Subtitle Chat 24 November 2023: Subtitling humour 

In our most recent Subtitle Chat, we had a lively discussion on subtitling humour. Here are some highlights from the conversation. 

Participants’ recommendations for translating humour: 

  • Timing is important, so make sure to follow the pace of the original. 
  • Keep it short. 
  • Don’t cover relevant gestures with text. 
  • Learn about the mechanics behind jokes, so that you can understand and reproduce them. 
  • Approach your work as recreating a joke, not translating it. 
  • If possible, use a test audience: even a single person, such as your proofreader, can give a sense of whether your translation is actually funny. 
  • If you are stuck, ask your colleagues, friends or family for help and brainstorm joke ideas together. 
  • If the original joke is not great, you should still try to be faithful to it and recreate something similar. However, humour is subjective, and some jokes may sound funny to some but not others, so it is impossible to say definitively what is funny and what is not. 

During our chat, it was said that in a way, jokes are like magic tricks: they rely on perfect timing and structuring to have the desired effect, and surprise and mystery are part of what makes them work. 

However, even with good advice, collegial support and experience, humour can be challenging to translate, and it is difficult to know how we can reach the same effect as the original. There are some cases where the joke just does not work in the target language, and occasionally good enough has to be enough. Not everything has to be exceptional! In some cases, though, it may be possible to compensate by inserting a joke somewhere else. 

We also discussed the possibility of adding explanations or translator’s notes to jokes in subtitles. In most cases, that is not possible, but it may work in some types of videos, such as educational videos or on social media. We wondered if it would be beneficial for a service like Netflix to allow translators’ notes or prefaces to provide viewers with useful context that cannot be provided in subtitles themselves. 

Finally, we discussed the visibility and invisibility of subtitlers when working on humour. While subtitlers often remain invisible, and we think that subtitles are good when viewers do not pay attention to them, sometimes a little attention can be a good thing. So perhaps we should make a point of giving praise for good subtitles in public and drawing attention to the added value that good subtitles can bring. Most public comments about subtitles are negative, so we should try to normalise pointing out positive things. Thankfully, some associations do this by giving out awards to subtitlers, but perhaps we could all do a bit more of that. 

For those interested in research on humour in audiovisual translation, here are a few researchers who have worked in this area: 

  • Patrick Zabalbeascoa 
  • Delia Chiaro 
  • Rachele Antonini 
  • Adrián Fuentes Luque 


SubComm updates 

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

This was the last Subtitle Chat for 2023, and the next one is scheduled for Wednesday 24th January 2024, 4-5.30pm. If you have suggestions for themes, please do let us know. Thank you to everyone who has participated in our chats and other SubComm activities this year. 2023 has been a busy and productive year for us, and we are looking forward to an equally eventful 2024. Our infographics project is moving ahead, and we hope to be able to give you some news on that soon. Have a wonderful rest of the year, and see you in 2024! 

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