Humour in TV sitcoms: (un)translatable? by Lorenzo Iocco


Watching a dubbed episode of a TV sitcom can be alienating: we may hear canned laughter and wonder what there is to laugh about in what a character has just said. Later we might also wonder how difficult it is for a translator to deal with the task of translating humour.

We should bear in mind that translating does not involve only the linguistic aspects of a text. As frequently noted by translation scholars such as Professor Delia Chiaro of the University of Bologna, a translator must also have the ability to overcome cultural barriers that could make a text difficult for a wider audience to enjoy, even if the text produced by the translator may be very different from the original.

Audiovisual translation is one of the toughest branches of the discipline since the translator can only translate dialogue but what is shown on screen as well as sounds other than dialogue remain as they are in the original.

So is dubbing humour not just difficult, but perhaps impossible? A study of sitcoms such as Will & Grace or Friends both in the original version and the dubbed (Italian) versions suggests that the translator/adaptor’s task is not impossible, and even that the dubbed version can be as funny as the original, and sometimes even funnier.

I remember some hilarious lines from one episode of the first season of Will & Grace, when Will pretends he is drinking a fruit shake instead of a protein shake – I laughed more at the Italian version than at the original. In the original version Grace asks, “What fruit is grey?” and Will answers, “Pears!”, while in the Italian version she asks, “Quale frutta sa di droga?” and he answers, “Le pere!”, making the exchange even funnier (since the Italian word pere refers to both the fruit and, in slang, a heroin shot).

But I suggest that you see these sitcoms for yourself to realise that not only is dubbing not impossible, but also that translating audiovisual texts can be both inspiring and challenging.


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