In the discussion in the comments to this question about Aladdin, people talk about puns being lost in translation.

For example:

After that, in the end, a free Genie quickly gives the lamp to Aladdin, and presses him to wish for something “impossible” (making a joke with the homophones “the Nile” and “denial”), so Aladdin wishes for the Nile/denial and gets a “No way!” in response.

Some translations did catch on to the pun, and tried to incorporate it in some way or another, as translating puns is hard:

in Spanish that joke is lost in translation too, but they came up with a "close" one: Aladdin asks for the Nile ("deseo el Nilo") and Genie answers "Don't even dream about it" ("Ni lo sueñes").
Comment by @AlvaroMontoro

But some don't:

By the way, thanks for explaining the Nile part. The play on denial is lost in the German dub, so that part always felt extremely random to me. I'd even go so far and wager that the translators missed the joke in the first place
Comment by @hiergiltdiestfu

This makes me wonder. Do translators get a list of jokes from the scriptwriters, so they know that they should pay close attention on translating puns, or is it up to them to catch on to the puns, and find a way to translate it?

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    I always wondered about this myself, too. It especially came to my attention when I first watched Spaceballs in English after having seen it in German as a child. Some jokes got completely lost, some got replace by new ones (ballsy!) and others could be carried over alright. – Ian Jan 26 '18 at 10:05
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    @Ian ...and sometimes, translations will add completely new jokes for no evident reason. In the German version of Monty Python And the Holy Grail, the line “Perhaps we shouldn't go to Camelot, it's a silly place” is, if I recall correctly, translated with “Lass uns nicht nach Camelot gehen, der Fernsehempfang da ist schlecht” (Let's not go to Camelot, the TV signal there is bad). – leftaroundabout Jan 26 '18 at 14:13
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    Translators often even seem to lack the context of expressions they translate, which means that "bitcoin miners" gets translated to what means "mine workers that mine bits of coins" – PlasmaHH Jan 26 '18 at 16:50
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    I'm a native English speaker and I never got that joke until I read about it here. – Todd Wilcox Jan 26 '18 at 16:55
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    @Ian I haven't seen the German translation of that scene played out myself, but I'd wager they basically translated it as "some absurd reason to not go to Camelot, given that Arthur and his knights should want to go there given actual myth". Typically, British humor is... absurdly subtle; I suppose the German translation "turned up" the absurdity because a "literal" translation would haven been taken seriously. – errantlinguist Jan 26 '18 at 20:54

I am a translator who translated a couple of films into Russian, namely, Kevin Smith's Red State and Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus.

The "Red State" wasn't accompanied by a transcript. "Coriolanus" was—probably because it's much more serious material (Shakespeare word-for-word, though sentences were constructed out of parts of sentences that are used in the play, so it didn't sound like verse in English).

In the transcript for "Coriolanus", there were a couple of places where there were explanations for something (I don't remember what, I did it several years ago and I don't want to dig out my archives right now), but they were unnecessary because I understood those things without any outside help.

So, there are several observations that I'd like to make.

  1. Native speakers often don't have a good feeling of what would be understandable or not in their language. As I said, I didn't need help in those instances where the filmmakers thought a translator might need help. I did need help in other cases, and had to do extensive research; but this is what always happens when doing translation work.

  2. Not only puns can constitute a problem. Dialect words can constitute a problem, or an obscure period-specific slang word (you might remember the brouhaha around Trump's use of the word "shlong", which was actually used in the sense in which he used it only in NYC, and it was limited to one decade, I forget whether the 60s or 70s). It is practically impossible to foresee the level of knowledge of the translator who will be translating your work, or anyone's level of knowledge of a language in general. I remember being astounded once when it turned out that a 70-year-old person who had immigrated to Canada as a little child and speaks perfect English, albeit with a small accent, showed that she didn't know that ships were referred to as "she" rather than "it". People's progress in learning anything can be very uneven; it's all about the bulk of what you've accidentally stumbled upon or not stumbled upon, but also about a level of command of language that allows you to notice where something is "fishy" so maybe you are not understanding something and need to double-check what it means. E. g., I've only recently stumbled upon (and learned) that meaning of the word "purchase" that means "A hold or position that allows the application of power, as in moving something: [got a purchase for her foot and climbed up]." The context shows that it's not about buying something. But I do know translators who would not notice that something is wrong and would have tried to forge some convoluted sense involving a meaning of buying something. But this is simply about incompetent, or less competent, translators. Bottom line is, if a translator wouldn't get a pun, s/he is, let's say, an apprentice translator, and there would be many other cases, not involving puns, where s/he would stumble and misunderstand things. E.g. once I stumbled upon a book that referenced Johnny Cash's "I shot a man in Reno". The translator translated it as "shot a man in a Renault (the car)." This is not a case of missing on a pun (there was no pun). This is simply lack of general education: not knowing that Renault is a French brand of cars so it wouldn't be spelled as "Reno", and also missing on a language aspect—that it doesn't say "shot a man in a Reno/Renault" (the article would be required if this were a car). No native speaker would ever be able to predict that this might become a problem. But it is a problem only because the translator is fairly incompetent, both in not having a lot of general knowledge, and in having a bad feel for grammar. If a production company suspects that translators would be mediocre, it would be unable to predict what would constitute a problem. If a production company expects their partner distribution company in another country to hire a highly professional translator, explanations of puns would not be necessary because a good translator would sniff them out on their own (and just have a problem of how to translate it, because puns are rarely translatable—so they would need to come up with some creative solutions).

  3. That said, transcripts can be very helpful. Simply because sometimes a translator might mishear things acoustically, e. g., a character in a film might be speaking very quietly while there is shooting and explosions happening all around, etc. Characters can speak in weird accents. I once had to translate the trailer to The Decoy Bride where a lot of people speak with a strong Scottish accent. I made out almost everything, but there was one stubborn utterance which I couldn't decipher. I had a colleague who is a native (American) English speaker listen to it, and he was similarly unable to understand what was being said. So I just made up something harmless (which is never a good idea, but in this case there was no other way—I didn't have a transcript, and I had no access to Scottish people or someone familiar with the Scottish accent). While creating English subtitles for Battle for Sevastopol (so this is a case of hearing things being said in one's own native language), I totally missed one phrase (and the company got back to me about it) because the movie file they sent me had 5.1 sound and I don't have a 5.1 setup, and the phrase was quietly said by someone kind of from behind, so it was in one of those channels that simply got suppressed when being played on 2 speakers. So, in an ideal world, every movie would be accompanied by a transcript. And here we arrive at my final point.

  4. This depends on the level of professionalism and particularness of the production and/or distribution company. This isn't specific to translation of films; it could apply also to publishing companies, if we are talking about books. (I also translate non-fiction books into Ukrainian.) Normally, the file that is sent for translation is a pre-print PDF. But I was once sent a book for the purposes of evaluating whether I'd want to translate it. It was a pretty, um, disheveled Word document. So this was an example of the publishing house being unprofessional or not taking the foreign contracting party seriously. (I refused to translate that book for other reasons—I deemed the content of the book substandard and just didn't want to bother with a book that wasn't awesome.) So, again, professionalism—and also how much authors/producers care about their work being faithfully conveyed to speakers of other languages.

  • Nice answer, it's interesting to see a translator's perspective on this question. – JAD Jan 30 '18 at 10:30
  • @JAD Well, perspectives by someone who has never been involved in this process would be basically tantamount to speculation. ;) – tenebris2020 Jan 30 '18 at 10:46
  • Nice insight. From my knowledge distributor should have a transcript to translate. For two reasons. One is that it's easier to dub the movies when the timebrackets are set. And because subtitles are sometimes different than what is said in the movie. I've seen it in fansubs where the sub is too long to read before it go away and scene change. – SZCZERZO KŁY Jan 30 '18 at 15:15

No. Usually the distributor tries to find a translator that "feel" certain genre so their translations will be as close to original as it can be.

In Poland we had Irena Tuwim, a very talented poet and translator. She translated Winnie the Pooh in such a manner that didn't give Disney the rights to Milne's works in Poland. She basically created new names for everything such that it was closer to "spirit" of story instead of a dictionary translation. Her brother, Julian Tuwim (also a poet) said:

Translations are like women. Beautiful are not faithful. Faithful are not beautiful.

It seems that it's also an English proverb, a quote by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and an old French saying. So a quote is like an ass - everyone has one.

A skilled translator should be able to:

  1. Notice the joke
  2. Decide if the joke is noticeable to people who lack their knowledge
  3. Be able to create a whole new joke that would suit the situation

Again, an example from Poland: in the James Bond movie Goldfinger, there was a scene where a guy is crushed in a car. Bond comments that he had a pressing engagement, which is a play on words.

In Poland, the translator decided to alter the dialog so Goldfinger tells Mr. Solo that he needs to go and answer some questions. After seeing the crushed car, Bond says: it seems they pushed him too hard for an answer.

There are also jokes based on cultural context and current affairs. The translator needs to be aware that they perhaps watch CNN and FOX all day long and snack on SNL every week, but target audience may have no idea who Eddie Murphy is beside the Beverly Hills Cop.
So they may, for example, try to create jokes based on the people who's voices were used in his language versions.

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    *citations needed – SiXandSeven8ths Jan 26 '18 at 15:40
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    This one did catb.org/esr/writings/taoup/translation.html – Joshua Jan 26 '18 at 16:51
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    Unsurprising that the same people who have bad opinions about women also have bad opinions about translation... ;-) – R.. Jan 26 '18 at 21:08
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    She translated Winnie the Pooh in such a manner that didn't give Disney the rights to Milne's works in Poland This doesn't really say anything about the quality of the translation. It's easy to change names and translate in a way that differentiates the "translation" form the old in a way that makes it constitute a new work. – idmean Jan 27 '18 at 8:47
  • @idmean Suprisingly it does. Usually the translation is legally tied to it's source material. And so it happend to later "modern" translation. The one Tuwim did had so much material created just for it (poems for example) that it was treated as "inspired/based" on rather than "same thing only in different language". – SZCZERZO KŁY Jan 27 '18 at 17:44

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