Puns Lost in Translation. Contrasting English Puns and Their German Translations in the Television Show "How I Met Your Mother"

Master's Thesis, 2017
161 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

List of Tables

List of Figures

List of Abbreviations

1 Introduction

2 Contrasting English Puns and Their German Translations
2.1 Previous Studies on Pun Translation in Dubbed Television
2.2 Defining Puns
2.3 Classification of Puns
2.4 Translation of Puns
2.4.1 Problems Involved in Pun Translation
2.4.2 Humor Translation
2.4.3 A Note on Television Translation

3 Puns Lost in Translation: A Case Study of the Puns in How I Met Your Mother
3.1 Material
3.2 Method
3.3 Results
3.3.1 Linguistic Classification
3.3.2 Translation Modes
3.3.3 Successful Pun Translations
3.3.4 Unsuccessful Pun Translations
3.4 Discussion

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography
5.1 Corpora
5.2 Secondary literature
5.3 Electronic Resources

6 Appendix

List of Tables

Table 1: Linguistic categories of puns

Table 2: Linguistic and formal types of spoken and written puns

Table 3: Categories of spoken puns

Table 4: General pun translation techniques

Table 5: Pun translation techniques for dubbed television

Table 6: Occurrences of source text puns in HIMYM

Table 7: Translation types of puns in HIMYM

Table 8: Source text puns and their successful translation modes in HIMYM

Table 9: Translation modes of the successful pun translations in HIMYM

Table 10: Successful adaptations in form of direct translations in HIMYM

Table 11: Successful adaptations in form of punoids in HIMYM

Table 12: Source text puns and their unsuccessful translation modes in HIMYM

Table 13: Translation modes of the unsuccessful pun translation in HIMYM

Table 14: English pun types and their (im)possible translations into German

List of Figures

Figure 1: Square translation model, adopted from Low 2011: 63

Figure 2: Pentagon translation model, adopted from Low 2011: 64

Figure 3: Hexagon translation model, adopted from Low 2011: 64

Figure 4: Circle translation model, adopted from Low 2011: 65

Figure 5: Translation challenge of a visual homophone, both screenshots adopted from HIMYM 2012, E11

Figure 6: Translation challenge of a metaphorical extension

Figure 7: Translation challenge of non-paronymic equivalents

Figure 8: Translation challenge of non-polysemous equivalents

Figure 9: Translation challenge of non-polysemous compound equivalents

Figure 10: Translation challenge of non-polysemous forename equivalents

List of Abbreviations

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

1 Introduction

Translating a text into another language is a process mostly known in the area of literature. At the same time (even though often disregarded in this connection), translation is a central part of filmmaking. Since the emergence of sound films in the 1930s, screen translation (that is, subtitling, dubbing and voice-over) has become a tradition in Europe. In Germany, dubbing has been the universalized means of defying language barriers in the field of movie and television ever since (cf. Cedeño Rojas 2007: 13, 30, 82; Herbst 1994: 19; Jüngst 2010: 4, 59; Leinert 2015: 51; Naumann 2015: 29; Tveit 2005: 11).

However, it is commonly believed that translated movies and television series lack certain features as compared to their original. Disapproval of dubbed movies and television shows has become quite frequent in Germany, not necessarily among linguists and/or multilingual people exclusively. In the case of dubbed sitcoms which originate in the United States, it is safe to say that the German audience[1] repeatedly stumbles upon scenes that are entirely incomprehensible and, even more perplexing, end in the laugh track which is typically inserted in US situation comedies. Clearly, the source text contains a joke that has been lost in translation. But what are the reasons for such ineffective adaptations? Is it the fact that the original jokes include a culture-specific term that is only understandable in the source language or is simply the translators’ carelessness to blame? Research in media, humor and translation studies reveals that wordplays[2] are a universal phenomenon which is generally considered untranslatable (cf. Delabastita 1993: 173-177; Heibert 1993: 155, Pisek 1997: 37, 43; Schröter 2010: 141-142).

In this paper, I argue that the German dubbed versions of US American sitcoms lose a great deal of their humor since language jokes, particularly puns, are rarely successfully translated. The dubbed versions include a remarkably large number of literal translations and even direct copies of English words which not only are no longer funny, but are also incomprehensible in the target language. Unfortunately, it seems to be the case that no research on English puns and their German dubbed translations has been conducted to date. Therefore, I will examine how English puns are adapted in the corresponding German translations. For this study, I will analyze the popular US television series How I Met Your Mother, which ran in the United States from 2005 to 2014 and is well-known for its jokes and frequent use of puns. I will first categorize the translation of puns in the fields of contrastive linguistics and translation studies and reflect on the question of translatability of puns in general. Then, I will give a brief overview of the studies that have focused on the translation of puns in screen translation and literary works. The next section defines the term pun and illustrates how wordplays can be classified linguistically. After demonstrating the various possibilities of translating puns, I will explain the central problems involved in translating lexical items from one language into another. Next, the area of humor translation and the technical features of television translation, which may complicate a successful pun translation, will be briefly displayed. I will then investigate how English puns in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother are adapted in the German dubbed version and whether they uphold their comical effect. Thereafter, I will determine the reasons for the various unsuccessful translations, while examining whether certain pun types appear easier to translate than others. Lastly, I will discuss whether puns in the field of dubbing are actually translatable or not. The last three seasons of How I Met Your Mother include 72 episodes, contain a total of 155 puns, and provide a solid base for the contrastive study of English puns and their German translations.

2 Contrasting English Puns and Their German Translations

Translating from one language into another often entails certain difficulties. Contrastive linguistics, which studies the synchronic comparison of two languages, illustrates the typical linguistic as well as culture-specific challenges involved in translation. The related field of translation studies visualizes additional problems concerning media-specific and human constraints.

Apart from the basic difficulties translators have to deal with (see section 2.4.1), puns turn out to be even more problematic to adapt into another language. On the one hand, puns do not serve the purpose of communication per se but are rather a means of amusement. Consequently, their translation cannot simply be compared to other kinds of translation (cf. Vandaele 2002: 150) and should be discussed against the background of humor translation as well.[3] On the other hand, puns are based on particular graphe-mic, phonological, morphological, lexical as well as syntactic structures, which makes the translation process even more difficult. Therefore, puns are universally considered as one of the major challenges in the field of translation studies (cf. Delabastita 1994: 223, 229; Tęcza 1997: 1; Tveit 2005: 43).

In fact, it appears to be a widespread belief that puns can be understood only in their original form and exclusively by native speakers (cf. Heibert 1993: 155). As a result, puns are often believed to be untranslatable (cf. Delabastita 1993: 173-177; Heibert 1993: 155; Pisek 1997: 37, 43; Schröter 2010: 141-142) – unless the source and the target language coincidentally share the same cultural meanings and linguistic structures (cf. Attardo 2002: 190; Heibert 1993: 155). Needless to say, such parallels in different languages are quite infrequent.

An opposing point of view derives from a few scholars who claim that nearly all puns can be translated (cf. Gottlieb 1997: 226; Low 2011: 59, 67; Schröter 2010: 142-143; Tęcza 1997: 207) – even in the area of dubbing (cf. Schröter 2010: 143). Given that there are specific tools as to how translators can successfully adapt a wordplay into another language, the following case study will investigate the actual reasons for an ineffective pun translation.

2.1 Previous Studies on Pun Translation in Dubbed Television

Even though the literature on puns in general is vast, it seems that only little research has focused on the translation of puns in the media. In fact, there are no studies that linguistically analyze the translation of verbal puns from English to German on the basis of a US American television series and its German dubbed version.

There is one work that investigates the translation of jokes, including wordplays, in dubbed television comedy (the British sitcom Yes Minister), yet in consideration of their Catalan and Spanish adaptations (see Zabalbeascoa 1996). Unfortunately, this paper does not present a contrastive linguistic examination of the translations but instead aims to find solutions to the apparent difficulty of the translation of jokes. In summary, the author suggests specific stylesheets for the translators, so they not only become skilled at correct language use but are also trained for the translation of humor.

Considerably more attention has been directed to the translation of puns in the area of television subtitling. For instance, Gottlieb (1997) analyzes the Danish subtitled wordplays in the British television program Carrott’s Commercial Breakdown. The small study reveals that puns that are based on an identical phonological or graphemic representation of lexical items are more difficult to translate, as compared to other kinds of puns. The analysis also illustrates the reasons for the loss of puns in translation, such as language- and media-specific challenges. For the most part, however, Gottlieb holds human constraints (that is, the translators’ lack of talent, interest and/or experience, as well as time pressure) accountable for the loss of wordplays in general.

Jaki (2016) examines verbal humor in three American television shows (The Big Bang Theory, New Girl, as well as Grace and Frankie) and their German subtitles. Her study discloses that a high number of literal translations neutralize the majority of language plays (which, however, not only include puns, but also rhymes, alliterations, lexical blends, creative neologisms, literalizations of figurative language, phraseological modifications, misunderstandings and slips of the tongue). The author holds the technical restrictions in subtitling (reading speed and the maximum number of characters per line) as well as visual jokes responsible for the great loss of humor in subtitled television.

Schauffler (2015), on the other hand, contrasts two different approaches to the subtitling of wordplays using the short animation Wallace and Gromit in A Matter of Loaf and Death. Two German audiences were presented two versions of subtitling: one translation concentrates on the transfer of humor, whereas the other translation prioritizes the correspondence to the original conversations. The study reveals that the former approach is substantially preferred over the original subtitles that focus on equivalence. In other words, the tested German-speaking audiences consider subtitles with close translations less appealing than subtitles that are not too similar but maintain the jokes instead.

In a theoretical paper, Schröter (2010) claims that all kinds of language-plays in movies and television programs are translatable – both in dubbing and subtitling. He refers to his doctoral dissertation in which he compared the quality of dubbed and subtitled language-plays in American and British movies in terms of their German, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish translations. Unfortunately, the reader has no insight into the material or the results; on the other hand, puns are not analyzed in isolation from other types of language-plays (such as modified expressions, nonce formations, nonce pronunciations, rhymes, half-rhymes and alliterations). Therefore, the essay is beneficial to the present study only with reference to Schröter’s postulation of a general translatability of language-plays in voice synchronization.

Further studies on pun translation can be found in the field of literature. For example, Grassegger (1985) analyzes the plays on words in the Asterix comics from French into English, German, Italian, Modern Greek, Swedish and Norwegian. His results show that the translators succeeded in translating wordplays while upholding the play on words and the sense. His study thus suggests that written wordplays can actually be translated into another language.

Heibert (1993) compares English wordplays in James Joyce’s Ulysses with numerous translations in French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. He concludes that wordplays may or may not be translated into another language. In his view, it is essentially a question of coincidence whether the target text translations comprise the essential technical, textual and functional aspects as the source text wordplays.

Tęcza (1997) examines Polish wordplays in eight works by Stanisław Lem (science fiction grotesque and science fiction fairy tales) and the quality of their German translations. As compared to Grassegger and Heibert, her study presents a relatively low translation rate of wordplays in written works.

Moreover, Delabastita (1993) studies a great number of wordplays in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and their translations into Dutch, German and French. His work is extremely meaningful for this paper since it comprises a precise translation model as to how puns can be translated into another language (successfully as well as unsuccessfully). In fact, Delabastita’s nine pun translation techniques are the base for the following categorization of puns and their translations from English to German. Complementary to Delabastita’s model, Low (2011) presents four linguistic tools for exclusively effective wordplay translations, which are also fundamental for the following examination of pun translations.

Regarding the linguistic description and categorization of wordplays, the earliest and simultaneously most dominant study derives from Hausmann (1974). In his investigation of wordplays in the French satiric newspaper Canard enchaîné, he organizes wordplays into several categories with regard to their lexical, phonological and graphemic ambiguity and/or similarity. The majority of academics examining the translation of puns adopted Hausmann’s classification model (e.g. Attardo 1994; Delabastita 1993/2004; Gottlieb 1997; Grassegger 1985; Heibert 1993; Tęcza 1997). It appears that Hausmann’s work on wordplays has served as a linguistic foundation not only in the past, but still provides a solid starting point for linguistic studies on puns today.

2.2 Defining Puns

The Oxford English Dictionary (2016a) defines pun as

[t]he use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more meanings or different associations, or of two or more words of the same or nearly the same sound with different meanings, so as to produce a humorous effect.

In other words, the term pun refers to words which imply further connotations of an expression by means of playing on words that have multiple denotations and/or sound similar or even alike. The result is an amusing “play on words” (Oxford English Dictionary 2016a) which appears to be known universally as wordplay.

Wordplay, on the other hand, is defined as “the action of playing with words; witty use of words” (Oxford English Dictionary 2016b). It is therefore, literally, a play on words. At first, the term appears to have the same meaning as pun, particularly when considering the additional description of wordplay as “a pun” (Oxford English Dictionary 2016b).

Comparing the respective definitions in A Dictionary of Stylistics (Wales 2011: 349), pun is defined as a lexical ambiguity which involves the use of a polysemous word to suggest two or more meanings [...] or the use of homonyms, i.e. different words which look or sound the same but which have different meanings […] to produce a humorous or witty effect.

Wales’ description thus agrees with the definition of pun in the Oxford English Dictionary. The term w ordplay, however, does not have a separate definition within A Dictionary of Stylistics; the entry merely refers to the description of pun, suggesting yet again a synonymous denotation of the two terms.

When contrasting further definitions of these two terms, it becomes apparent that there actually is “not a universal definition of wordplay or pun” (Giorgadze 2014: 271, my emphasis). Some scholars employ wordplay and pun interchangeably (e.g. Delabastita 1993, 2004; Schröter 2010), while others understand wordplay as an umbrella term for all kinds of plays on words and consider pun as one of the many types of wordplay (cf. Giorgadze 2014: 271-272; Pisek 1997: 42). Even though there seems to be no agreement about the difference between wordplay and pun to date, both expressions consistently implicate a witty play on words that involves multiple meanings of one or more words or phrases.

However, on closer examination, it appears that puns always have a humorous effect, while wordplays may comprise wit but do not necessarily have to. As a matter of fact, further research verifies that wordplays in general do not have to be humorous (cf. Knospe et al. 2016: 1). In addition, only puns are related to the similar (sometimes identical) phonological representation of words with different denotations. In the end, “puns are spoken jokes [...] or jokes meant to be interpreted as if read aloud” (Attardo 1994: 109). In consideration of the fact that this paper analyzes comical plays on words in a sitcom (which are obviously communicated orally), I propose the following definition of pun for the purpose of this study:

Puns are universal jokes that play on words. Their linguistic units contain a similarity or an actual identity in writing, sound or both at the same time, while the meanings of the words differ respectively. The speaker deliberately employs the terms in order to joke on their ambiguity, which results in a humorous effect to the hearer. A pun is a type of wordplay that distinguishes itself from other kinds of plays on words (such as rhymes, anagrams or spoonerisms) in that it exclusively jests with the phonological representation of similar or identical appearing words. Therefore, puns are most common (and probably more effective) in verbal communications, as opposed to in writing.

As a result, this study considers not all types of wordplays but deals exclusively with verbal puns.[4] Even though this paper analyzes puns specifically, the words pun and wordplay will be used interchangeably hereafter.

2.3 Classification of Puns

From a linguistic perspective, puns can be divided into four categories: homonymy, homophony, homography, and paronymy (cf. Attardo 1994: 110-111; Delabastita 1993: 79-80; Delabastita 2004: 601; Hausmann 1974: 60-61; Heibert 1993: 44). The differentiation between these types is based on the lexical, phonological, and graphemic ambiguity of the pun constituents. The following table depicts their characteristics:

Table 1: Linguistic categories of puns

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(adopted from Attardo 1994: 110-111; Delabastita 1993: 79-80; Delabastita 2004: 601; Hausmann 1974: 60-61; Heibert 1993: 44)

The first type, homonymy, illustrates lexical items which have the same spelling as well as the same pronunciation (cf. Attardo 1994: 111; Delabastita 1993: 80; Hausmann 1974: 60-61; Heibert 1993: 44). A case in point is the word bear which, as a verb, means to carry, while as a noun, refers to the animal (cf. Delabastita 1993: 80). Both terms differ in their meaning, yet are written and sound alike. The second kind, homophony, describes words which are identical in their pronunciation but differ in their spelling (cf. Attardo 1994: 111; Delabastita 1993: 79; Hausmann 1974: 60; Heibert 1993: 44), such as write and right (cf. Delabastita 1993: 79). Homography can be understood as the counterpart of homophony, as it represents words which have the same spelling yet are different regarding their pronunciation (cf. Attardo 1994: 111; Delabastita 1993: 79; Hausmann 1974: 60; Heibert 1993: 44). For instance, lead, the verb, indicates to guide, whereas lead as a noun denotes a metallic element (cf. Delabastita 1993: 79). The fourth linguistic category of puns, paronymy, refers to words which are nearly identical and only differ slightly in their pronunciation and/or their spelling (cf. Attardo 1994: 110-111; Delabastita 1993: 80; Hausmann 1974: 61-62; Heibert 1993: 44). Such paronymic puns can be near-homographs, as in the case of anagrams (for example, the letters of the term silent can be rearranged and form the word listen). On the other hand, they can be near-homophones, such as minimal pairs (cf. Delabastita 1993: 80). A case in point can be the near-homophonic terms pat and bat.

Some scholars make an additional distinction when classifying the various pun types (see e.g. Attardo 1994; Delabastita 1993; Grassegger 1985; Heibert 1993 – all leaning on Hausmann 1974). They differentiate between horizontal puns and vertical puns, which alludes to the usage of the pun categories that have just been outlined. A pun on a vertical axis denotes the occurrence of the pun components concurrently within a text (cf. Attardo 1994: 118; Delabastita 1993: 79; Grassegger 1985: 21; Hausmann 1974: 17, 19; Heibert 1993: 44). The following pun in William Shakespeare’s The First Part of King Henry the Sixth serves as an example: “Then here I take my leave of thee, fair son, Born to eclipse thy life this afternoon” (adopted from Delabastita 1993: 78). The pun is created by means of the two components sun and son, which sound alike and only differ in their writing (homophones). Even though just one pun constituent is presented (son), the second constituent (sun) is implicit even though not explicitly mentioned to the reader or listener. Vertical puns are displayed in a paradigmatic manner, that is, the respective pun elements can be substituted for each other (cf. Attardo 1994: 118; Delabastita 1993: 79; Hausmann 1974: 17, 19).

A pun of a horizontal nature, in contrast, indicates that the two pun constituents appear one after another (cf. Attardo 1994: 118; Delabastita 1993: 79; Grassegger 1985: 21; Hausmann 1974: 17, 19; Heibert 1993: 44). A case in point is the following extract of Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John: “The shadow of myself formed in her eye, Which, being but the shadow of your son, Becomes a sun, and makes your son a shadow” (adopted from Delabastita 1993: 78). As in the former example, the pun is formed on the two words son and sun; however, in contrast to the vertical pun, both pun components are displayed within the same text. Puns on a horizontal axis are represented in a syntagmatic manner, that is, its elements occur consecutively (cf. Attardo 1994: 118; Delabastita 1993: 79; Hausmann 1974: 17, 19).

Hausmann (1974), the initiator of the linguistic organization of puns, makes the distinction between horizontal and vertical axes only in the case of homonymy (16-19) and discusses homophony, homography and paronymy as individual categories without dividing them further according to the arrangement of the pun components (60-62). Other academics (such as Attardo 1994, Delabastita 1993, Grassegger 1985 and Heibert 1993) adopt Hausmann’s concept of horizontal and vertical forms of pun (meaning the idea as well as the terminology). However, they do not restrict this division to homonymic puns but instead apply it to the other linguistic categories as well. As a result, puns can be categorized into the following eight categories:

Table 2: Linguistic and formal types of spoken and written puns

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(adopted from Attardo 1994: 110-111, 118; Delabastita 1993: 79-81; Hausmann 1974: 17, 19, 60-62; Heibert 1993: 44)

Interestingly, various scholars did not consider homographs when classifying puns (e.g. Grassegger 1985; Heibert 1993; Tęcza 1997). Heibert (1993) claims that homographic puns do not actually appear in connection with puns, neither in his work nor in general studies on wordplays (48). As he accurately points out, “the signifier of a linguistic sign is stored in the brain’s linguistic system not graphically but phonologically” (48; my translation). Consequently, the graphic aspect (writing) turns out to be of secondary importance in terms of expressing oneself (as compared to the oral means of expression), resulting in no obvious connection between two linguistic elements if they only appear to be identical in their spelling yet are presented orally. As the collection of puns of the following case study does not comprise any homographs or near-homographs,[5] these two categories are irrelevant to this paper. Eventually, spoken puns can be classified as follows:

Table 3: Categories of spoken puns

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(modified from Attardo 1994: 110-111, 118; Delabastita 1993: 79-81; Grassegger 1985: 19; Hausmann 1974: 17,19, 60-62; Heibert 1993: 44-49; Tęcza 1997: 20)

2.4 Translation of Puns

Dirk Delabastita (1993) developed a detailed model as to how puns can be translated from the source text into the target text. These nine techniques of the possible pun translation strategies are summarized in the following table:

Table 4: General pun translation techniques

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(adopted from Delabastita 1993: 192-219)

The most desired way of translating a pun into another language is to adapt it into the target text, while keeping the original play on words as well as its humorous effect. In most cases, the translator has to make a few changes in order to successfully translate the original pun. The target text pun may therefore differ from the source text pun in terms of its structural properties, its formal and/or its semantic structure. Of course a pun can be translated word by word and retain a pun in the target language; however, this is rarely the case. In general, a direct translation of a pun results in a so-called non-pun in the target language. This is mostly the case when the translator missed the pun in the original text and does therefore not adapt the pun in the target text (cf. Delabastita 1993: 192-206).

On the other hand, the translator may recognize the pun in the source language, yet he or she believes it to be untranslatable. In order not to lose the wordplay and its humorous effect, the original pun can be reconstructed into, as Delabastita calls it, a punoid (that is, a pseudo pun). In such an event, the translator draws on another word-play-re lated rhetorical device, such as repetition, imagery, assonance, alliteration, rhyme, referential vagueness, ambiguity, irony, understatement or allusion (cf. Delabas-tita 1993: 207-208). Contrariwise, when the translator cannot find a satisfying pun-related translation, he or she can simply skip the (supposedly) untranslatable source text pun. For this purpose, the translator may omit a phrase, a sentence, a speech, a part of a dialogue or, at times, even an entire scene or action (cf. Delabastita 1993: 209-210). This technique, however, cannot be applied to the translations of television shows due to the required correspondence between the lip movement of a speaker and the sound that is actually heard by the audience.

Moreover, the translator may directly copy the source text pun. In such a case, the pun is simply copied in its original language into the target text. This process is called transference if the source language pun has an actual meaning in the target language. This works without difficulty with anglicisms in the German language since German speakers still understand the words or phrases even though they are borrowed from the English language. In the event of the source text pun being replicated one-to-one into the target text without translating it, one speaks of a direct copy. The result is a non-translation, that is, a direct copy of a pun in a language other than its target language, causing incomprehensibility among the target language speakers (cf. Delabastita 1993: 210-215).

Returning to the lost puns which were neither translated nor replaced by a punoid: there are three ways the translator can compensate for the missing puns. Firstly, a pun can be employed in the target text where there is none in the source text, that is, inserting a funny wordplay where there is no pun at all in the original material. Secondly, a pun can be added by simply including new textual material. Finally, the translator can compensate by means of editorial techniques, such as footnotes, endnotes, an introduction or articles by the same translator published in another text. This “second level of communication” (Delabastita 1993: 218) basically gives the translator the ultimate opportunity to comment on the respective translation (cf. Delabastita 1993: 215-219). These three compensation techniques are not considered in the following case study of puns, since the main focus of this work is the contrastive analysis of English puns and their unsuccessful adaptations into the German language. Especially the two latter compensation techniques are irrelevant to the purpose of this study, as the translator cannot simply add footnotes, introductions, more dialogue or the like to an existing sequence of temporally regulated scenes. In addition to the previously dismissed technique of completely omitting the punning phrase, sentence or entire scene, the following five translation methods remain to be employed for the study of dubbed television puns:

Table 5: Pun translation techniques for dubbed television

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(modified from Delabastita 1993: 192-219)

This adjusted model of pun translation techniques by Dirk Delabastita serves as a reference point for the following contrastive study of dubbed pun translation.

While Delabastita illustrates all possible (successful as well as unsuccessful) ways for a translator to deal with puns, Low (2011) explains exactly how a translator can linguistically accomplish a successful pun-to-pun translation. He visualizes four different tools for an effective pun translation: a square, a pentagon, a hexagon, and a circle. The square model is the simplest method and denotes a direct translation from one language into another. The punning words are translated word-for-word and still form a pun in the target language. A case in point of such a shared pun is the English phrase “Life depends on the liver” (adopted from Low 2011: 63), which obviously puns on life (human existence) and liver (signifying the organ as well as a person who lives). The homonymic nature of the term liver results in two possible interpretations. On the one hand, life depends on the organ (a person cannot live without a liver); on the other hand, life (that is, its quality) depends on the person who lives it. A direct translating of the punning terms can be illustrated in form of a square:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1: Square translation model, adopted from Low 2011: 63

A possible German translation could be “Das Leben ist eine Leber frage (adopted from Low 2011: 63). In this case, the literal translation of the pun components still works since Leber shares the semantic ambiguities as liver, plus German Leben and Leber sound similar (just like life and liver). Such shared puns are clearly easy to translate and do not lose their witty play on words in the translation process. However, as Delabastita’s translation model has already shown, they are quite rare (cf. Low 2011: 63).

When a source text pun can be translated nearly literally and only requires one minor alteration, Low speaks of a pentagon translation. As compared to a direct translation (in form of a square), the pentagon model needs one semantic leap in order to successfully translate the pun. In other words, when the translator cannot find a close pun in the target language, he or she can simply make a small adjustment and hence transform the square into a pentagon, as in the following example: “Bugger off for bugger all” (an advertising slogan by an airline, adopted from Low 2011: 63). A direct translation into French would be “foutez le camp” and “pour presque rien” (adopted from Low 2011: 63), which does not compose a pun. However, if the translator makes one small alteration by changing the “presque rien” into “prix fous”, the French translation includes a pun on the term fous, and the pun is retained in the target text (see figure 2).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 2: Pentagon translation model, adopted from Low 2011: 64

Occasionally, a pun translation may require not one but two leaps, and thus the square becomes a hexagon, rather than a pentagon. In such a case, two changes are required in order to successfully translate the pun into another language. The previously mentioned English epigram “Life depends on the liver” can serve as an example when translating it into French. In contrast to German, French does not have a homonymic term or even similar sounding translation of liver (compare le foie to vivant). However, French foie sounds equal to foi which means faith (first leap). As a second step, the translator could associate the term foi to life and therefore create the following homophonic pun: “La vie est une question de foie” (adopted from Low 2011: 63-64). The modulation from vivant over foie to foi includes two steps and forms the following hexagon model:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 3: Hexagon translation model, adopted from Low 2011: 64

Ultimately, there are puns which demand three leaps. The third step, in a manner of speaking, extends the former square, pentagon, and hexagon and ‘closes the circle’ with an actual pun in the target language. This translation circle describes no longer pun adaptation but “genuine translating”, as Low refers to his final translation tool (2011: 64). He draws on an abstract of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to exemplify the circle model. When the Mock Turtle says to Alice, “Why, if a fish came to me, and told me he was going on a journey, I should say, ‘With what porpoise ?’”, Alice responds, asking “Don’t you mean purpose ?” (adopted from Low 2011: 64, emphasis added).[6] The pun in this example is obviously based on the terms purpose and porpoise. When translating this passage into French, for instance, the respective translations would be un but (a purpose) and un marsouin (a porpoise) (cf. Low 2011: 64). Most translators would accept the (supposed) untranslatability of this pun. However, a French translator used a synonym of purpose, that is, projet, and, in turn, employed a near-homophone of it, namely brochet (which is a pike, not an actual porpoise, yet still “swims in the same semantic pool”, Low 2011: 64).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 4: Circle translation model, adopted from Low 2011: 65

Porpoise is turned into brochet (a pike) which, in turn, can be used as a pun in combination with the term projet (see figure 4). Even though the adapted words differ semantically and formally from the source text words, their homonymic punning features are similar to those of the original, and the linguistic humor is maintained.

In the end, Low (2011) claims that the majority of puns can indeed be translated and that it is the translator’s responsibility to find the appropriate tool for the translation to be effective before simply ignoring the source pun (59, 67). In addition to the explained square, pentagon, hexagon, and circle models, Low remarks that a translator also has the possibility to use a different humorous device (correlating with Delabastita’s punoid solution) or to compensate by embedding a wordplay that is close to the pun in the source text (compare Delabastita’s compensation strategies) (cf. Low 2011: 67). A failed pun translation, as Low states, can thus be ascribed to the “translators’ incompetence” (59).

2.4.1 Problems Involved in Pun Translation

Before analyzing the specific difficulties involved in translating a pun from one language into another, it is important to bear in mind the general challenge of translation itself, that is, adapting a word into another language without compromising any wordplay. The field of contrastive linguistics allows linguists to identify these fundamental translation problems which are briefly explained in the following.

Considering the exclusively linguistic restrictions, different languages often refer to objects and/or events at different levels of specificity. An expression in one language can hav e a quite more general meaning than its equivalent in another language. A case in point of such an underspecification is the German differentiation between Frucht (as a count noun) and Obst (as a mass noun). English, in contrast, does not make this distinction and simply includes the more general term fruit. As a result, English fruit is underspecified compared with the German terms Frucht and Obst (cf. König and Gast 2012: 246-247).

Moreover, there are several metonymical as well as metaphorical extensions existing in one language but not in another. For instance, the English term guts not only refers to the human alimentary canal but can also be used metaphorically for courage, whereas the German language lacks such an extension and only translates guts as Eingeweide ( cf. König and Gast 2012: 247).

Further difficulties in translation processes can be caused by intersections, that is, the overlapping meanings of two words. The English word folder, for example, can be translated into German as Schnellhefter or as Mappe, whereas the latter, in turn, can be translated into English as briefcase as well (cf. König and Gast 2012: 247).

Another problem involved in translation arises from the linguistic varieties of a language. A term can have different meanings in different varieties. For instance, first floor in American English means Erdgeschoss in German, while it translates as erster Stock when used in British English (cf. Tveit 2005: 51).

Finally, the probably best known challenge for translators are the notorious false friends, that is, words in different languages that seem to be equivalents due to their same or similar phonological form, yet differ in their meaning (cf. König and Gast 2012: 248). A popular case in point of such a vocabulary pitfall is the German word bekommen (meaning to get / receive) which is often mistaken for the English verb to become (which, however, signifies to turn into something/someone). Another common example of a false friend is the German term Handy, which is often mistaken for an Anglicism for mobile or cell phone. However, in English, handy is an adjective and means skilled with/at, useful and/or ready to use.

Furthermore, certain terms may simply not be lexicalized in the target language. Modern technology, for instance, can complicate the translation process if the concept has not (yet) been introduced into the target language. The Australian television series Beyond Tomorrow exemplifies this translation challenge since it presented scientific reports including technological innovations that were not necessarily known in other languages at that time (cf. Tveit 2005: 50-51).

In addition to the described language-specific limitations, there are also culture-specific constraints the translators have to tackle. The majority of languages include concepts that are only known in certain cultures, particularly in the area of politics and sports. For instance, in English-speaking regions (especially in the United States), the concepts of baseball or football are quite popular, while in Europe, they appear comparatively unfamiliar. On the other hand, the US social insurance and health care programs Medicare and Medicaid can neither be translated into German, since there are simply no equivalents in the German language (cf. Tveit 2005: 50).

If a pun includes such a culture-specific term, it obviously complicates the translation process (cf. Low 2011: 67). In many cases, a pun composed of culture-specific terms additionally depends on the audience’s prior knowledge. There are various words, phrases, and quotations that only seem comical to speakers of the source language – which seems logical, since the source language audience is most familiar with its country, including its institutions, customs, recent events or personalities (cf. Low 2011: 68).

In the end, the fundamental difficulties of translation become even more complex in puns. The translators have to maintain not only the form of the wordplay but also its function, that is, they must preserve its humorous effect, which, however, is based on particular graphemic, phonological, morphological, lexical, and/or syntactic features.

Considering the different linguistic pun types, it seems only logical that homonyms and near-homophones are more likely to be successfully translated into another language than homophones. As a matter of fact, Gottlieb (1997) has proven this hypothesis in a small study, explaining that different words punning on the same sound are indeed probably not equally same-sounding in another language (217). Consequently, puns on a homonymic or near-homophonic basis should be easier to adapt – albeit still occasionally challenging for the reasons indicated above.

2.4.2 Humor Translation

In view of the fact that puns are ranked among the categories of humor (cf. Attardo 1994: 6-7; Attardo 2002: 189; Attardo 2003: 37; Chiaro 2008: 571; Raskin 1985: 24-26), humor research should not be neglected in this study.

To provide a brief overview, linguistics and humor research have long been considered two different disciplines. Before the work(s) by Attardo, there was no noticeable connection between the two fields of research (cf. Attardo 2003: 1287-1290). In fact, puns turned out to be the crucial reason for the two research areas to intersect (cf. Attardo 1994: 108). A key figure in this interdisciplinary contact was unquestionably Salvatore Attardo (cf. Raskin 2008: 4).[7] Translation studies, on the other hand, appear to have also been ignored for the most part by previous humor research (cf. Chiaro 2008: 570). Here, it was primarily Jeroen Vandaele and Delia Chiaro who related humor and translation studies (cf. Chiaro 2008: 570).

Today, it becomes more and more essential to connect the different fields of research with each other, rather than treat them as entirely different areas – especially in the case of this paper, which examines the translation of humorous wordplays. One simply cannot analyze the adaptations of humorous wordplays from a translational and linguistic point of view without taking into account the related field of humor translation as well. After all, puns are “verbal humor” (Attardo 2003: 1287) and, since puns are typically intended to be noticed, the “impulse to make a joke” (Raskin 1985: 140) undoubtedly places puns in the field of humor.

In a nutshell, an effective translation of a joke implies the creation of a text that retains the humorous effect of the original (cf. Low 2011: 60; Vandaele 2002: 151). This target text joke does not need to comprise the exact same linguistic structures as the source text joke; the delivery of the joke is essential. Strictly speaking, the joke in the source language does not even have to be as comical as its original – as long as it still upholds its amusing effect in a recognizable way (cf. Low 2011: 60). As already pointed out, language- and culture-specific humor is usually more difficult to translate into another language yet not completely impossible (cf. Low 2011: 59-60) – if the translators make use of the discussed translation strategies by Delabastita and Low. Attardo (2008) summarizes the two possibilities of the translation of humor as follows: one either makes use of a “pragmatic translation (i.e., respecting the perlocutionary goal of humor, but abandoning the sense of the original text)” or chooses “to simply ignor[e] the humor and perhaps replac[e] it with another joke, even elsewhere in the text” (126-127). This is actually a much shorter version of Delabastita’s pun translation model (as discussed in section 2.4), insofar as a pun can either be translated (with possible textual alterations), while upholding its humorous effect, or simply be ignored and hence not result in a joke, a gag, or the like (yet with the option of compensating for the lost pun somewhere else in the text).

However, given that this paper analyzes the contrasts between English puns and their German translations, there is no need to examine the field of humor translation in further detail. From whichever perspective humor is studied, adapting it into another language is commonly accepted as a translation challenge (cf. Attardo 2008: 126). Of course, one needs to be aware of the fact that the notion of humor differs between individual speakers (cf. Low 2011: 60; Vandaele 2002: 150).

2.4.3 A Note on Television Translation

Before contrasting the English puns and their German translations in the television series How I Met Your Mother, a few essential technical difficulties in the field of dubbing need to be acknowledged. To begin with, certain scenes may depend on visual effects (for instance, when a character wears a costume and his/her words do not make sense without the audience seeing the costume). Such visual restraints obviously cannot be changed or even slightly manipulated by the translators, which means they cannot be blamed for an ineffective translation in such a case (cf. Pisek 1997: 46, 49).

Also, the dubbing directors may add changes after the translation process (cf. Jüngst 2010: 65; Naumann 2015: 39-40), possibly to maintain steady lip synchronization. This concept refers to the required correspondence between the actors’ lip movements and the actually spoken, dubbed words, but also involves the synchronization of jaw movements, gestures, and facial expressions (cf. Cedeño Rojas 2007: 94-98; Götz 1995: 223-224; Herbst 1994: 50-51; Herbst 2015: 98-99; Jüngst 2010: 71; Matamala 2010: 103; Zabalbeascoa 1996: 245). However, these features only play a role in a small number of scenes. Within so-called off-passages (scenes in which the speakers are off-screen and not seen at all or only partly from behind) are obviously irrelevant (cf. Cedeño Rojas 2007: 94-95; Herbst 1994: 29). Even in on-passages (in which the speakers actually are seen on screen), synchronization is significant only within close-up scenes, not necessarily within long shots (cf. Cedeño Rojas 2007: 95; Herbst 1994: 29). On the other hand, many producers have actually become aware of this problem and thus avoid presenting the speakers’ faces or rather, their lips, in the majority of scenes (cf. Tveit 2005: 47), which makes the dubbing process much easier. Consequently, conspicuous violations of dubbed utterances and lip movements occur seldom (cf. Herbst 2015: 117). At the same time, if there are scenes in which the dubbed phrases do not correspond with the speaker’s lip movement, the audiences may not necessarily become aware of it as long as the translations sound natural (cf. Leinert 2015: 52). In other words, a perfectly lip-synchronized translation that includes unusual idioms/ phrases is far more disturbing to the audiences, as compared to a natural sounding conversation in a close-up scene in which the lip movements do not consistently correspond to the dubbed words.[8]


[1] Hereafter, German audience refers to speakers of the German language who are not necessarily located in Germany, but also in Austria or the German-speaking parts of Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Belgium, South Tyrol, etc.

[2] The terms pun and wordplay are used interchangeably in this chapter, as their differentiation will not be discussed until section 2.2.

[3] Even though this paper does not explicitly study the area of humor itself, it seems necessary to briefly discuss humor translation, which will be done in section 2.4.2.

[4] Simplistically, puns can be compared to the proverbial phrase all thumbs are fingers but not all fingers are thumbs insofar as all puns are wordplays but not all wordplays are puns.

[5] After all, the puns in a television series are presented orally; grasping homographic jokes when they are not visualized are consequentially difficult and thus avoided.

[6] Earlier, the Mock Turtle has explained to Alice that “[n]o wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise” (adopted from Chiaro 2008: 571).

[7] For a comprehensive overview of humor research in general, including its three major semiotic models, see Attardo 1994, 2002, 2008.

[8] As a result, the aspect of lip synchronization only plays a minor role in the current study.

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Puns Lost in Translation. Contrasting English Puns and Their German Translations in the Television Show "How I Met Your Mother"
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
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Puns, How I Met Your Mother, Wordplays
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Julie Dillenkofer (Author), 2017, Puns Lost in Translation. Contrasting English Puns and Their German Translations in the Television Show "How I Met Your Mother", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/375446


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