Yes, Jokes Do Translate

But even when they don’t they can still make us laugh.

A duck walks into a bar and asks the bartender, “Got any grapes?”

“No,” says the bartender. The duck exits the bar.

The duck returns the next day at the same time and asks the same question: “Got any grapes?”

“No,” the bartender replies in a voice decidedly more irritated-sounding than the previous day.

The duck leaves.

The next day the duck returns once again, and once again asks: “Got any grapes?”

This time the bartender loses his temper. “That’s it!” he yells. “If you ever come in here again and ask me if I have any grapes I’m going to nail your stupid duck bill to the tabletop!”

The duck leaves, seemingly unperturbed.

The duck returns the following day still, but this time he asks a slightly different question.

“Got any nails?” he poses.

“Huh?” says the bartender, taken aback by the unexpected question.

“Got any nails?” the duck repeats.

“Uh, no,” responds the bartender, unsure of where this line of inquiry is leading.

The duck then responds: “Got any grapes?”

[Insert drum roll]

The first time I heard this joke was in a high school French class, in the French language. I’ve subsequently retold it in all three other languages that I speak (English, Spanish, and Japanese), as well as to speakers of other languages in various types of ESL class. Of all the jokes I know, this one seems to be the most universally funny. In every language and every cultural context, it has never failed to get laughs.

Of course, even this joke requires some subtle modification for telling in other languages. For example, any “X walks into a bar” joke told in Japanese works best when you substitute bar with izakaya, as in 『鴨が居酒屋に入った。』(ahiru ga izakaya ni haitta, or “A duck entered the pub-style restaurant.”) but this is a pretty minor change. (In Islamic countries one might substitute “bar” with “tea house” or the like.)

But otherwise everything works everywhere. Ducks of one sort or another are indigenous to every continent except Antarctica, and even if this weren’t the case you could substitute the duck for virtually any other animal. (I just happen to like the image of the duck in this scenario.) Just about everybody everywhere eats grapes, or at least knows what they are, and again you could substitute these for any other grocery item not normally served in a drinking establishment. And unless you’re from North Sentinel Island or some other locale untouched by the outside world — and metallurgy, you’re presumably familiar with nails.

There are other jokes that travel well between languages and cultures. Another one of my favourites is the one about the priest (substitute imam or whatever), the politician, and the engineer about to be executed by guillotine. The first two escape with their lives when the blade gets stuck an inch above their necks before the engineer puts his head through the hole, watches the executioner prepare the machine for the task at hand, and explains, “Ah, I see what you’re doing wrong!”

But while these jokes are great fun and serve as excellent language teaching tools, the jokes that are much more culture and language-specific can also be very instructive, as well as very amusing — even beyond their normal cultural confines.

I was a lover of bad puns long before I first got to Asia, but my six years in Japan and extensive travels elsewhere on the continent made me a devotee of Asian-style “dad jokes” or oyaji jodan (“old man jokes”) as the Japanese call them. The languages of the Sinosphere (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese) are all replete with amusing homophones, which, combined with the pithy compactness the current and/or historic use of Chinese characters bestowed on them, make them perfect for hard-core punnery.

One of my favourite clever Asian puns came at the expense of former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a man who now has the honour of laughing at himself from behind prison bars thanks to a 2018 bribery conviction. A contemporary of US President George W. Bush whose fundamentist Christian faith and frequent verbal gaffes reminded many of the 43rd commander-in-chief, President Lee was to become known by many of his younger detractors as 2MB, which was both a play on his name — the Korean surname Lee (李 in hanja, 이 in hangul) is a homonym for the number two — and a statement on his supposedly low brain capacity.

This may not translate beyond Korea, or at least beyond Asia, but as a language geek I think this is awesome. It’s also only three characters long, which I find amazing. Compactness is, after all, half the beauty of Asian languages. Spell the word niwatori (chicken) in Roman letters and you’ve used eight characters. Spell it in kanji and you only need one character (鶏).

Jokes and humour also tell the story of people’s cultures and history. Just as Jewish and Irish people are famous for their savage wit — the product of centuries of pain and suffering, the same is true of many other peoples, I’ve come to discover. Afghan humour is, unsurprisingly, as dry and unforgiving as the country’s landscape, much of which is aimed squarely at the bearded religious psychopaths who terrorized the country from 1994 to 2001 and continue to wreak havoc in the hinterlands. Such jokes tend to translate pretty well, given a bit of historical background, as do Russian jokes, which tend to revolve around mafioso, the oligarch set, and of course Big Vladdy himself.

We’re often told that jokes lose their funniness when explained. I tend to disagree. While the impact of a joke may not land the same way that it does when the listener understands every word, there’s a joy to be had in figuring out why a joke is funny, and in the process gaining a new appreciation of a different culture’s unique vantage points. As the Korean 2MB pun illustrates, even when jokes aren’t quite translatable, they still have the capacity to make us giggle.

What, after all, is laughter if not an emotional reaction to having been surprised and entertained by something unexpected and clever (or perhaps unexpected and stupid)? It’s also the most powerful means I’ve found of connecting with people from very different walks of life from your own, including people from half way around the world. I’ve never laughed harder than I have in my ESL classes, and the jokes I’ve shared, while not always brilliant, have if nothing else served as valuable icebreakers and vehicles of language learning.

Start with the one about the duck and the grapes. It kills the world over, and in any language. Trust me.