No Joke: When Movie Context Goes MIA

Sometimes, movie mistranslations are hilarious. In China, popular film The Full Monty had its title translated as Six Naked Pigs, according to ShortList, while moviegoers in Sweden got cult classic Swinger re-titled as Hey, Where Are the Babies?

More recently, mega-hit Guardians of the Galaxy got a makeover in China as Interplanetary Unusual Attacking Team. And, as io9 points out, there is still some wiggle room for context—it could also be translated as Interstellar Special Ability Team.

Less funny, however, are the film’s Chinese subtitles, which apparently don’t quite capture the wit and camp of James Gunn’s comic book adventure. When it comes to translating comedy, is it possible for marketing directors to make sure everyone gets the joke?

Puns, Homophones, and Wordplay, Oh My!

According to Cinema Blend, much of Guardians’ appeal comes from the film’s wordplay—and most of this context is lost in the Chinese subtitles. Social media user Gudabaihua, who cataloged many of the translation mistakes, noted that much of the problem came from puns and homophones that weren’t properly translated or weren’t translated at all. If your story leans heavily on one-liners and quick-witted interchanges among characters, this is a big problem. But is there any way to take what’s funny in one language and make it hilarious in another?

A study from Translation Journal looked at how humor from the massively popular movie Shrek translated into other languages. The study selected an exchange in which the evil Lord Farquaad interrogates the Gingerbread Man to obtain information about a secret hideout. Instead, the two end up quoting The Muffin Man, with Lord Farquaad thinking he’s put one over on the poor cookie. Researchers examined responses to this exchange when translated into Polish and Spanish and found that while voice dubbing managed to carry over most of the “humorous load” by using local examples, subtitles only conveyed 70 percent of the original humor. In other words, it’s a tough nut to crack.

No Funny Business

Movies are the most obvious examples of just how difficult it can be to translate humor, but many international brands also rely on “in-jokes” and culturally based humor to help get their message across. The result? Companies need high quality translation to create compelling messages that keep humor in context. Translation software platforms offer speed and quality by automatically collecting your content while allowing you to leverage human experts for cultural insights. Instead of opting for literalism, expert translators consider context, meaning, and reception, then offer multiple choices to make sure any use of humor is intentional, not accidental.

Get funny right, and consumers will remember your name and your product. Get it wrong, and they’ll still talk about you, but for all the wrong reasons.

Expert tips from Smartling


About Doug Bonderud

Doug Bonderud is a freelance technology writer with a passion for telling great stories about unique brands. For the past five years, he's covered everything from cloud computing to home automation and IT security. He speaks some French, is fluent in Ancient Greek and a master of Canadian English — and yes, colour needs a 'u'.