Since humor is already of subjective nature within a small group, a translation of a sitcom, which is supposed to be nothing more but funny and intended for a large group of people, can hardly live up to the original. As to why a translated version cannot even come close to the content of an original series shall be analyzed in more detail within the upcoming chapter.

As I was trying to find out, how exactly TV shows are being translated, I came across an article written by a female translator named Sarah Alys Lindholm, who translates Japanese anime into English. In her post “Translating for TV - a peak into another world”1 she describes her work. Within her remarks, even if she is not concerned with translating humorous contents, a couple of reasons for the previously established hypothesis can be detected. Apart from not being able to chose one's pieces to be translated, the version that actually ends up being used as the final draft of an epsiode is rewritten multiple times by multiple people, since it has to be fitted onto the movements of the character's mouths. That means, even if the translator originally came up with a great idea, it will not be used before altering it all over again.

The problems formerly named are merely concerned with the difficulties of a literary translation as such. Since the body of my research is <How I Met Your Mother>, the difficulties of translating shall be extended to the translation of humor next, displayed by chosen examples taken from the TV show.

3.1 Problems of translating humor

Translation means putting languages to a test of equivalence (Salzmann 43). The points to be aware of while translating humor and the difficulties that occur when humor is being translated are to be analyzed within this chapter. The question of whether or not humor is translatable at all shall be of concern as well, though there probably will not be a definite reply. In her article “Comic takeover or comic makeover - Notes on humour- translating, translation and untranslatability” Delia Chiaro lists some complications appearing while translating humor. She constitutes the theory, that translations are like rubic cubes, meaning that even if one side of a phrase or sentence can be figured out, there will be something lost in other parts of the sentence (Chiaro, 2011, 366). Chiaro recommends an observation, which is two-sided, since a distinction between analyzing the difficulties of translating humor and examining the result has to be made (Chiaro 366). This shall be my approach. In order to somewhat structure my argumentation, I divided my implementation into a few categories, which are especially important considering the untranslatability of humor, carried out by examples from <How I Met Your Mother>.

3.1.1 Linguistic problems of translating humor

Humor makes translational matters worse, “firstly because humorous discourse is notoriously constructed through extreme exploitations of the linguistic options available in a given language” (Chiaro 367). This previous statement defines the core problem. In order to satisfyingly translate an utterance, a phrase, a sentence or simply one word, the source language and the target language would have to have the exact same linguistic options. Additionally, the exact same meaning of one object would need to be assigned to the same object in the target- as well as the source language. The phenomenon of ambiguity, for instance, aggravates this, since one word in one language is assigned with multiple meanings. Ambiguity

There are two forms of ambiguity. The first one is concerned with lexicology, whereas one word inherits multiple meanings, therefore lexical ambiguity can be related to the field of semantics. The second one, structural ambiguity, means the differentiating sense one sentence can inherit, thus belonging to the syntactical field (Yule 102, 118).

Lexical ambiguity is difficult to translate, since the translated term would need to be of ambigous character as well. The following scene taken from the episode “ Aldrin Justice ” (Season 2, Episode 6) demonstrates the problem on several levels. The episode revolves around Ted's job and his mean boss at this point. Lily acquires a job at his firm as well. The current building of the firm looks like male genitalia and was designed by Ted's boss. After observing the building in the office, Ted and Lily meet at McLaren's, the bar in which the group meets every day.

MacLaren's.(time in episode: 7:45')

Lily: I can't believe how Mr. Druthers treats people. And that building? Talk about overcompensating.

Ted: He's not usually this bad. It's just that the partners have made it very clear this project is make or break for us, so lately he's been a little testy. (The girls giggle) You know what I mean: crotchety. (Giggles) I'm just saying it's been hard on him.

(More giggles). Allright, stop.

Robin: Did you show lily your design? Ted: No.

Lily: What design? Ted: It's nothing.

Robin: It's fantastic. Just for fun, Ted's been working on his own design. And it doesn't look at all like male genitalia. At least, not healthy male genitalia. Lily: Ted, you should pitch your building to Druthers.

Ted: Are you kidding? He's Hammond Druthers. He's a legend. I'm just part of his team. This building is huge for the firm, so it's really important we don't blow it. (Giggles) All right, enough!

German translation:

Lily: Es ist wirklich nicht zu fassen, wie Mr Druthers die Leute behandelt. Und dieser Wolkenkratzer, ha, das nenn' ich Ü berkompensation. Ted: Er ist eigentlich nicht immer soübel drauf. Nur ist ihm gesagt worden, dass von diesem Riesenprojekt alles abhängt und deshalb kommt er in letzter Zeit etwas geschwollen daher. Ihr versteht schon, es ist für ihn ganz schön hart. Was ich sagen will ist,


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Translating TV-comedy. How humorous elements seem to have changed in the German version of "How I Met Your Mother"
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
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translation, comedy, englisch-deutsch, humor, linguistics humour, how i met your mother, translation errors
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Sarah Steppke (Author), 2014, Translating TV-comedy. How humorous elements seem to have changed in the German version of "How I Met Your Mother", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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