By Jeroen van Mastbergen and Goltan Varashk
Dutch author Jeroen van Mastbergen enlisted the help of translator Goltan Varashk to translate his Young Adult title, The Future is Ruled By Smarty Pants, in English. Here they tell us about the process of working together––and the challenges of translating jokes!
This is a report straight from the trenches about the trials and tribulations––and more importantly––the fun of working with a translator to translate a humorous book into English.
Before we delve into the ‘humor problem’, let us take a slight detour: plot twists.
A good plot twist remains a very useful way of enticing and surprising your readers. Even if the reader sees the plot twist coming, it still propels the story forward, and those who saw it coming can still agree that the plot twist adds something valuable to the story.
When it comes to humor, things are slightly different. You either think something is funny or you don’t––either you get it or … you simply don’t. If it doesn’t make you laugh––or at least make you let out a small puff of air that slightly resembles a chuckle––there is no point in continuing the story. It’s truly all or nothing.
Take, for instance, the Knights who say Ni from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s possibly the funniest thing in the world (to me), but some people don’t get the joke. For them, it’s just Michael Palin in a strange helmet. No amount of explaining the joke will ever make it funny for someone who didn’t collapse in a fit of laughter the first time they saw it––a sad day, indeed.
As a writer, having a translator with the same sense of humor was the most important step in the translation process.
We can all understand that some words and sentence structures can change in a different language, but this is especially true for puns or play on words. For instance, the translator I work with had a funny anecdote: she got into the business because she was always frustrated by the terrible translations of jokes and pop culture reference in her language pairings. For a popular tv show, she was asked to do a quality check of the subtitling and immediately spotted that a hilarious joke, a golden opportunity even, was skipped––the joke was either not understood by the original translator or the creativity was simply lacking. She got her hands on it and left us with this gem:
Character from Boston: There are more knobs here than a hardware store. (We will refrain from explaining this joke)
Dutch Translation: Er zijn hier meer eikels dan in het bos.
For non-Dutch readers: ‘Eikel’ means ‘acorn’, so the literal translation here is, There are more acorns here than there are in the woods. Now, you should know that ‘eikel’ is a Dutch profanity, comparable to ‘knobhead’ or ‘dickhead’ in UK/US English. *Pause for applause*
In a way, humor is simultaneously the same and different across languages, so one has to get creative––but the sentiment, that what makes it funny, can remain the same. You just need to ‘get it’ in order to (re)produce it. Within the translation world, there is something that goes beyond ‘translation’, it’s called ‘transcreation’ – similar to localizing a product in a different country. The point, the message, the product needs to be a hit with the new target group in this new language. You cannot merely translate the words and be done with it.
Don’t be afraid to make changes and add something new.
As a translator, I chose to translate this story because it honestly seemed like a fun project. Just from reading the first paragraph, I was already imagining it in the language I usually translate to. It was easy to imagine the translation off the bat, not because it was ‘simplistic’, but because of the fact that I just … ‘got it’. I understood the jokes, the wink-wink-nudge-nudge, the puns, the pop culture references, internet speak, slang, and whatever else you want to call it, in both languages. The story, the language, was ‘felt’.
However, there was still the matter of whether the thing I, as a translator, found funny in this new language, was deemed as such by the author.
So, we began. The first email exchanges pertained to whether the book was going to be translated to British English or to American English. Why? I had translated the title of the book literally: Arg and God’s Pants. The author immediately flagged it: ‘pants’ are ‘underwear’ in British English, ‘trousers’ would be the better choice. The reply to that was that there is still a joke in there, especially for a UK native reading the title. I sent him an article about a big faux pas that made the news. The American twitter account for Pop-Tarts sparked unintended hilarity among the UK natives by having this as their tagline (together with a picture of a fanny pack): “I like my tarts where I like my money. Right in my fanny”.
So, the working title was kept, and we stuck to US English; a perfect decision because the ‘voices’ of the characters, their words, the references, all fit the current dominant language of pop culture.
A bit further along in the story, we struck gold. Just from the title, I had assumed the story was about the character, Arg, and God’s trousers or pants––little did I know. The story truly kicks off when the protagonist has a run-in with a global supercomputer, P.I.M.P.L.E., who he presumes is sent by the Baby God. The supercomputer tries to help the protagonist understand what its function is and compares itself to “a pair of very smart pants”. While there’s no direct joke about (smart) pants in the original language, the English language provided a beautiful opportunity: smarty-pants. It fit the story and the character’s simplistic way of thinking and speaking perfectly. The new title was born: The Future Is Ruled By Smarty Pants.
The way we started working on the story, deciding on the title, testing out each other’s sense of humor, would mark our working relationship: offer an idea or suggestion to the author and see what their preference is, work it into the story; open communication, at all times. This was made possible by sharing a document together in which the translation was done and comments were added by both parties––asking or answering questions, accepting (or declining) suggestions.
In short: communicate and enjoy the weird and wonderful ideas and suggestions!
After the first chapter was translated, we had both found a smooth way of working; the translator got to understand the world, the characters and the (funny) mind of the author, and the author was, for that matter, also aware and sure of the fact that the translator understood it. A lot of the humor was understood implicitly and intuitively, regardless of or thanks to the fact that it seemed that we both––as author and translator––consumed the same media, within the same generation.
Would this have worked if I had worked with a translator from a different generation, with a completely different sense of humor? Someone who did not grow up in the digital age, or someone without the knowledge of pop culture that spans several decades, in both languages? Probably. However, we can all imagine the frustration this might cause both parties; the translator who has to keep asking questions and take a deep (nose) dive into the internet abyss (where does one even begin?!); the author who has to keep correcting, adjusting, modifying and explaining their ‘jokes’.You guessed it, a process that would be less enjoyable than a project like this is supposed to be. You can explain a joke, but you cannot make humor understood.
In conclusion, as a writer, I must say that I’m extremely happy with the work process that we’ve followed, the collaboration, and with the translator herself.
As a translator, I must say that working any other way would be a tragedy for me now that I have experienced it in such a way. I love my job!
According to his parents, Jeroen enjoyed an education. According to Jeroen, he enjoyed chocolate a lot more. He’s been writing weird, absurdist – and most importantly – funny books since 2014. All his work is fictional, and he might be too, possibly, maybe.
Goltan, translator, funny in several languages, is on a mission to eliminate Dunglish shenanigans––one job at a time. While fighting for this noble cause, she enjoys communicating through memes and terrible, yet witty, puns.