Lost in translation

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu May 25 17:36:43 UTC 2006

Lost in translation

The Brits often assume that Germans have no sense of humour. In truth,
writes comedian Stewart Lee, it's a language problem. The peculiarities of
German sentence construction simply rule out the lazy set-ups that British
comics rely on ...

Stewart Lee, Tuesday May 23, 2006

In 1873, the British scholar and traveller Professor Basil Hall
Chamberlain visited Japan. He recorded his views of the nation's music in
his subsequent book, Japanese Things: Being Notes On Various Subjects
Connected With Japan. "Music," he wrote, "if that beautiful word must be
allowed to fall so low as to denote the strummings and squealings of
Orientals, is supposed to have existed in Japan since mythological times
... but (its) effect is not to soothe, but to exasperate beyond all
endurance the European breast." Today this view seems shameful; we can see
that it was not, as Chamberlain assumed, that Japan had no musical
ability, but that it had no musical tradition that a Victorian professor
could recognise. The Japanese musical vocabulary was simply utterly alien
to him. Similarly, a commonly held contemporary British view is that the
Germans have no sense of humour. But can this be possible? Can there
genuinely be a nation incapable of laughter, or is it just that the German
language of laughter differs so greatly from our own, that it appears

Our attitude to the Germans and their supposed lack of a sense of humour
is best understood through the example of the joke known to comedy
professionals such as myself as The German Child. It goes like this. An
English couple have a child. After the birth, medical tests reveal that
the child is normal, apart from the fact that it is German. This, however,
should not be a problem. There is nothing to worry about. As the child
grows older, it dresses in lederhosen and has a pudding bowl haircut, but
all its basic functions develop normally. It can walk, eat, sleep, read
and so on, but for some reason the German child never speaks. The
concerned parents take it to the doctor, who reassures them that as the
German child is perfectly developed in all other areas, there is nothing
to worry about and that he is sure the speech faculty will eventually
blossom. Years pass. The German child enters its teens, and still it is
not speaking, though in all other respects it is fully functional. The
German child's mother is especially distressed by this, but attempts to
conceal her sadness. One day she makes the German child, who is now 17
years old and still silent, a bowl of tomato soup, and takes it through to
him in the parlour where he is listening to a wind-up gramophone record
player. Soon, the German child appears in the kitchen and suddenly
declares, "Mother. This soup is a little tepid." The German child's mother
is astonished. "All these years," she exclaims, "we assumed you could not
speak. And yet all along it appears you could. Why? Why did you never say
anything before?" "Because, mother," answers the German child, "up until
now, everything has been satisfactory." The implication of this fabulous
joke is that the Germans are ruthlessly rational, and this assumption
leaves us little room to imagine them finding time to be playful. But be
assured, the German sense of humour not only exists, it actually
flourishes, albeit in a form we are ill-equipped to recognise.

In December 2004 I accompanied Richard Thomas, the composer of the popular
stage hit Jerry Springer The Opera, to Hanover, where he had gained a
commission to develop an opera about a night in a British stand-up comedy
club. We wrote the words in English and Richard then collaborated on a
translation with a talented German comedy writer called Hermann Bruer.
There were two initial problems with this comedically, one cultural and
one linguistic. First, the idea of stand-up is somewhat alien to the
Germans. They have a cabaret tradition of sophisticated satire,
cross-dressing and mildly amusing songs, and there are also recognisable
mainstream, low-brow comedy tropes in the form of vulgar popular
entertainers. But the idea of the conversational, casual, middle-ground of
English speaking stand-up comedy is unknown to the Germans. Indeed,
initial attempts by the Hannover Schauspielhaus set designers to render a
typical British comedy club floundered as they attempted to formalise the
idea of a stand-up venue, and it was a struggle to explain that we needed
to reduce the room to a bare black box rather than attempt to give it a
cabaret stage vibe. Second, this instinct to formalise a genre of comedy
we accept as inherently informal is not indivisible from the limitations
the German language imposes on conventional British comedy structures. The
flexibility of the English language allows us to imagine that we are an
inherently witty nation, when in fact we just have a vocabulary and a
grammar that allow for endlessly amusing confusions of meanings.

At a rough estimate, half of what we find amusing involves using little
linguistic tricks to conceal the subject of our sentences until the last
possible moment, so that it appears we are talking about something else.
For example, it is possible to imagine any number of British stand-ups
concluding a bit with something structurally similar to the following, "I
was sitting there, minding my own business, naked, smeared with salad
dressing and lowing like an ox ... and then I got off the bus." We laugh,
hopefully, because the behaviour described would be inappropriate on a
bus, but we had assumed it was taking place either in private or perhaps
at some kind of sex club, because the word "bus" was withheld from us.
Other suitable punchlines for this set-up would be, "And that was just the
teachers", "I was 28-years-old" and "That's the last time I attempt to
find work as a research chemist in Paraguay." There is even a technical
term used by those who direct comedy on camera to describe this
one-size-fits-all mechanism. Eddie Large is gasping for air as a hot dog
falls into the end of his snorkel. The shot widens to reveal Sid Little,
whose sausages are flying into the air out of his hot-dog buns because he
is using too much ketchup. Pull back and reveal.  But German will not
always allow you to shunt the key word to the end of the sentence to
achieve this failsafe laugh. After spending weeks struggling with the
rigours of the German language's far less flexible sentence structures to
achieve the endless succession of "pull back and reveals" that constitute
much English language humour, the idea of our comedic superiority soon
begins to fade. It is a mansion built on sand.

The German phenomenon of compound words also serves to confound the
English sense of humour. In English there are many words that have double
or even triple meanings, and whole sitcom plot structures have been built
on the confusion that arises from deploying these words at choice moments.
Once again, German denies us this easy option. There is less room for
doubt in German because of the language's infinitely extendable compound
words. In English we surround a noun with adjectives to try to clarify it.
In German, they merely bolt more words on to an existing word. Thus a
federal constitutional court, which in English exists as three weak
fragments, becomes Bundesverfassungsgericht, a vast impregnable structure
that is difficult to penetrate linguistically, like that Nazi castle in
Where Eagles Dare. The German language provides fully functional clarity.
English humour thrives on confusion.

Third, for the smutty British comic writers, it seemed difficult to find a
middle-ground between scientifically precise language describing sexual
and bodily functions, and outright obscenity. There seemed to be no
nuanced, nudge-nudge no-man's land, where English comic sensibilities and
German logic could meet on Christmas Day and kick around a few dirty jokes
in a cheeky, Carry On-style way. A German theatre director explained that
this was because the Germans did not find the human body smutty or funny,
due to all attending mixed saunas from an early age. Later on in my stay I
found myself explaining to the dramaturg of Hannover Schauspielhaus why
English was a great language for comedy, with its possibility for
confusion of meaning and the flexibility of its sentences.  "There is no
need for you to be so proud of yourself," she explained in precise and
accurate English, "it is not as if you personally invented the English
language. You merely inherited it by the geographical accident of your
birth." I laughed, and everything finally fell into place.

The geographical accident of Germany has denied Germans the fun we have
with language, and it seemed to me that their sense of humour was built on
blunt, seemingly serious statements, which became funny simply because of
their context. I looked back over the time I had spent in Hannover and
suddenly found situations that had seemed inexplicable, even offensive at
the time, hilarious in retrospect. On my first night in Hannover I had
gone out drinking with some young German actors. "You will notice there
are no old buildings in Hannover," one of them said. "That is because you
bombed them all." At the time I found this shocking and embarrassing. Now
it seems like the funniest thing you could possibly say to a nervous
English visitor. Since watching jokes I co-wrote for our German production
withering in the translation process, all their contrived weaknesses
exposed, I have stopped writing jokes as such, and feel I am a better
stand-up because of it. I try now to write about ideas, that would be
funny in any language, and don't rely on pull- back and reveals and
confusion of meaning. Germany kicked away my comedy crutches and taught me
to walk unaided. I am hugely grateful to the Germans. Since you asked, the
stand-up opera went OK, and sooner or later we'll stage it in Britain, in
English, where it will make a lot more sense. To paraphrase Simon Munnery,
a British comedian so rigorous in his intellect he is almost German, there
is much we can learn from watching the Germans. Not as much, however, as
they can learn from watching us.

Are you kidding?
Some Germans tell us their jokes ...

Andrea Foss, 46, Schleswig Holstein

"What is romantic?" "I don't know." "When a man strokes a woman tenderly
with a feather."

"What is perverse?" "I don't know." "When the chicken is still attached."

Tabea Rudolph, 26, Stuttgart

There are problems in the woods. The animals of the forest are always
drunk, so the fox decides to ban alcohol. The following day, the fox spies
a rabbit hanging out of a tree, clearly wasted. The fox ticks him off, and
carries on his way. But the next day he sees the rabbit drunk again, and
gives him a final warning. The next day, the fox does his rounds and
there's no sign of the rabbit, but he notices a straw sticking out of a
stream. Wondering what it is, the fox scoops it out, only to find a very
drunk rabbit on the other end of it. "How many times do I have to tell you
that animals of the forest aren't allowed alcohol?" says the Fox. "We
fishes don't give a toss what the animals of the forest aren't allowed to
do," says the rabbit

Gerhard Bischof, Bad Toelz, 57

A man jumps out of a plane for the first time. At 3,000m he tries to undo
his parachute, but the cord fails. At 2,000m he tries to open the
emergency chute but that doesn't work either. At 1,000m he bumps into a
man wearing blue overalls, carrying a spanner. "Can you repair
parachutes?" asks the first man. "'Fraid not," says the other. "I only do

Wolfgang Voges, 56, from lower Saxon

Three priests hold a meeting to discuss where life begins. The evangelical
priest says, "No question about it, life begins when the child is born."
"No, no," says the Catholic priest, "it all starts when the sperm meets
the egg." "You're both wrong," says the Rabbi. "Life begins when the
children have left home and the dog is dead."

Guardian Unlimited  Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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