Humor as a pedagogical tool in foreign language and translation courses        


                                                                   JOHN ROBERT SCHMITZ



[This paper was first published in Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 15-1

(2002), 89-113]






            In this paper I argue that the presentation and study of humor should be an important component in foreign language and translation courses. The use of humor in language courses, in addition to making classes more enjoyable, can contribute to improving students' proficiency. Humor is useful for the development of listening comprehension and reading. An analysis of the vast bibliography on humorology has led to the organization of humorous discourse into three groups: (i) universal or reality-based humor, (ii) culture-based humor, and (iii) linguistic or word-based humor. This grouping serves as a pedagogical framework for teaching humor in both language and translation classrooms. Learners and tyro translators should deal first with the relatively straightforward universal humor, continue with cultural humor, which demands more of learners and translators, and finally deal with linguistic humor that offers serious challenges to students of foreign languages and translation. The study of humor presents translators with the opportunity to exercise their creativity. Word-based or linguistic humor serves as a test of what can and cannot be translated and may entail a change in script if the "new" humorous discourse is to evoke laughter or at least a smile on the part of the target language  audience.

The scope of the paper: the importance of humor taxonomies and theories for language teaching and translation

In the field of foreign language teaching there are numerous suggestions for the use of humor in the language classroom. Observe the work of Monnot and Kite (1974), Gomes de Matos (1974), Trachtenberg (1979), Maurice (1988) and Deneire (1995). The study of humor by specialists in discourse analysis (Dolitsky, 1983), semiotics (Scherzer, 1978), anthropology, (Johnson, 1978), education, (Darling and Civikly, 1986-87) and linguistics, (Hockett, 1972) has contributed a great deal of knowledge about humor and its role in human communication. Research on humor is truly interdisciplinary.

            It is the objective of this paper to examine pertinent bibliography in the area of humor: Heller (1974), Johnson (1978), Dolitsky (1983), Norrick (1984), Raskin (1985), Apte (1987), Long and Graesser (1988), Ruch et al (1993) for the purpose of suggesting ways of making use of humor in the language classroom and in foreign language teaching materials.  Marc Deneire’s (1995) thought-provoking article on the use of humor in English as a Foreign Language (EFL)  classes serves as additional inspiration for this article.

             I also want to argue in favor of the use of humorous discourse in translation courses. It is my intention to address myself to the question of whether or not humor can be translated based on the work of Liebold (1989), Laurian (1992), Lendvai (1996), Zabalbeascoa (1996), Ballard (1996) and to study the translation and interpretation of humorous discourse in the light of recent developments and thinking by these scholars in the field of translation studies. In particular, I intend to examine the essentialist/non-essentialist debate sparked off by deconstructionalist writers Derrida, (In: McDonald, 1982), Culler (1988) and translation specialists as Robinson (1981) and Venuti (1995).

            Humor is part of virtually most social encounters; the use of humor and wit is intimately related to human nature. Humorous statements are speech acts that have different functions in spoken and written discourse (Long and Graesser, 1988); some involve social satire, a play on words, while others have as their target, criticism of either men or women or a particular group, nation or race. I will use the cover term “humorous discourse” to refer to a variety of texts that are related but have often subtle differences: jokes, jests, witticisms, quips, quipsels, sallies, cracks, wisecracks, gags, puns, retorts, riddles, one liners, conundrums (Tidwell, 1956, Geiger, 1980, Fechtner, 1983). I will not look at these terms in detail for the presentation of definitions and the specific study of taxonomies are not basic to my  purpose.

            Norrick (1984) presents a four-fold classification of witticism: (i) comparisons, (ii) retorts, (iii) quips and (iv) stock conversational witticisms. Quite pertinent also to the objective of this paper is the taxonomy of jokes developed by Long and Graesser (1988) in which jokes are classified into ten different categories: (i) nonsense, (ii) social satire, (iii) philosophical, (iv) sexual, (v) hostile, (vi) demeaning to men, (vii) demeaning to women, (viii) ethnic, (ix) sick and (x) scatological. Long and Graesser (1988) also present a taxonomy of wit: (i) irony, (ii) satire, (iii) sarcasm and hostility, (iv) overstatement and understatement, (v) self-deprecation, (vi) teasing, (vi) replies to rhetorical questions, (viii) clever replies to serious statements, (ix) double entendres, (x) transformation of frozen expressions, and (xi) puns.

            Long and Graesser's classification is indeed pertinent for the theoretical study of humor. But can all the types of humor in the authors' taxonomy be used in language classrooms with all types of learners, with adults as well as children?  Deneire (1995:287) states that humor has to be used with caution in classroom situations and in other public contexts as well. With regard to this classification of jokes, most likely only the first three may be fit for classroom presentation, that is, (i) nonsense, (ii) social satire, and (iii) philosophical.  Types (iv) through (x) are quite problematic for use in most classrooms. Common sense and tact will no doubt guide teachers in their selection of suitable types of humor for their specific classroom situation.

             I am not advocating the use of humor that ridicules ethnic groups or is demeaning to either men or women. In this regard, Darling and Civikly (1986-87:25) cite Sigmund Freud's pioneering study on humor in which a distinction is made between  "tendentious" and "nontendentious humor", the former being that which is "derogatory or ridiculing and that masks themes of hostility or aggression” whereas the later, "void of hostility, is more playful and innocent in character". The first can also be referred to as “destructive humor” and the second is “constructive humor”.  There are, however, problems when it is a question of making use of some humorous material, particularly in high school and, possibly in  university classrooms. With respect to schools and teaching in general, Erickson (1987:12-13) points to three main views of school culture: (i) culture as pieces of information, (ii) culture as a set of symbols and concepts, and (iii) school culture as an arena of different meanings formed as a result of political and social struggle. Schools are complex entities and classrooms are public spaces populated by different students with different values, attitudes and views of the world. What may be acceptable in one group may not be in another. What may be felicitous in one context might not work out in another. Many teachers report that each classroom group has its own "personality".

            One might ask why humor published in, for example, The Reader’s Digest or The Farmers’ Almanac, is well received by readers. I believe the success of this type of humor is due to its neutrality for it is not offensive to specific individuals or groups.  

Observe, for example, that the humor taken from the Farmers’ Almanac, set out in (1), is not destructive of, or demeaning to, specific groups:

(1) (a) Small boy to father reading report card: “You’ll notice my grades reflect the shocking incapacity of the school system.”  

     (b) A diner walked into a crowded restaurant during the holiday season. Catching the eye of a waiter, he said, “You know it’s been 10 years since I came here.”

“Well, it’s not my fault, “snapped the harried waiter. “I’m working as fast as I can."                          (c) A not-so-bright chap was elected to the town council. The first proposal he made was to buy a new fire engine.

“What will we do with the old engine? ", another city father asked.

 “Well, for one thing, "the councilman offered, “we could use it for false alarms.”           

                                                                                 (Geiger, ed., The Farmers’ Almanac)

Joke (1a) provides a clever answer on the part of a young boy, that is ‘’any young boy” to deflect his low academic standing; joke (1b) involves a misunderstanding between an over-worked waiter among the class of many over-worked servers who fails to “hear” what a diner is telling him; joke (1c) pokes fun at an elected official who happens to be incompetent, that is, any incompetent elected official. The frame of the joke does not focus on the ethnic or religious background of the office holder.

 In theory "destructive jokes" as well as the "constructive" ones are equally useful for teaching cultural perspectives; in theory there are no types of jokes that should be excluded for humorous discourse serves as a mirror of a particular nation or society. In practice, however, classroom teachers, particularly in high school and possibly in some university situations, may have to exercise care in the selection of humorous materials.

 Sudol (1981:27) also refers to the "possible ramifications" in high school classes  of the humor that might be "slightly risqué, perhaps borderline for school". If students tell the joke they heard in class in the presence of their parents, during mealtime, for example. Sudol fears that some parents may complain and that teachers might very well be "called before the board of education". The presentation of "sick" jokes in classroom situations may offend those who may have some type of impairment. Misunderstanding can occur in the use of ethnic or religious jokes for students can take offense and feel that they are being ridiculed. Sexual jokes and humor demeaning to women or men (Long and Graesser, 1988) may also alienate students and create negative attitudes towards the foreign language and create problems for teachers.

With respect to translation courses that are normally university level, the instructor may have more leeway in the choice of the type of humor to be used as exercises in class and for assignments outside of class. Translators during the course of their professional careers will no doubt come into contact with a variety of texts and no doubt translation courses should reflect what future translators will experience in the course of their careers.[1] Robinson (1991 131) points to the ethical questions translators face in their work. He asks what translators should do with a text that “grossly offends his or her sensibilities”, such as a neo-Nazi text. Should they translate it and become a part of it?  Or should they point out to their readers “how pernicious this stuff is”?  Robinson is putting the burden on translators. What should  their ethical stance be with respect to racist material? If  translators have the power,  they might attempt to subvert the original and expose the violence of the discourse. If they are not so empowered, the ethical thing would be to refuse to be a part in the production of such material. 

            Based on Long and Graesser's categories, I propose, for the purpose of language teaching, the division of humorous discourse into three basic groups. The first group includes humor that obtains mainly from the context and the general functioning of the world. To be more precise, this type of joke might be labeled the universal (or reality-based joke) for in theory jokes belonging to this group would continue to be humorous in translation from English into other languages. The second group is the cultural joke or cultural-based joke. The third group is the linguistic joke or word-based joke based on specific features in the phonology, morphology or syntax of particular languages. The cultural or linguistic jokes may not always be humorous in translation. The universal (or reality-based) humor can be used in all three levels. The linguistic or (word-based) humor would be more effective if introduced when the students are truly intermediate or advanced in their proficiency level. In the advanced level, the three types of humor can be exploited without major problems.[2] 

  The use of humor in the English as a Foreign Language and Foreign Language Classroom  

            I propose the use of humorous material in written and oral form as input in language classrooms. But this procedure, however, does not exclude other uses of humor as cited by Neuliep (1991) such as the use of “personal anecdote or story related to the subject/topic”, “some form of verbal comedy” or “a brief humorous comment directed at national or world events, personalities, or at popular culture”. In this stance the instructor herself tries to be spontaneously humorous and does not depend on the presentation of oral and written material. It would appear that the American high school teachers in Neuliep's  experiment were not foreign language teachers. Although the author does not inform his readers about the specific disciplines taught by the teachers who participated in the experiment, I conjecture that the courses were conducted (in English) to native speakers of the language in  the social and natural sciences. Many of these procedures obviously would not be of use to foreign/ second language teachers until, perhaps the advanced stages of learning. I agree with Neuliep´s (1991:354) findings that “, teachers use humor as a way of putting students at ease, as an attention-getter, as a way of showing that the teacher is human, as a way to keep the class less formal, and to make learning more fun.”

            I agree with Deneire (1995:285) that there is a need for a harmonious integration of humor into existing language teaching approaches. The advantage of humor is that it can be used with any language teaching approach or method, be it the Communicative Approach, Total Physical Response (TPR) or Suggestopedia. There are drawbacks in incorporating humor into textbooks. Humorous discourse "institutionalized” in this way runs the risk of becoming stale very quickly for many humorous texts can become outdated in a matter of months.

            Humor provides teachers and students with the opportunity for a respite from the formally assigned text material. Since humor in most societies occurs at specific moments or situations in social interactions, it would be best for teachers to maintain a file of humorous texts for use at specific moments in the language classroom. Learning another language is indeed hard work and requires a great deal of effort on the part of the learners. Humorous material can add variety to the class, providing a change of pace, and can contribute to reducing tension that many learners feel during the learning process. But the use of humorous texts in classes should be planned by the teacher. It should give learners the impression of being spontaneous but yet be an integral part of the course instrumental in building language skills, and never an incidental or “by the way” activity. In order to increase the lexical competence of students as rapidly as possible, the vocabulary that is part of humorous material could be introduced prior to the presentation of humorous material. All the vocabulary that is presented and eventually learned as part of the course would be included in the evaluation of progress. In this way, humor in the language classroom would be “no laughing or joking matter” and hopefully would be taken seriously.[3]

            When should humor be introduced in language  courses?

Deneire (1995: 286) contends that humor should only be presented when the students have " acquired the cultural and linguistic resources" necessary to understand it. In this view, the use of humor in the classroom would serve as "an illustration and reinforcement" of what they already know. For this writer, humor should not be used as " a technique to introduce linguistic phenomena and cultural knowledge" (p.294).

            The present study is similar to Deneire's in that it is based on the belief that humorous discourse is invaluable in language learning and is supported by practical experience in classroom situations.

            I differ with Deneire (1995) in that I feel humorous discourse in the form of anecdotes, jokes, puns and quips should be introduced from the initial stage of language instruction and continued throughout the language program. To be sure, the humorous material has to be selected to fit the linguistic competence of the students. It is important for students of foreign languages to know what types of discourse native speakers consider to be humorous or "funny" or downright hilarious. It is important also to identify appropriate texts that provoke laughter or at least a smile on the part of native speakers. The earlier students are introduced to authentic language input, to different styles of speech and to speakers of different ages, sex, socio-cultural level and from different regions, the less artificial or "classroom-like" their output will be. I would disagree with Deneire's proposal that humor be deferred until students have the necessary linguistic competence to understand and appreciate humor. Bearing in mind that there is so much to learn about specific languages and their respective cultures and so little time in most courses, it would not be wise to hold humor entirely (my emphasis) in abeyance until later stages.

            One objection that might be leveled at the proposal made in this paper is that it is a mere reflection on the use of humor in the classroom rather than an empirical study of humor with actual trials in school contexts. To be sure, it would indeed be useful to conduct experiments in different classroom settings in different parts of the world with humorous discourse, focusing on the three types of humor outlined above. Such a project would indeed be the subject of another paper. The present study might be viewed as a plea for empirical research. There is, without any doubt, a need for research on the use of humor in  language classrooms, but until there are sufficient studies based on experiments with humor in different teaching situations, with different levels of proficiency, different target and source languages, in different countries, most of the proposals and recommendations will perforce be based on practical experience with humor and classroom teaching.

Humor at the elementary level: a little bit can go a long way

In elementary FL/ EFL courses, the instructor who wants to use humor is of course restricted by the limited competence of the students. The early introduction of humor makes it necessary to provide students as soon as possible with appropriate vocabulary.  Bearing in mind that the students at this stage are far from being proficient, only universal humor is appropriate for it would in most cases be expected that the linguistic and cultural jokes are beyond the level of competence of the students. In beginning courses, at least towards the end of the semester, the teacher may introduce “quips”, that is,  "smart" answers or retorts to the questions or statements as presented in (2): 

      (2)  (a)  Are you fishing? 

      No, just drowning worms?

      (b)  I don’t like the flies in here.

      Well, come around to tomorrow. We’ll have some new ones.

     (c) Last week I went fishing and all I got was a sunburn, poison ivy and mosquito bites.

   (d) Gee, Dad, that’s a swell fish you caught. Can I use it as bait?

   (e)   Are you fishing?   No, just drowning worms.

   (f)  Do fish grow fast?   Sure. Every time my Dad mentions the one that got away, it      grows another foot.

In (2a) the irony of the situation is that no fish were caught, but the narrator gained experience in dealing with the hard realities of nature. In (2b) a young man ridicules the size of the fish his father caught by asking whether or not he could use it for bait. In (2c) the answer to the “stupid” question is a sarcastic remark. In (2d) the answer to the query about whether fish grow fast is the retort provided by a son whose father always exaggerates the size of those fish that escaped. The humorous texts in (2) deal with real world situations, human behavior (lying, exaggerating, bragging and asking obvious questions). For EFL learners there are no language internal or linguistic problems in “getting” the humor of these texts. The material in (2) can be presented as reading, used as dictation or as a brief listening- comprehension activity.

Humor at the intermediate level: more and more


In intermediate language courses, the possibilities are naturally much wider for the students at this level have a larger vocabulary and more solid control of the syntax of the language. Universal humor should of course be continued throughout the program. Pieces of humorous discourse in the form of short narratives for reading are useful at this stage. Two examples are presented in (3) and (4):

(3)  The notorious cheapskate finally decided to have a party. Explaining to a friend how to find his apartment, he said, “Come up to 5M and ring the doorbell with your elbow. When the door opens, push with your foot.”

 “Why use my elbow and foot?”

“Well, gosh,” was the reply, “you’re not coming empty-handed, are you?”

                                ---The Lion/ Reader's Digest, (December), 1986.

(4)  A young playwright gave a special invitation to a highly regarded critic to watch his new play. The critic came to the play, but slept through the entire performance. The playwright was indignant and said:

“How could you sleep when you know how much I wanted your opinion?”

“Young man,” the critic said, “sleep is an opinion.”        

                                    The Farmer's Almanac

In the intermediate stage, most language students are ready to appreciate cultural jokes. Some examples are shown in (5):

(5)  (a) The stockbroker's secretary answered his phone one morning: "I'm sorry", she said, " Mr. Bradford's on another line."

 "This is Mr. Ingram's office", the caller said. "We'd like to know if he's bullish or bearish right now".

"He's talking to his wife," the secretary replied." Right now I'd say he's sheepish". (John Pizzuto, The Great Wall Street Joke Book (Long Shadow Books). Reader's Digest, (December, 1986). 

      (b) The tailor had just measured the man’s waistline. “Harold, dear,” the customer’s wife said thoughtfully, “It’s amazing when you think about it. A Douglas fir with the same circumference would be seventy-five feet tall.”

            ---Kenneth Hall in the American Legion Magazine/ Reader's Digest (December, 1986)

Jokes and humorous anecdotes such as the ones presented in (5) are, in my view, pedagogically useful for the texts are short and provide students with light reading and opportunity for listening comprehension in class or in the language laboratory. The brevity of these texts may provide a refreshing change from those longer reading assignments --- short stories, plays, and novels. In order to increase the lexical competence of students as rapidly as possible (the intermediate stage is the time to intensify the presentation of vocabulary), the vocabulary that is part of humorous material could be introduced prior to the presentation of puns of this type. All vocabulary that is presented and eventually learned as part of the course would be included in the evaluation of progress.

The humorous discourses in (5a) and (5b) are quite transparent. Joke (5c) is interesting in that some cultural information dealing with the stock market (bullish, bearish) are associated with another script dealing with personal relations with another individual. This joke is cleverly constructed for two animals bull and bear along with the adjectives bullish and bearish from the world of business are linked with sheep/sheepish which refer to a husband who is diffident when dealing with his wife. (5d) introduces some cultural information (Douglas Fir tree) not always found in standard or in learner’s dictionaries.

In addition, in the USA, lawyers and attorneys are the butt of many humorous texts, and even lawyers tell jokes about themselves. There is a danger of course that some students may object to these jokes as I stated above. Indeed, there are risks in teaching humor as Sudol (1981) observes. But the fact is that these jokes occur in the culture. Students know of course that not all  (my emphasis) lawyers, doctors or plumbers are dishonest and/or incompetent. Schaff (1984:90) points to the complexity of stereotypes in human affairs and points to the "formative influence of stereotypes upon man's social character."  I feel foreign students should be aware that this type of joke is often part and parcel of conversations. Brazilians tell jokes about the Portuguese with regard to stupidity (cf. Davies, 1997) and the Portuguese do the same with respect to Brazilians.  It would be a disservice to not (my emphasis) present this material to learners particularly in university-level courses. Students should not have to wait until they visit or live in Brazil or Portugal to receive these cultural jokes. Such material is also invaluable for foreign language learners for it provides them some insight into how members of the society view each another. Jokes about lawyers taken from Rafferty (1988) are set out in (6):

(6)  Why does California have the most lawyers  and New Jersey the most toxic waste dumps?

       New Jersey had first choice.  (Rafferty, ed. 1988: 54)                                                   

The advanced level: humor at is best

Linguistic or word-based humor  and the cultural joke should, I feel, be exploited fully at the advanced stage. I will deal with the linguistic-based joke first.

An example of a linguistic-based joke in (7) which takes advantage of the  polysemy of  word still would be appropriate  at this level of proficiency.

 (7)   Wife: “Do you love me still?”

        Husband: “I might if you’d stay still long enough."

(Lendvai, 1996: 91, apud Flier)

            Those foreign learners of English who have not developed language awareness or "word sensitivity" will no doubt fail to see the humor in the situation in which a wife wishes to be assured that her husband continues to love her and in another situation in which the husband states that he can only make love to his wife provided she remain in one place for a specific period of time. Some students, particularly "false" intermediate students, fail to "get" this type of joke owing to lack of awareness that a single word can signal different meanings.

Research in applied linguistics in recent years has shown the need to de-emphasize grammar and grammatical rules and to give more attention to strengthening the students’ vocabulary. Hatch and Brown (1995: 369) argue for the use in language classroom of what they call “incidental vocabulary learning” in addition to intentionally taught vocabulary. As far as second language learning is concerned, Laufer (1997:31) states that the main obstacle to good reading is the “insufficient number of words in the learner’s lexicon." I feel that the use of humor in the form of jokes as in (8) below can provide the “incidental vocabulary” in the classroom that Hatch and Brown recommend. Students need massive amounts of vocabulary in order to feel confident that they can understand some or all of the exchanges that they hear and also have the opportunity to employ their vocabulary in real situations. A good example of a linguistic-based joke, quite difficult for many learners is joke (8) below. Many learners of English will not find the joke in (8) to be funny at all due to their lack of vocabulary and experience punning.: 

(8) What is the difference between stabbing a man and killing a hog? One is assaulting with intent to kill and the other is killing with intent to salt (Tidwell (1956)          

This joke demands a great deal of lexical competence on the part of learners  for they have to cope with the play on the word salt  and the contrast "killing with intent to salt" and "assaulting  with intent to kill." Many learners who are native speakers of languages that do not have this type of humor fail to find this type of joke to be amusing, and as a result consider this exchange and others like them to be silly or even stupid. Puns and plays of words are characteristic of English and part of the culture. Those students who continue their study of English and embark on the reading, for example, of Shakespeare’s plays will encounter large numbers of puns and if they are to appreciate the Bard’s plays they must understand this humor and attempt to see humorous discourse, as far as possible, as the playwright’s audiences did. Those students who plan to deal with literary criticism in their university studies will benefit a great deal from contact with humor in the foreign language courses for the comic is a basic element in literature (Rubin, 1982, “The Great American Joke”).

            Puns are appropriate at the advanced stages and provide linguistic and cultural information about the source language. Jokes written by children for children (and their parents!) are useful and foreign language learners might do well to maintain a repertoire of these jokes for use in class or when they themselves meet children in the target culture.  Some examples taken from the Rosie O’Donnel Show are presented in (9):

(9)   (a) “What is more amazing than a talking dog?

              A spelling bee.”

       (b) “How does a dog stop a VCR?

             He presses the paws button.”

            (Kids are Funny: Jokes sent by Kids to the Rosie O'Donnel Show. New York: Lucky Charms Entertainment, Inc. and Warner Books Inc., p. 12).

            All children who are growing up in an English-speaking culture would most likely appreciate the jokes in (9), but not all foreign language learners will understand these puns due to lack of specific linguistic and cultural knowledge. In (9a) a spelling bee in many English-speaking countries is a competitive game used to identify and award the best speller in a group of students with a prize by eliminating from the activity those who misspell a word. The humor in this exchange involves the suggestion of another reading, that is, a world where there exist bees that know how to spell words. (9b) can be humorous to children because they know that dogs have paws and one stops a VCR by pressing the pause button but of course for a dog to do this, it would have to use one of its paws. Children brought up in the culture are sensitive to the homophony of pause and paws.

In order to help students cope with humorous discourse it is important to present the vocabulary along with the different readings or possible scripts. It would appear that those who fail to understand a specific joke have difficulty in seeing that there exists a misunderstanding due to the introduction of another script on the part of the participants in the joke narrative. Word power is basic to the comprehension of humorous discourse, but I would also contend that “humor competence and joke competence” (Carrell, 1997) are also essential. Learners do not always develop joke and humor competence in a foreign language immediately but with sufficient input in the form of humorous texts this competence can be nurtured for steady development during the course of study.

Another type of pun, the conundrum, is also appropriate at the advanced level. This type is more difficult for foreign language learners for they involve reference to two different meanings of a word or a play on two different word meanings. Some examples are presented in (10):

(10)  (a) When is a boat like a heap of snow?

              When it’s adrift.

        (b) When does a cabbage beat a beet in growing?

             When it gets ahead.

        (c) Why is the attorney like a minister?

             Because he studies the law and the profits.   

        (d) If there are two flies in the kitchen, which one is the cowboy?

               The one on the range.

        (e) What part of the fish weighs the most?

              The scales. (Tidwell, ed., 1956: 110)

The first three puns in (10) lose much of their “humor” in writing. English has a large stock of phonological jokes that bring together different meanings of a specific word or relate different word sense that sound alike. In (10a, b, c) the learners have to know about the existence of snow drifts and boats adrift, about cabbages that come in “heads, that is, a head of cabbage, a head of lettuce as distinguished from winning a competition, beating someone in a game or contest, that is “getting ahead”. In addition, there is a play on the homophony between beat as a verb with the meaning to defeat and beet as a noun referring to a type of vegetable. In (10c) the humor derives from the contrast of two homophones in English, namely, profits (the unexpected or surprise remark) and prophets (the expected one). A foreign language learner will not perceive (10d) as a humorous texts unless he knows that “ cowboys work on the range” while the flies in the kitchen are lighting on “the (gas) range”. Joke (10e) can bring a smile to those who know that in English fish have scales and that objects are weighed with the use of scales. In Culler’s words (1988:15), “puns are at work in the central, formative structure of major conceptual systems."

The cultural joke

In order to appreciate this type of joke, learners have to be familiar with the cultural practices of a nation, society or community.  Some culture-based jokes are presented in (11)

(11) (a) Do you know what I got for Father’s Day? 

            No, what?

           The bill for Mother’s Day. 

(b) Father’s day always worries me. I’m afraid I´ll get something I can’t afford.


                                                                      (Fechtner, 1983: 104)

            To perceive the humor in (11a, b), learners have to know that in some English speaking countries special days are set aside to remember mothers and fathers. In the USA, Father’s Day comes after Mother’s Day. Both (11a, b) involve a stereotype shared by certain members of the society that only men pay the bills and are supposedly the sole providers. It also imputes some irresponsibility to wives and children in their buying habits. The text also points to materialism and the superficiality of giving of presents in the culture. Cultural jokes serve as mirrors of the socio-cultural practices of the society and can inform the learner how some members of the community view themselves.

            The joke is successful for members of the culture for these two special days occur relatively near one another. Father’s Day is approximately one month after Mother’s Day. The humor of this joke would, no doubt, be lost in a culture where these days are not celebrated or, for example, in Brazil where Father’s Day occurs in August, more than two months after Mother’s Day.

            In the advanced stages of language learning, the teacher, in addition to introducing cultural jokes, can make use of the opportunity to have students reflect critically about the target culture.[4]  The advanced level is also the moment when instructors can attempt to tell jokes of their own and attempt also to use humor as teachers did in other subject-matter areas following Neuliep's (1991) experiment.

         Beyond the advanced level

             Many Brazilian learners of English as a foreign language who travel to the USA and many Americans who study Spanish in high school or college and visit Spain or Mexico have difficulty in understanding jokes when they hear them in actual conversational exchanges, while watching television or seeing a film. However, in my view, if those students had had the opportunity to listen to humorous material in the classroom or in the language laboratory, they would have been better “listeners”. Those students who are willing listeners make more progress in their foreign language course than those who avoid opportunities to hear jokes and puns. Another accomplishment for language learners is to be able to tell a joke to a native speaker.  The ability to tell a joke, to be a good storyteller, on the part of the learner permits the bonding of speaker and listener, of joke teller with joke receiver or listener. (I remember my own feeling of elation as a high school student when I was able to tell a joke to native speakers and have them actually laugh at the joke.) Understanding a joke is one thing, but telling one is indeed another and this competence may not occur until students have been truly " advanced" students for quite some time. 

            Norrick (1994) has examined in conversational exchanges the degree of involvement and joking on the part of speakers and listeners. If foreign language learners are to become proficient in the day- to- day use of the target language, they need to develop strategies to get involved in conversational interactions. Some speakers are very competent joke tellers while others are hopeless and cannot remember even a single joke. Humorous material in the foreign language should be available for those students who have the potential as language learners to tell a joke. But humorous material should also be available for those learners who are reluctant to tell jokes but would like to understand them when they appear in interactions.

Humorous discourse in the translation class.

            Before I examine in more detail the question of whether or not humorous discourse can be translated from one language to another, I want to present, first of all, some remarks about recent developments in translation studies and, secondly, to argue a case for the utilization of texts that involve humor in translation and interpretation courses.

Deconstruction and post-structural theories refute the traditional view of translation that attempts to search for original meanings in texts. An original work, in the traditional view, is superior to any translation; the task of the translator is viewed as being inferior or secondary to that of the original author. It is the translator's task, in this traditional view, to protect the meaning of the original and deliver it “as best as she can”. Translators, in this conception, can never be "perfect" and never aspire to be better than the original text in the source language. These essentialist or logocentric views have influenced translation theory for over two thousand years (Robinson, 1991). Deconstruction and post-structural views of language in addition question as well the notion of authorship.

Deconstructionalists argue that translators are never, in reality, faithful to the original although many of them may believe that they are. When it comes down to translating a pun that is language-dependent or language specific such as in (12):

(12) The Dark Ages were so named because the period was full of knights.

      (Newfield and Lafford, 1991: 81)

it is not a question of respecting original versions or ferreting about for original or “sacred” meanings. Rather, in a translation of (12) to another language, it is the practical question of finding specific (as in the case of the homonomy of knight/night in a specific target language such as French or Portuguese that would contribute to creating a humorous effect in those languages. The lack of the same play on words, knight/night and dark (= lack of light) and Dark Ages (= lack of learning, obscurantism) forces the translator to find another script with a different set of homonyms in order to try at least to obtain a humorous effect in other languages. Obviously, the pun will not be “same” nor is there any guarantee that the response on the part of the listeners to the humor will be the “same” as in the case of the source language joke. Translation of humor is indeed a challenge and highly creative for the translators must know the target and source language and culture extremely well. In dealing with the translation of television programs from English to Catalonian, Zabalbeascoa (1996:244) states that, in certain cases, "... the original jokes will have to be rendered as jokes that work as such which means that entirely different jokes may have to be substituted for the original ones."

            Laurian (1992) argues that some jokes are impossible to translate and it is, therefore, “...necessary to change the reality of that which the text refers to in the original language” in order to produce a humorous effect in the target language. For Laurian (1992:114) humor that is based on phonetics, phonology or morphological ambiguity, in her words, “... seem to be difficult to translate.” I agree with Laurian. Likewise, Liebold (1989:109) considers the translation of humor to be a challenge. She contends that the translation of humor necessitates “... the decoding of a humorous speech in its original context” into another language “which successfully recaptures the intentions of the original humorous message.” Also, this recapturing should elicit in the target language “an equivalent pleasurable response”. Liebold´s remarks follow the traditional view of translations that I outlined briefly above. It may be impossible to capture the “original humorous message” especially when one deals with language-dependent humor. Complications arise in this view for one could ask just what is an “equivalent pleasurable response”. Who determines what is or is not equivalent or pleasurable? . Nilsen (1989:123) argues that a translation “must be better than the original”. But this problem is indeed subjective for what is considered “better” depends always on a specific interpretive community.

The same framework that I propose for presenting humor in language courses is also of use in translation courses. The universal or reality-based joke would be introduced first, followed by the presentation of cultural jokes and finally the linguistic-based or word-based jokes.

Universal or reality-based jokes in translation courses

Universal jokes offer in general no serious problems for translators.  I repeat for convenience those  presented above in (2) accompanied by a translation from English to Portuguese (a'-d'):  

(2) (a) Last week I went fishing and all I got was a sunburn, poison ivy and mosquito bites.

      (a') Na semana passada eu fui pescar e tudo o que consegui na pescaria foi uma  bela duma queimadura e um montão de picadas de mosquito.

     (b) Gee, Dad. That´s a swell fish you caught! Can I use it as bait?

     (b') Puxa, pai. Que peixe legal você pescou. Posso usar como isca?

     (c) Are you fishing?

         No just drowning worms.

  (c')  Você está pescando?

         Não, estou afogando minhocas, pô!

  (d) Do fish grow fast?

        Sure. Every time my Dad mentions the one that got away, it grows another foot.

(d') Os peixes crescem depressa?

      Com certeza. Cada vez que o meu pai se refere àquele que escapou, o peixe  

      cresce mais um metro.

The cultural joke: will it be humorous after translation?

Cultural jokes are language specific and are often a challenge for translators. Many of them do not “translate” well and would obviously not be humorous to native speakers of the target language. For example, the question in joke (5a)"We'd like to know if he's bullish or bearish right now” and the punchline.” Right now I'd say he's sheepish” are probably untranslatable into other languages. The translator would have to find another joke, that is, a different joke with no doubt another scenario and frame. This is what conference interpreters do when dealing with cultural jokes (Zabalbeascoa 1996). The point is to get the audience to laugh.  Another cultural joke that might very well “lose” its humor in translation is the one dealing with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in (11) above.

      Another type of cultural joke examined earlier in this paper is that which is demeaning to a specific profession or trade. Jokes about lawyers in general offer no serious problem in translation, but may not be humorous in a culture that does not relish "poking fun" or feel the need to criticize members of the legal profession. Joke (12) is a good example (12)  “Everyone in my family follows the medical profession,” noted Smith.                                    

“They’re lawyers.”   (Rafferty, ed. 1988:52)

Schmitz (1996, 1998) has argued that humor dealing with situations or contexts that represent the real world can indeed be translated without major problems; the non-linguistic humor (my first group, in this paper) tends to more “translatable” than those in the second group, the cultural jokes, (which in most cases are not at all humorous in the target language) as well as the linguistic or word-based humor (the third group). Language-based humor indeed brings about loss in translation (Lendvai 1996, Zabalbeascoa 1996), and the only solution for the translator is to substitute another joke from her repertoire. With respect to the translation of humor, Laurian (1992:14) states that the joke in (13) would be hard “if not impossible” to render in French:

(13)             Famous Chinese diplomat attended gala reception in Washington in early part of the day. Senate lady trying to make polite conversation asked: Dr. Wong, what “nese” are you? Chinese, Japanese or Javanese? “Chinese”, he replied, and you Madam? What “kee” are you? Monkey, donkey or Yankee?

In Schmitz (1996) I agreed with Laurian with respect to the supposed intranslatability of (13) into Portuguese and other languages. But another researcher, Brezolin (1997), with the help of his students in a translation class, came up with two possible Portuguese translations of the joke in (13) which I set out in (14) with glosses

( 14)  (a) E o senhor, que tipo de eira é? Estrangeira, maloqueira ou brasileira?

              [ And you sir,  what kind of  "eira" are you?  Foreigner, slum dweller or Brazilian?]       

          (b) E a senhora, que tipo de aca é a madame?  Macaca, bruaca ou polaca?

            [ And you madam, what kind of "aca"  are you?  Monkey, witch or Polish? ]

Joke (13) which Brezolin translates quite effectively into Portuguese does not involve language specific phenomena such as ambiguity, polysemy or homonomy. The difficulty does not emanate from the source language. The challenge for the translator is to find suitable resources in the target language. It is a question of the translator's competence in the target language.

            In another case of translation, Brezolin (1997:24) quite rightly changes the nationality of the joke in (15) in order for it to be humorous asa well in Portuguese (cf. Davies, 1987) as shown in (16):

 (15) How many Poles does it take to wash a car?

        Two, one to hold the sponge and one to move the car back and forth.  (Ruch et al., 1993)

 (16) Quantos portugueses são necessários para lavar um carro?

         Dois. Um para segurar a esponja e outro para movimentar o carro prá frente e para trás.

Jokes (15) and (16) are not the "same" joke for something has been changed. If the translator/ interpreter is able to convey a humorous effect in the target language, she has indeed done her job. The desire to be faithful and the fear of being unfaithful to the original has often haunted many translators. When it a question of translating word-based jokes, those translators who continue to remain beholden to the original or source texts (in spite of post-structuralist criticism of the traditional translation stance) may have their feelings of guilt reduced to some extent if they perceive that it is the structure of the specific source language that prevents a "faithful" translation. Their devotion to the extraction of stable meanings is a futile task. What is important for translators is to give priority to providing a humorous response (my emphasis) on the part of the target audience.

The jokes from the third group, the "linguistic" or language based ones are indeed difficult or impossible to translate ( Lendvai, 1996). An example from this group that resist translation is joke (8) above (repeated once again for convenience):

(8) What is the difference between stabbing a man and killing a hog? One is assaulting with intent to kill and the other is killing with intent to salt. (Schmitz, 1996:93, apud Tidwell, 1956).

With respect to puns, Ballard (1996:314) claims the following:



Insofar as all translation begins as an exercise in reading, the  study of punning can be used during the first stage of the learning process to make students aware of how meanings  can be construed and misconstrued ( Ballard's emphasis).

            In conclusion, I have made a case in this paper for the use of humor as a pedagogical tool in language classes. I have argued that non-linguistic humor is, in general, easier for learners to process than linguistic humor. In addition, I have also contended that students of translation should likewise be exposed to humorous discourse as part of their training. In the course of my remarks, I have claimed that linguistic humor offers a greater challenge to translators than non-linguistic humor. It would appear to be no accident that it is the linguistic-based humor rather than the non-linguistic that presents more difficulties for both language learners and translators.


                                                        Universidade Estadual de Campinas

                                                         Campinas, S.P. Brazil








[1] In university level courses dealing with humor as a discipline there should, to my mind, be no problem with the presentation of all types of humor, "tendentious" or "nontendentious" and I do not think participants would be upset or offended by the material studied. For an excellent study of expectations of students in humor courses, consult Edgar B. Wycoff, Humor in academia: an international survey of humor instruction, Humor. 12-4:437-456, 1999. In courses where the study of humor is the actual subject matter such as in the courses studied by Wycoff,  I see no problem in the choice of humor. In school situations where the teacher is in loco parentis, the situation may be different.

[2] I want to thank the anonymous reviewers of my paper who contributed valuable suggestions with respect to my classification of humor and for a very thorough and critical reading.

[3] Pedagogical materials as, for example, King, Ridout and Swain (1981:35-38) include some Irish jokes to illustrate some of the themes of jokes in parts of the United Kingdom. With the emphasis on the politically correct at this point in time, no doubt many textbook writers tend to eschew ethnic humor. See also Charles Jaret for a study of attitudes with respect to ethnic humor:  Attitudes of whites and blacks towards ethnic humor: a comparison, Humor,  vol. 12-4: 385-411, 1999

[4] EFL, ESL, and  learners in advanced courses should, I feel, receive information about the rules of joke-telling in specific linguistic communities. It is interesting to note that ethnic jokes on public television or in films can normally only be told by members of the specific ethnic or religious community, that is, Afro-Americans tell jokes about Afro-Americans and Irish Catholics about Irish Catholics, etc.





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