Interpreting Humor and Jokes: Who has the Last Laugh?

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I’m very excited to share with you this very special post –  the first guest post on the Medical Interpreter Blog! The idea for it came about when I was attending the California Healthcare Interpreting Association’s 20th Educational Conference conference in San Diego, California.  I attended many excellent workshops and presentations that day, but one presentation, Humor and Jokes: Who has the Last Laugh? was particularly enjoyable, not least because the team presenting it was also from Seattle!  So when I approached Tamas Farkas and Michaela Kiley of the Cross Cultural Health Care Program (CCHCP) after their talk, they humored me (pun intended!) and kindly agreed to share their ideas with readers of this blog. So now you, too, can learn why dealing with humor in medical settings is no joke and what to do when somebody decides to make a pun.

Interpreting Humor and Jokes: Who has the Last Laugh?

What happens when either the patient or the provider makes a joke during an interpreting assignment? Or maybe worse, what do you do if someone flirts with you during an assignment? These unpredictable situations may seem harmless and playful to the person making the joke but could lead to awkward and uncomfortable feelings for everyone. Having some tools and tips to help navigate these situations will make your job easier! Practicing the skills to interpret humor across cultures can help you strengthen the patient-provider relationship, leading to better health outcomes and fewer barriers to health for limited English proficient patients. 

Whether you’re a new or experienced interpreter, the tools and tips here will help you prepare to interpret humor in the future. You may also use these tips to consider past experiences of interpreting humor and how the situation could have been improved. Through our research and experiences, we’ve compiled six tips to consider when interpreting humor, along with two examples to show how we can put some of these tips into action. 

If learning about humor is interesting to you, we recommend this website. The Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado in Boulder studies humor in-depth and came up with the benign violation theory to explain how we determine jokes to be funny. When contemplating how to interpret a joke, you may consider whether the joke is benign (harmless, inconsequential, not important) or a violation (a physical threat, an identity threat, wrong). When something is both benign and a violation, it will likely be perceived as humorous. This can help guide your decision making when interpreting humor. 

Before diving in, we’d like to address culture, a critical component to interpreting humor, and frankly to all interpreting. Understanding some themes in humor and how they relate to the culture of the target and source language will help you decide which of these tips to use and when. Keep in mind that these tips are suggestions and may not be applicable to every situation. Doing some research about what things are found to be funny in certain cultures and exploring different cultural themes around humor can help us understand why certain jokes are or are not funny. We recommend doing some independent research to get an idea of what makes something funny in your target and source language, and how those two languages are similar and different. 

While there are some common themes across various cultures about what is funny, like body odor and physical ailments (Paris 2019), we must also consider that culture has a major impact on what is acceptable, wrong, or logical (Humor Research Lab 2015). Don’t forget about the active culture, which is “a person’s unique outlook, shaped by their individual life experiences” (The Cross Cultural Health Care Program 2014). While every culture has some shared beliefs, norms, and practices, we cannot assume that those will be reflected in every individual within a culture at any given time. 

While reading the following six tips, consider how they would work in your languages and cultural contexts. We won’t be able to apply each of these to every situation, but we hope they provide an opportunity for reflection. It may be helpful to invent your own scenarios or use ones that you’ve experienced previously and envision some alternative modes of action. When doing this, always consider the interpreter code of ethics! Accuracy, respect, and cultural competence are going to be key here. 

Find an equivalent in the target language

Sometimes a joke can be slightly tweaked so that the cultural reference makes sense in the other language while maintaining the intended meaning of the joke. For example, maybe the source of the joke is a pun that you can find a similar pun or wordplay for in the other language. For more information about interpreting puns, we recommend this article. The nine strategies for translating puns outlined in this article were originally developed for translation purposes, but you may find them useful to apply to interpreting puns as well. 

Do a literal interpretation, if possible

This option may be tricky as an interpreter, hence the “if possible.” Depending on the language and cultural references, maybe the joke can be directly interpreted. When considering the interpreter’s roles, this would fall under the role of the conduit. Remember to maintain the delivery of the joke by considering tone, volume, rate of speech, and timing. 

Explain why it’s funny as opposed to delivering the joke

When it comes to interpreting in the medical setting, summarization is not recommended often, but when a joke is too complicated to interpret, or the cultural references are not applicable, you may want to summarize the joke or provide an explanation of why it was funny. It may not end up being as much comic relief as the joke teller hoped for, but the goal is to convey the meaning. In doing so, we can ensure the strength of the patient-provider relationship even if we miss out on some of the shades of meaning.

If you laugh, you must explain why you laughed

When someone tells a joke that we think is funny, the immediate reaction of laughing is hard to anticipate and control. When this happens, you must explain why you laughed through a summarization or by interpreting the joke the best you can. Here as example from the Cross Cultural Health Care Program’s Tamas Farkas that shows why this tip is so important: 

“I used to manage an interpreting agency before working at CCHCP, so we contracted interpreters to various jobs. One interpreter had an assignment to interpret for a woman at a woman’s housing facility. The appointment included the interpreter, the patient, and the social worker who spoke English. When the social worker asked the patient “Are you married?”, the interpreter interpreted the question to the patient. After the patient responded in her language to the interpreter, the interpreter proceeded to laugh then simply interpreted “no” back to the social worker. Later that day I got a call from the social worker who was very upset that the interpreter had laughed at the patient for being single. After calling the interpreter to figure out what happened, I learned that the patient had made a joke to the extent of “No, but maybe I could marry you.” The interpreter felt it would have been unprofessional interpreting this flirtatious remark, thinking the social worker would not find it funny.” 

This is a great example of why it’s important for everyone in the session to be aware of all communication. If you can’t interpret the joke accurately, this may be a good time to jump into the clarifier role and explain why you laughed or ask for clarification from the person making the joke. 

Don’t start unless you know you can end it

Our next tip is relevant if you choose to interpret the joke as opposed to explaining why it’s funny or summarizing the joke. If you interpret the joke by finding an equivalent or doing a literal translation, make sure you can carry out the joke in its entirety. It’s hard to make this decision quickly, so perhaps the joke is one you already know or have had to interpret in other situations. In either case, we are providing this tip to make the point that you should be confident in your interpretation if you choose to interpret the joke or humorous situation. 

Make a joke out of the situation 

Rather than finding a way to make sure the joke is perceived accurately in the other language, you could make a joke out of the situation. A great example of this is a (possibly fictional) story of a speech by President Jimmy Carter in Japan. The president made a joke that the interpreter would have been very difficult to interpret. As a solution, the interpreter says, “President Carter told a funny story. Please laugh.” This tactic was well received, and the crowd was roaring with laughter and the president was therefore very pleased. Whether this story is true or not, it highlights the fact that the intention behind the joke can sometimes be more important than the joke itself.

As you reflect on these tips and how they will apply to you and your experiences, remember to always consider the code of ethics, and the cultural references behind a joke. Rather than dwelling too much on how you’re going to interpret a joke, the important thing to remember is ensuring the intended meaning is conveyed. The meaning may be as simple as making a personal connection and strengthening the patient-provider relationship.

About the authors:

Tamas Farkas is the Director of Language Access Programs for CCHCP: Bridging the Gap medical interpreting training and Connecting to Care: Patient Guide training.  Tamas is a linguist, trainer and interpreter, with fluency in five languages. Born in Budapest, Hungary, Tamas moved to the United States in 1999. He attended the Metropolitan State University of Denver, spending one year abroad in Switzerland studying at the University of Fribourg. After graduating with a B.A. in German and French, he spent a year in San Juan, Puerto Rico learning Spanish. He worked as a medical interpreter before becoming the manager of the Interpreter Network of Spring Institute. He became a trainer for the Bridging the Gap program in 2016 and has been training Bridging the Gap since then. Tamas also enjoys making art and doing outdoors activities like biking and swimming.

Michaela Kiley is the Communications and Program Coordinator for both of CCHCP’s language access programs: Bridging the Gap medical interpreting training and Connecting to Care: Patient Guide training. Michaela supports the Language Access Programs Director with program development, marketing, and outreach in coordination with our language access trainings. She graduated from the University of Montana with a Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Communication and International Development Studies. Having worked as an English as a Second Language instructor in Vermont and South Korea, she is passionate about education and is excited to bring her experience in intercultural communication to this position.  In her free time, Michaela enjoys hiking, running, and skiing.

The Cross Cultural Health Care Program (CCHCP) is a nonprofit training and consulting organization founded in 1992. Our mission is to serve as a bridge between communities and health care institutions to advance access to quality health care that is culturally and linguistically appropriate. Our three programs include Bridging the Gap medical interpreter training, Equity and Inclusion, and Connecting to Care patient guide training. All of our programs include a training of trainers component, so you can bring this curriculum to your community. Please visit this link if you’d like to learn more about any of our programs. If you are interested in medical interpreter training in the Seattle area, please click here for upcoming training dates and learn about our scholarship opportunity this year.

Featured image: Image by macrovector on Freepik

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