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This is a somewhat generic issue, I suppose, in that it affects both English-to-German and German-to-English translation.

Today I came across what I thought was an example of good German wordplay:

. . . und alles isst gut.

instead of

. . . und alles ist gut.

My question is, how does one translate between the two languages to convey the subtlety of wordplay. For instance, what to do with the line:

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

And any similar examples like the above? What do translators do when they come across something that only makes sense when one realizes the joke at hand?

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Each language has its own word plays, and some things just can't be translated directly. Translators can usually convey the meaning but not always the specific ironic expression that may only make sense to the native or someone who can pick out the rhyming sound or whatever. Those puns and expressions are part of what defines a language's uniqueness to its people. –  Kevin Mar 25 '12 at 1:45
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@userunknown: It's a wordplay on the two different meanings of like (first: similarity, second: liking something) and flies (first: 3rd person of the verb fly, second: plural of the noun fly). –  musiKk Mar 25 '12 at 8:48
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This question is very generic indeed. It's not just a DE/EN or EN/DE problem but rather a x/y problem where x and y are any two different languages. I really don't think there is a generic answer. In any case this probably belongs to linguistics. –  musiKk Mar 25 '12 at 8:52
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Ah - jetzt klingelt's. I'm glad we have noun merging "Fruchtfliegen != Frucht fliegen" - auch wenn es mündlich natürlich ginge, wenn es bei "like" eine funktionierende Doppeldeutigkeit gäbe. –  user unknown Mar 25 '12 at 8:56
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In some rare cases it may be better not to translate the joke at all. One example from the simpsons: Flanders is talking about religious pay-TV, I call it pray-TV. German Version: Religiöses Bezahlfernsehen, ich nenne es auch Gebetsfernsehen. I think most people would have understood Religiöses Pay-TV, ich nenne es Pray-TV. And for those who didn't it wouldn't have ruined anything... –  Lukas Mar 27 '12 at 7:12

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

What do translators do when they come across something that only makes sense when one realizes the joke at hand?

Good question! Incidentally, one of the popular examples given when you want to demonstrate the importance of context and analysis in translation is just two words long:

Time flies.

This works as "Time flies (when you're having fun)" or as "Time flies (with a stopwatch)." Accordingly, the translation will differ radically, but you must know the context. In language, "time flies" is a bit like the rabbit-duck illusion known from the visual arts.

It seems that the copywriters at the ad agency used by German airline Condor were fooling around one day and hit on "Wir lieben Fliegen" as the new corporate slogan. Personally, I'm not sure that it's 100% successful. They want it to mean "We love flies" / "We love flying", but grammatically it works only for the first meaning, not the second (properly, that should be "Wir lieben das Fliegen"). If "Wir lieben Fliegen" were a rabbit-duck-visual, only the rabbit would look lifelike, and you'd have to squint really hard to make the duck show :)

To drive the point home, they show a fly on every advertisement. I don't know about you, but flies are not my favorite animals. Not to gross you out, but think about what they eat!

And how did Condor's high-powered ad team translate the German slogan (and the fly visual) into English? Have a look... and judge for yourself how successful they were.

The lesson, if there is a lesson, is that word-play often does not travel well across a language barrier but arrives worse for the wear. Frequently you're better off starting from scratch and building something different for every market.

Edit to add a question: When PET soft-drink bottles first came out, the German industry association launched a billboard campaign showing a PET bottle with a single word below it: Unkaputtbar. How would you translate this neologism (which I loved, btw) into English? Answer in the comments below, please.

Edit #2: O.K., so despite my pleas for the context around und alles isst gut, the Opening Poster (OP) has not been back to supply it. However, DuckDuckGo decided to be my friend today and gave me a website called genussprojekt.at as the first hit. Clicking on it takes me to a webpage containing nothing but a Shockwave Flash movie, which my trusty NoScript extension protects me from loading automatically. Bad idea, who is their website designer? Anyway, the search engine quotes this excerpt from their webpage:

Vom Frühstück [sic] bis Abends [sic] unsere Gäste zu verwöhnen, Ihnen [sic] Genuss zu bereiten und ein einzigartiger [sic] Ambiente zu schaffen, war [sic] die Idee und der Name Genussprojekt ...

Even that brief excerpt makes it clear that you are dealing with functional illiterates (which says nothing about their ability as chefs, of course). So, what should you do if as the translator you are requested to give them an English-language equivalent? Why, give them what they ask for!

Eats all good.

Does that make you cringe? It should, but what do you care. The client will be happy with it. That's a quick 500 euros, and you can console yourself by spending some of that money to buy a DVD of Idiocracy.

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+1 aber da Condor vllt iwann mal seinen Slogan ändert, wäre es sinnvoll, diesen hier zu verewigen ;p –  Em1 Mar 27 '12 at 6:48
    
@Em1 Schon wahr... aber momentan wollte ich die Spannung ganz gerne noch erhalten :) –  Eugene Seidel Mar 27 '12 at 6:58
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I should add that there are counterexamples. The most outstanding achievement, perhaps, is Hans Wollschläger's German translation (or re-creation) of James Joyce's Ulysses. Of course, Wollschläger took liberties... but he had to. One example from popular culture where the translator(s) did a good job, in my opinion, is the Hollywood movie Donny Brasco (starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino). I saw it in German first and was curious what "Hey Mann, piss die Wand an, Mann" had been originally. Turns out it was "Hey man, fuhgeddaboudid.") In this case, I liked the translation better (cont'd.) –  Eugene Seidel Mar 27 '12 at 8:10
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(cont'd.) than the original. The sound of it is just right. When Donny and the "made men" grunt "fuhgeddaboudid", they are reassuring each other of their (minors, avert your eyes) "bigswingingdickness". And as "piss die Wand an, Mann", this resonates down through the ages, all the way to the Book of Kings, in a way that "fuhgeddaboudid" cannot. –  Eugene Seidel Mar 27 '12 at 8:22
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For some extreme examples, see the "translations" of "Der Werwolf" at http://arnoldzwicky.org/2010/07/01/der-werwolf/ or Google "Werwolf English translation" for more examples. The bottom line seems to be that one has to understand "translation" quite liberally.

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Generally speaking, this isn't possible. The function of a translation is not to serve as an index to the words of the original, but convey the meaning.

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This reminds me of an anecdote I heard a few years ago (written from memory):

A prime minister was visiting a foreign country. Since he couldn't speak the language he was assisted by a translator.

At some point during his speech the prime minister made a joke. The translator made a little pause, smirked and said:

"The prime minister made a joke. I'm afraid it can't be translated."

This made the whole audience chuckle and the prime minister proceeded with his speech completely unaware that it was not his joke they were laughing about.

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