Killing the Frog — The Challenge of Translating Jokes

Jason Muell
Jun 11 · 5 min read
Dissecting a frog and explaining a joke have a lot in common — they both end up dead

First off, I should explain the title: many years ago, back when I was in college, my math teacher used to make a lot of non sequitur jokes. I usually got them, but not everyone did. Without fail, someone would raise their hand and ask “I’m sorry, I don’t get it.”

He would smile wryly and respond:

“Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog — you learn a lot from it, but they’re both dead in the end.”

And that pretty much summarizes my feelings about translating from Japanese to English. It’s entirely possible for me to write a nice, lengthy footnote explaining the cultural connections and witty wordplay… but what do we all gain from that? Will the reader actually get a chuckle out of the text from learning that if one kanji were swapped for another, it would be something different? Or is it all an educational exercise?

The other option, of course, is to ignore the Japanese altogether and try to tell a similar English joke.

There are, of course, many different views on the role of the translator — either to give the reader an accurate play-by-play of what was said, or to help the author tell their story in another language.

Unfortunately, accuracy and natural flow are generally at odds with each other, and that is absolutely true when it comes to translating humor across languages… and culture.

Today I’m going to look at a few examples of jokes, and how I dealt with them in the past.

So the alien asks Stitch here:

“What has six faces and twenty-one eyes?”

Now, the obvious (… correct?) answer is a six-sided die. Stitch, being the lovable moron he is, guesses a six-faced ghost. Hilarious, and easy to translate. GO STITCH! So now you’re wonder what all the fuss it about, right? Well, the next one is a bit more challenging.

This next joke was less forgiving. For the second riddle, he asks:

“What bug is constantly falling down?”

As you and I both know, this is an obvious wordplay on 転倒 (tentou; to tumble) and テントウ虫 (tentou-mushi; ladybug). I mean, you did know that, right?

Of course, it’s entirely possible to explain this to the reader just like I did here. You write out the joke, Stitch has a very confused look on his face, and Pleakley comes to save the day and explains that it’s a ladybug. With a big, fat asterisk next to it. Then at the bottom of the page, I write something like this:

* In spoken Japanese, a ladybug and tumbling bug are homophones. This is a clever wordplay taking advantage of different kanji being read the same way.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure that’d be very entertaining for the reader. It takes you out of the story and ruins the humor of Stitch being dumb. I mean, you couldn’t guess, so it’s not too surprising he couldn’t either!

So option two is to write a totally different joke that is more natural to an English audience. Except… umm… stupid Stitch here is thinking about the joke, so the reader will notice if we don’t talk about bugs and spinning. THANKS STITCH, you jerk.

As an alternative, I ultimately changed the question to “What kind of bug is always spinning?” and Pleakley’s answer to “a spider!”

Last up, we’ve got a rapid fire question-and-answer with against Pleakley. Now that Stitch is out of the picture (except in the top-left panel), we’re welcome to try to translate as on-topic as possible without worrying about the image.

Question 5 (right panel)

“What is sometimes a dragonfly and sometimes a horse?”

The answer here is “bamboo,” because if you combine the kanji for bamboo with the kanji for horse, it becomes “stilts,” and the word for a bamboo helicopter toy is a combination of the kanji for bamboo and dragonfly.

This obviously won’t work in English and got reworked to a similar (if unrelated) joke — “What do pirates and cruises have in common?” (they’re both types of ships)

Question 6 (top-left panel)

“What food has 29,000 parts?”

SURPRISE! This is another kanji word play. The Japanese word for a steamed meat bun is 肉まん (nikuman). But ni, ku, and man can all be read as the numbers 2 (二; ni), 9 (九; ku), and 10000 (万; man) respectively.

Keeping with the spirit of the joke, I translated this as “What is the most numerous food?” with the answer being Thousand Island Dressing.

Question 7 (bottom-center panel)

“What do you call a super-heated cake?”

And… wait, for once, this joke totally works in English and Japanese! The answer is a “hotcake.” While most of my American friends are probably more familiar with “pancake,” you’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase “sells like hotcakes” before.

So there you have it! By no means definitive nor an end-all-be-all solution toward approaching jokes in translation, but I hope this at least serves as an interesting look into some of the difficulties translators face when bringing your favorite manga into English.

Want to see more content like this? Why not check out my other blog, Tuxedo Unmasked, or follow me on social media at @t_unmasked on Twitter and TuxedoUnmasked on Facebook!

Jason Muell

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Jason is a translator, blogger, and author. When he’s not serving as a human jungle gym for his young daughter, he can be found researching Japanese culture.

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