How to translate: Puns

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-nymyA 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-phonyA 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-graphyA pun using a word with
multiple meanings, but
different pronunciations
for those meanings
You can tune a guitar, but you
can’t tuna fish. Unless you play
Paro-nymyA 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

11 replies on “How to translate: Puns”

Translating puns is a nightmare! As I publish my books in both Greek and English and do the translating myself, that’s the part I dread the most. I often have to cut out a pun altogether because there’s just no way to make it work. Incidentally, that’s one of the things Asterix translators did really well! Uderzo uses French puns every other sentence and I’m always amazed by what a great job his translators into English have done with them.

When I read the Harry Potter books in Indonesian, I remember when they introduced Wormtail, Mooney, Padfoot, and Prongs. The translator actually had to add a short paragraph that said, “Now these were strange names because Wormtail means …” etc.

It never occurred to me that it would be possible to translate puns.

The Hebrew Old Testament uses a lot of word play, puns in names for places and people, puns in poetry in the prophecies and so on. Usually these are just lost to the English reader. My study Bible will include footnotes: “So-and-so’s name sounds like such-and-such word,” etc., but the impact is just gone at that point.

My favorite is in the message that God gives to King Belshazzar in Daniel chapter 5, which is a triple pun:
Mene, mene/Tekel/Parsin
which can mean
“A mina, a mina/A shekel/A half shekel”
“Numbered, numbered/Weighed/Divided”
“Numbered, numbered/Weighed/Persians!”

So it’s a rhyme about money, which is also a pronouncement that the king had been numbered and weighed, which also includes a jump scare at the end with the mention of the Persians (who take over the kingdom later that same night). It’s not really possible to translate it, but once it’s been explained to an English speaker like me we can see that it’s clever and scary all in one.

Translating puns is very difficult, because there are so many different meanings and implications to keep in mind. It’s near impossible to perfectly translate a pun while keeping all of the meanings and implications intact, but it’s definitely worthwhile to try and get as close as you can.

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