Humor and Translation

Why humor does or doesn't translate

Humor is used in some cultures for advertising much more than it is used in others. “Humor doesn’t travel” turns out to be true because tantamount to a subversive play that has its own conventions and established ideas; it often breaks taboos. For example, comedies usually break rules of convention and what is culturally “correct” to expect. Comedy is tightly linked to culture and its conventions, and thus, it becomes understandable only by those who share the culture that defines what “should be” and what is irony or humor. For example, in Gogol's 19th century play, The Revisor, the Revisor's servant appears lying on a bed. Russians of the time thought this was funny because servants were expected to sleep on the floor and if they appear on a bed, it means that they are being subversive by being on the master’s bed, a liberty they were NOT afforded. Still today, the Russian culture is of the greatest power distance cultures and the servant’s bed behavior in the comedy wouldn’t get a laugh from members of lower power distance cultures who wouldn’t even understand why the Russians sitting in the theater with them are laughing.

Parody better suits lower power distance cultures because the voice of authority is disguised. British humor is often exactly this, antiauthoritarian. Weak uncertainty avoidance cultures that can cope with ambiguity often use more subtle types of humor, parody, and understatement. Straight-forward slapstick humor is far more likely to be used in strong uncertainty avoidance cultures. The Germans, for example, use admonishing humor to satisfy their need for perfectionism, which explains why they use irony infrequently. Belgian humor tends to be straightforward, most likely due to the strong power distance in the Belgian culture where the oppressed often entrench themselves.

As you can see, using humor in advertising in different cultures should be an informed management decision. Humor in advertising is most often found in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands. These cultures have small power distance and weak to medium uncertainty avoidance in common. It may be worth pointing out that the use of humor in these markets is most often dictated by the comfort levels of local management teams in using  humor in their advertising. In strong uncertainty avoid­ance cultures, management is not comfortable with using humor. In both cases, clever use of humorous devices in advertising can be very effective, against the instincts of local management teams. How would you know? ABC Translations has the in-country Communication Studies experts in every major market, and we can deploy surveys and use test groups to determine the right kind and amount of humor for the demographic you are targeting. Ove the last two decades we have tested black humor, comedy, irony, jokes, parody, satire, slapstick, comic strips, the ludicrous, understatements, puns, and word games. Here are some of the results of our research:
Contrary to the stereotypical impression of Germans lacking humor, our studies on German translations demonstrate quite the opposite. Germans respond to all types of English and American (Anglo-Saxon) types of humor, except understatement. One humorous device we did not find in our Anglo-Saxon studies was Schadenfreude, that is, a malicious pleasure felt when we see someone else fail. Our results show that German advertisers are less risk averse and follow the more classic advertising persuasion model, but German people, in general, have an excellent sense of humor.

In our studies on United States and United Kingdom humor, we distinguished six humor categories: irony, joke, the ludicrous, satire, understatement, and pun. In our translation studies comparing the U.S. and UK we found that audiences in the U.S. responded more favorably to the ludicrous, but audiences in the UK responded better to satire. Our communication team explained these differences along uncertainty avoidance dimensions.

One of our meta-analyses analyzing current advertising found that Korean, German, Thai, and U.S. audiences responded very well to incongruent contrasts in humorous television advertising. However, we did find differences. Thailand and Korea are collectivistic cultures with larger power distances where appeals to humor typically involved groups of at least three central figures with unequal social status. In contrast, we found that in the United States and Germany, both individualistic cultures with smaller power distances, humorous television ads typically had fewer than three central figures with equal social status. Based on our findings, not only did we translate the humor correctly, we also created advertising campaigns that dovetailed with local cultural expectations.

Local Languages and their Requirements

When language changes require interface adjustments, we can incorporate those into the finished product. We handle all aspects of localization, including:

  • Translation of resource and help files
  • Modifications to accommodate expansion of text, (such as resizing of dialogue boxes or on-screen buttons)
  • Assignment of hot keys
  • Editing of bitmaps
  • Date, time, and currency formats
  • Field length restrictions
  • Coding and font issues
  • Modifications for double-byte characters in Japanese, Chinese and Korean
  • Foreign-language and functionality testing
  • Platforms supported: Windows, DOS, UNIX and Macintosh