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How Does Humor Translate?

Sparking laughter in different languages is a complex challenge.

By Shaelyn Berg


Think about a joke you heard recently, one that really made you laugh. Maybe even one you told. Now consider telling that same joke to someone from another country or culture, or even to someone from a different part of your country. Would your listener find it funny?

Humor, along with idiomatic phrases, gestures, body language, appearance, and many other factors you use in your speeches and in your day-to-day life, can literally get lost in translation when presented in a different language, or to an audience from a culture different than your own.

“Something may be humorous in certain regions but deadly serious in others,” says Goetz Mueller, DTM, Chief Reviewer for Toastmasters International’s German Translation Review Team, one of 10 teams of members around the world who have worked extensively analyzing Toastmasters Pathways content in different languages.

Speakers who present in different countries also need to be sensitive to using appropriate humor. Cultural context plays a crucial role in determining what is funny—and what isn’t. Dean Foster, an expert on cross-cultural business communication, once received this input from a colleague before delivering a speech in Hong Kong: Start your speech by expressing humility, a trait greatly valued in that culture. The colleague suggested that Foster go as far as apologizing upfront in the event his speech failed to meet the audience’s expectations.

“As an American, I viewed this strategy as the kiss of death for my presentation, wanting instead to open with a humorous anecdote about cultural differences, the topic of my talk,” Foster wrote in a 2018 Toastmaster magazine article.

He explained his dilemma to the audience and said he was trying to accommodate both cultures. He then apologized … for not having any jokes to tell. The line got a big laugh.


Sarcasm or Self-Deprecation?

Even deciding on which style of humor to use can be fraught with complications, said Foster, the author of a series of books about global etiquette. For example, he wrote, “Humor based on self-deprecation (making yourself the butt of the joke) is appreciated in the West, but in Asia, instead of generating a laugh, self-deprecation will more likely elicit quiet empathy and discomfort with the unfortunate situation that you are experiencing.”

Pay attention to visual humor too, he said: “Pratfalls and physical humor play well in some cultures, but not well in others (generally speaking, yes in France and Italy; no in Malaysia).”

Two often-heard mottos in Toastmasters are “Know Your Audience” and “Practice, Practice, Practice.” Both of these principles come into play with cross-cultural humor. If you don’t know if your listeners will be receptive to your jokes or offended by them, try out your material ahead of time. Comedy writer Nick Jack Pappas, a speaker at the 2019 Toastmasters International Convention, recommends first testing your humorous speeches on a variety of people to get their feedback.

You don’t have to be a culture expert to increase your ability to communicate across languages and regions.

Practice in front of people you trust—like your Toastmasters club or friends and family—to hear their honest responses on whether the material is appropriate. Make sure your group is diverse, with people from other cultures and races.

Something else to consider—not only in regard to humor but cross-cultural communication in general: Body language and nonverbal communication can mean different things in different cultures. Communication “such as gestures or facial expressions can be a tricky thing,” says Mueller, the German reviewer.

For example, making the “OK” sign with your hand—creating a circle with your thumb and forefinger—is viewed as a positive gesture in English-speaking countries. But be careful: It is considered offensive in such countries as Russia, Brazil, and Germany. And in Japan, that same gesture symbolizes money.


Finding the Funny in Common

Some humor, of course, does not need translation. Nimble speakers can tackle topics people around the world find funny. That’s been a strength of top participants in Toastmasters speech contests: They strike universal chords.

In his winning speech for the 2013 Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking®, Chicago resident Presiyan Vasilev, an immigrant from Bulgaria, focused on a universally recognized dilemma: getting stuck with car trouble. In his case, it was a flat tire. First, he broke a cardinal rule of changing a tire: Choose a level spot to park your car. He had pulled over on a slope. He mimed his lengthy and futile attempts to fix the flat, and then recounted a vivid moment of clarity as he reflected on the mess. “I told myself, You are … an idiot.”




In the 2018 World Championship of Public Speaking, second-place winner Zifang “Sherrie” Su regaled the audience with a romantic story of her Toastmasters journey. When the Chinese woman first joined a club, she was befriended by a man named Jim, and they grew closer. She confronted that timeless conundrum: to stay friends, or seek more? Jim urged her to take a risk on a romantic relationship. His argument for why they would succeed: “We are Competent Communicators.”




Now that’s a language every Toastmaster understands.


Humor in Pathways

When Toastmasters International introduced a humor path last year in the Pathways learning experience, it presented quite a linguistic challenge for the organization’s Translation Review Teams. How to navigate the culturally complex terrain of humor in different languages?

The Engaging Humor path is available to all members in English, Arabic, French, German, Japanese, Portuguese, Simplified Chinese, Spanish, and Traditional Chinese. After a path is developed in English by Toastmasters World Headquarters staff and translated by professional native-speaking translators, Translation Review Teams help review the translated path for cultural accuracy and appropriateness.

Sahar Nassar, translations project coordinator at Toastmasters International, described issues translating certain humorous examples used within the Engaging Humor path. “It was challenging with non-European languages, especially with cultural references.” For example, use of language ridiculing people or mentions of alcohol, which might add to a humorous speech for some Western audiences, are seen as offensive in other languages and cultures.

"The jokes in Indonesia Chinese and the jokes in Mainland Chinese will not be the same because of the different cultures."

Liana Kwan, DTM

There was also the matter of finding the right translation for certain English-language words. Nassar explained that a common English phrase used in a joke within a path video—which was part of the speaker’s punchline—was not easily translated into Arabic. The team at World Headquarters was using the English word “shoot,” in the context of expressing frustration over something, but in Arabic, it’s inappropriate to use this word. So instead, they chose an Arabic euphemism for “shoot”—“You are cursed”—that did the trick.

The Simplified Chinese Translation Review Team faced its own obstacles. Liana Kwan, DTM, is the team’s Chief Reviewer. “The biggest challenge was in finding the equivalent cultural term to represent the jokes in Mandarin. There are many aspects that need to be considered, such as linguistic equivalence, paradigmatic equivalence, stylistic equivalence, and also textual equivalence.”

 Globe with different languages written around it

Geographical factors were also key, says Kwan, who lives in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia. “The jokes in Indonesia Chinese and the jokes in Mainland Chinese will not be the same because of the different cultures. My team members on the Chinese Translation Review Team come from several different countries, where they have different cultural backgrounds that may influence their judgment of equivalent cultural terms to represent English jokes.”

Rui Henriques, DTM, Chief Reviewer for the Portuguese Translation Review Team, describes a challenge dealing with Brazilian Portuguese versus European Portuguese. Working on a different Toastmasters project, his team found a problematic phrase: a man wearing a suit. “In Brazilian Portuguese we use treno. It is used in European Portuguese but is not sufficiently widespread to ensure everyone understands. In European Portuguese we use fato for suit. However, fato is also fact.”

To resolve any potential mistranslation, the team recommended changing the example to a female wearing a dress. Vestido, or dress, carries the same meaning for all Portuguese speakers.

Henriques, of Vermoim, Maia, Portugal, who is also an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, says part of the challenge of translating Toastmasters material is to ensure the path doesn’t sound too English. “The goal is that the end product can be read as a stand-alone Portuguese version.”

Phrases or individual words can present challenges not just across countries but within them too. Mueller, the German reviewer, hails from Weissach, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. He is a native speaker of German and Swabian (a language spoken in southwestern Germany). “Even within two languages in one nation, like Swabian and German, certain expressions can have significantly different meaning,” he says.

For example, one particular phrase, when uttered in Swabian, is a statement of astonishment. However, used in German, it is profane and rude. If you speak English, Mueller points out, you will probably find similar scenarios in using words and phrases across American English, British English, Indian English, Australian English, and New Zealand English.


Taking the Initiative

You don’t have to be a culture expert to increase your ability to communicate across languages and regions, whether with humor or other content. As a Toastmaster, you have access to tools that can help you improve your self-awareness. Many of Pathways’ paths offer projects such as “Active Listening,” “Connect With Your Audience,” and “Understanding Emotional Intelligence.” Each of these provides strategies for communicating with, and expanding your awareness of, other people.

And of course, clubs meet in over 140 different countries, which means you have a network of individuals to converse with, learn from, and engage with to improve your own skills. Consider visiting a club in another country if you are traveling there for work or a vacation. Members who have done so say the experience is fun and enlightening.

You can also meet and converse with other members on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, or even at District conferences or the Toastmasters International Convention.

Mueller says that his experience as a Translation Reviewer has taught him to pay more attention to his words, actions, and how he comes across to others. “In an ever more related and connected world, communication and consciously expressing yourself are becoming more important.”



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