Puns have always intrigued me. The idea of using similar or identical words to create a humorous sentence based on the way it’s interpreted is something I have always wanted to learn more about, as well as the factors that make up a pun. Making puns has become a sort of game for me. If I’m in a light-hearted conversation or playing a game with my friends, I try to make puns regularly in different languages, depending on the friends I’m with. If I’m with friends who speak Dutch and English, I’ll make puns using Dutch and English. If I’m with friends who also speak Japanese, I’ll pun in Japanese as well. I believe that being able to pun and use wordplay in a language is proof of your skill in and knowledge of that language. After all, for a pun to work, you need to create some sort of ambiguity; a situation that can be interpreted in multiple ways. A good example of this is “The first scientists who studied for were mistified.” This pun works because of ambiguity on multiple levels, which I will explain more about later.
Puns can be divided into four categories of ambiguity, according to Dirk Delabastita (1996). These categories are homonymy, homophony, homography, and paronymy, each of which is better suited to different forms of communication.
|Homo-nymy||A pun where a word |
with multiple meanings
is used to give multiple
meanings at once.
|A hard-boiled egg in the morning |
is hard to beat.
|Homo-phony||A pun using two words|
that sound identical, but
have different spellings.
|‘Mine is a long and a sad tale! said the |
Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing.
‘It is a long tail, certainly,’ said Alice, looking
down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail; ‘but why
do you call it sad?’
|Homo-graphy||A pun using a word with |
multiple meanings, but
for those meanings
|You can tune a guitar, but you |
can’t tuna fish. Unless you play
|Paro-nymy||A pun using two words with|
similar, but not
identical spellings and
|A skunk fell into a river |
and stank to the bottom
Translating puns can cause several difficulties because most puns are specific to their own language. A pun that works in Dutch most likely won’t work in English and the other way around. Exceptions to this are puns using loanwords from the language you’re translating to, but realistically, you won’t see many of those.
When translating puns, there are a lot of factors to keep in mind. We need to know where the ambiguity lies and how it’s used in the source language. We also need to keep the topic of the dialogue or text in mind, as a pun about bananas in a text about monkeys makes sense, but a pun about bananas in a text about fish won’t work at all. Thirdly, we can’t use overly complicated puns. A pun should add humour to a sentence, without becoming the focal point of said sentence. This means that the puns need to be easy to understand and make sense to the reader. Like every translation, we need to keep in mind what we’re translating for. If it’s a book, we can use more words to get our pun across, but in the case of subtitling, we have a limited amount of time and space to make the pun. The most important factor is also the most straight-forward one: Don’t try too hard. If you can use a pun in the translation without too much effort, that’s great! If you can’t, don’t worry about it. Sometimes the situation just doesn’t work with a pun in your translation, so then just leave it out, or compensate by adding a small pun later in the translation.
Pun translation is, to me, one of the most difficult parts of translating media, but it’s also the most fun part. There are only a few other situations in which you get to go so deep into the language, and you’re guaranteed to learn something new every time. Next week I’ll show some pun translations from Japanese to English and discuss them using the things I’ve explained today, so look forward to that!
Delabastita, Dirk, and André Lefevere. 1996. Wordplay and Translation: Special Issue, Dedicated to the Memory of André Lefevere (1945-1996). Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’\s Adventures in Wonderland