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Translating Humor and Insults

How do you know when a novel is well translated? The key lies in keeping the author’s voice.

Most people see translation as a cut-and-dry process where the translator simply change a text from one language to another, word by word. But in reality, translators have a lot more to take into consideration. No one knows this better than faculty in the College of Humanities’ language departments—shown by the critical acclaim BYU translations have received recently. On March 28, 2024, during the Humanities Center Colloquium, Professor Emron Esplin (19th- and 20th-Century US Literature) interviewed Professors Daryl Hague (Translation Pedagogy) and Doug Weatherford (20th-Century Spanish American Narrative) on their own translation processes to see how they balance making translations accurate while keeping the original author’s voice.

This interview took place following Hague’s translation of the second two books in the Managua trilogy by Sergio Ramírez, and Weatherford’s translation of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. Weatherford’s translation received critical acclaim from outlets such as The New York Times and The London Magazine.

Photo of Professor Daryl Hague in a blue and white striped shirt
Professor Daryl Hague
Photo by Colby St. Gelais

As Hague began translating Ramírez’s trilogy, his biggest hurdle became preserving the humorous aspects of the novels for an English-speaking audience. Because humor so often depends on cultural backgrounds and wordplay, directly translating a joke from Spanish to English doesn’t always work.

Esplin asked Hague about a particular example where he modified a joke so an English-speaking audience could understand the point. Hague explained that his translation process in that instance relied on his understanding of Gatoro, the character who made the joke. Hague said, “Rather than translate the joke itself, I used what I consider a very bad joke . . . . If Gatoro heard it, I think he would have thought that was a really funny joke . . . . He thinks he’s a riot, but no one else thinks he’s remotely funny.”

While Hague had to figure out how to translate jokes, Weatherford had to translate Mexican insults for an English-speaking audience. Weatherford said, “You’re working on a level that nobody outside of Mexico is really going to understand . . . [Sometimes] the literal translation just isn’t going to work.”

Picture of Professor Doug Weatherford in a blue collared shirt
Professor Doug Weatherford
Photo by Colby St. Gelais

For example, Mexican villagers who have suffered at the hands of the government talk about the government’s “mother” as a way of strongly criticizing it. According to Weatherford, in Mexico, “if you want to insult someone, insult their mother.” Weatherford worried that audiences unfamiliar with Mexican culture wouldn’t recognize the insult in a literal translation, so he instead came up with this translation: “‘But we have no idea who mothered this government.’” This differed from the original Spanish or literal translation that used “mother” as a noun (mother of the government) rather than a verb. For English-speaking audiences, the verb treatment gave it the same sentiment that one might get from the sentence, “Did your mother teach you to act this way?”

Both Hague and Weatherford believe proper translation comes from knowing the material cover to cover. Hague said, “You don't start translating the novel until you’ve read the entire thing.” Weatherford agreed, saying, “I wanted Juan Rulfo to be the one that’s shown, not me.”

Learn more about Daryl Hague’s translations of the Managua trilogy and Doug Weatherford’s translation of Pedro Páramo.

The Humanities Center hosts lectures every Thursday at 3 p.m.