I’m Not Funny In Your Language: The Bilingual Transfer of Wit.

Being funny requires wit, speed and timing; qualities I have…in English. Being funny in Hebrew is a different story. The wit may be there, but my brain cannot formulate the Hebrew words fast enough to match the pace of the conversation. Many times I find myself conducting a mental repartee with my Hebrew- speaking friends while remaining outwardly silent. This causes many of  the Israeli’s I meet to consider me a shy and quiet presence, an impression at odds with my alternate English- speaking identity.

I was thinking about the universality of humor last night when I went to popular Tel-Aviv comedy club The Camel Club with a friend to check out some stand up.

Watching the seated crowd laughing over their rickety comedy-club tables I realized that the world is divided into three distinct camps: those who provide humor, those who receive humor and those who do neither. Receivers are the ones who laugh, who acknowledge and appreciate the Provider’s efforts. Providers dole out their  humor to the specific community of Receivers for whom they serve. The very best Providers appeal to a wide range of Receivers, though most Receivers respond to only a specific kind of Provider . Everyone knows what a Neither is; the ones always slow on the uptake, the girl who never gets it, the guy who laughs at everything in order to cover up th fact that he can’t tell the difference between funny and not.

Listening to Hebrew stand-up was a lesson in  my own ability to become a Receiver in another language. Had someone provided an American with a translated transcript of the night’s material, I doubt he would have found even 30% of it remotely funny. This was because what made me laugh in Hebrew was not the same as what made me laugh in English, and though the sound of my laughter held no discernible difference, the quality of it was as different as night and day.

There are cultural differences. Israelis, for example, revel in the kind of Holocaust jokes that would get anyone in the States (or much of the world, for that matter) suspended or permanently shunned. A popular joke involves the high school trip many Israelis take to Poland to go on the “Holocaust Tour”. This trip is pretty much dreaded by Israeli teenagers weary of a year’s worth of intensive Holocaust exposure and unused to the harsh Polish climate. Referencing this, a comedian last night riffed:

” If I could go back in time, I would take baby Hitler and drop him off in the Caribbean. Let him do a Holocaust there so that 70 years later instead of freezing my ass in Poland I could’ve gone on a trip to the Caribbean.”

In English, this joke is unfunny and extremely offensive. In Hebrew, it is HILARIOUS. The comedian, Ayal, later told me of his trip to the U.S, where he participated in some New York City open mic nights (I gave him major props-open mic night’s are terrifying enough without having to perform in a language you have only moderate proficiency in.) He told the Holocaust joke above, and to his puzzlement, got booed off stage. Further confusing him, was what the American audiences did find uproarious. His name, Ayal Naor, translates into “Enlightened Moose.”

Now that’s funny.


3 comments on “I’m Not Funny In Your Language: The Bilingual Transfer of Wit.

  1. Layinka says:

    OMG, I am cringing and laughing at the Caribbean Holocaust joke…
    Trust me in a tropical region you have to deal with mosquitoes, snakes and extreme heat.. still I prefer the idea of a warm country. :D and completely understand WHY it would not work in Either the USA or Europe (France especially). Thanks xx Layinka

    • thegallivant says:

      Hi Layinka! yeah-there is definitely a certain cringe factor to some of the jokes. Remember though, Israelis deal with heat and mosquitoes all the time, though not snakes. Do you have any stories of humor getting lost in translation?

  2. YG says:

    There is a fourth kind: Audiences that get the humor in both languages

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