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The art of translation #2 Von

23.06.2014

In the first part of this blog series on translation, the difficulties of literary translation were discussed. What about the more modern challenges translators face in light of social media and culturally-specific jokes during a conference talk?

What is funny in one language, isn't necessarily so in another language. The process for translating TED speeches for global viewers is a labour of love. Maysoon Zayid's 2013 TEDwomen talk "I got 99 problems... palsy is just one" presented many challenges for TED translators to faithfully convey the comedy from her talk into their language.

As Maysoon recounts stories from her life as a Palestinian-American comedian with cerebral palsy, her talk is peppered with wordplay and cultural nuances. For translators, it's part of their job to convey meaning, but how do they ensure non-English speakers can laugh at the jokes too?

For Dutch translator Valérie Boor, the key is simplicity. "What I think is difficult in translating humor is that you always want to translate all the aspects in which a joke is funny," she says. "Quite often, you'll have to choose and let one or more aspects go untranslated."

The problem with translating verbal humor is that a literal translation often doesn't make sense. A line that confused many of the translators, came from relatively simple wordplay that Zayid weaves through the talk: "My parents didn't believe in 'can't.' My father's mantra was, 'You can do it, yes you can can.'" She ends her talk with the same line: "If I can can, you can can."

"In some languages, this would sound the same—for instance, in German it would be 'Ich kann kann,'" says French translator Elise Lecamp. "But in French, 'Je peux peux' doesn't really work."

In a globalised world where technology and the internet are part and parcel of our daily lives, the art of translation is arguably more important today than ever before. More than conveying meaning, it brings classical and modern literary works to life and ensures important speeches and culturally-specific humour can be appreciated by a broad international audience.

This article was written by guest author Petra Zlatevska.

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