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When Will I Get Funny?

This entry is part 2 of 14 in the series Intermediate Angst

And there came upon the email of Khatzumoto a letter long of length, correct of spelling and accurate of punctuation. And it was good. The emailer’s pseudonym was, is and ever shall be…Farley.

Khatzumoto, hi!

First, I want to start out by saying how much I have enjoyed the site and how helpful it has been to me. I’m sure you get a lot of questions, but I have an issue that I’ve not seen addressed on your site, AntiMoon, or similar websites, and it’s giving me quite a hangup.

First some background: I’m 27, native English speaker (U.S. born), trying to learn Spanish from zero. First foreign language I’ve seriously studied. I’ve been studying about a year and have not progressed as far as I would like. I do some writing by trade, and in my personal life I’ve been told I’m funny. So when it comes to language, issues of nuance, metaphor, timing, phrasing, inflection, etc. are important to me.

I have been watching some American movies and TV shows in my target language, using them to practice my listening comprehension, using shows I already know so that I already know the basics of the plot. (For the record, I watch humor – think Simpsons – or drama/arthouse type flicks.) Herein lies the problem. I know some of these so well (okay, mostly just the Simpsons) that I know lines verbatim, and when I see them translated, I get very hung up on why they were translated the way that they were if they were not translated verbatim — does that sentence structure not exist? does saying it more literally not sound as good? why that word order? is this a bad translation? is this a phrase that can’t be translated well?

Even with native materials I have this problem — was that an eloquent turn of phrase or just bad writing? My inner radar is gone, and it’s very disorienting. It’s also making it very hard to “let go” of English because I feel like I need it as an anchor. (By looking up a Spanish word in a bilingual dictionary so I can try to figure out all the exact implications and shades of the meaning, for example.)

I’ve tried to think back to how I acquired said radar in the first place, and I don’t really know. I certainly had some helpful formal instruction in writing, but for the most part no one sat me down and said, this kind of thing is corny while this is poetic, this is funny, this is smart, this is stupid, this is formal, etc. I’m sure it can be directly traced to my massive input – I have been a voracious reader since childhood, and I’ve watched many humorous programs over and over – and I’m sure you’re going to tell me that’s what the remedy is.

But this just makes me feel overwhelmed. I think of how many years it’s taken me to get to where I am in English – two decades of lots of reading! – and it just feels hopeless and impossible. I don’t want to win a Pulitzer for writing in Spanish, but I do want to be able to be me, to keep my voice, both in conversation and in writing – and that includes being funny and handy with a turn of phrase.

So could you comment on this? I can definitely understand — and have experienced — how input can help with acquiring an inner sense of grammar (what makes “I is” sound horrible, for example) but the higher levels are giving me trouble. I think the writing on your site is funny, and you’ve said in one of your posts that you were in a comedy troop. Are you funny in Japanese?

Farley, for a funny guy, you don’t sound you’re having a lot of fun 🙂 . Remember, you’re from a wealthy country. The wealthiest. You are a native speaker of its language. You don’t need to learn other languages. You don’t need to know Spanish. Life in the hispanosphere will continue whether or not you learn the thick, soft native tongue of Salma Hayek.

Realize that you’re doing this for fun. All the talk about multicultural this and global that is just a bunch of smoke language-lovers blow up people’s butts to make it seem as if what they’re doing is important. I am guilty of it, too. The real reason to learn a language is because it’s there. It is pure play. Real socio-economic need does arise if, say, you decided to move to a Spanish-speaking country for a long time. But even then, ironically, the fastest path, and the one that looks the longest, is to learn Spanish as if you didn’t have to.

OK, now to the core of your email. Humor. Think of humor as a high-order function that requires base infrastructure to exist in the first place. Kind of like how Internet access requires electricity, a computing device, literacy and a working network connection.

You don’t have that base infrastructure yet, therefore Internet access is still out of the question for you. Think about puns — you can only get puns if you first know the words that are being punned. “Cunning Linguist” only sounds funny when you know…about that activity women claim to enjoy (shopping? idle gossip? no? sexist comment? what?).

A joke in language is a somersault. You are trying to pull somersaults…but you can’t even walk yet. Which is not to say that you will never be able to pull them, it just means, you do need to build basic coordination and motor skills before you start busting the sweet ninja moves.

You need to be positive to the point of arrogance in your thoughts (“I am Spanish”), but short, simple and straightforward in your actions (“this sentence; this book; this show; here; now; this moment; this second; fun”). You need to be: Humble, but not diffident. Eager, but not harried. Determined, but not self-destructive. Like my good man Makoto Itou likes to say: “festina lente“. Hurry slowly.

You will get the jokes; you will be funny: you will find your voice. I found mine in Japanese. In fact, I found my Japanese voice so well that non-native users of Japanese hate my Japanese, just like non-native users of English hate my English. In both cases, you have a collection of otherwise simple ideas wrapped in a convoluted morass of criss-crossing running jokes based on things happening “off-screen” — random cultural background — that you have to already know about in order to even understand it, let alone enjoy it. And that is as it should be: I wouldn’t want to write Japanese that gaijin enjoy 😀 (even if I did, I couldn’t — not enough infrastructure to work with). Nor would I want to write the kind of English that the Education Ministry here in Tokyo seems to find fit to print in its approved textbooks.

You will get there. But to get there, you need to let go of both your starting point (English) and your goal (Spanish) and just focus on the road — doing Spanish things here and now. Let go of the wall of the rink, and forget about the other side. Just skate on the ice you’re on now. That means, it may well be high-time for you to go monolingual.

It’s said that humor is about betraying expectations. “Hell hath no fury like a woman’s corns” (<— not funny)….that type of thing. As you have already realized, you don’t yet know enough to even have expectations, let alone build and break them. That’s all.

You can’t be funny in Spanish before you know good amounts of it any more than you can make an order at a restaurant by screaming out of your car window on the way there. Which is not to say that you will never get to the restaurant. Just that, for your own benefit, you want to get in a roadworthy vehicle, drive attentively and keep going until you get there…and know that a few red lights (apparent “learning plateaux” — in truth, these are just periods of time where your progress goes invisible, not non-existent) here and there are not the end of the world.

Certainly, it took you a long time to get to where you are in English. But a lot of that time was (1) unproductive and (2) at a point in your life when you had lower mental capacity. You have more mental capacity now, not less. But you probably also have years of bad ideas and unreasonable expectations of input versus results. Ironically, you’re probably less patient now than when you were a child with a “short attention span” [perhaps our attention spans never change and it’s just that we change how we behave when the time runs out? I dunno…] In any case, it doesn’t really matter how long it takes because you will be enjoying yourself the whole time anyway. Right? 😉 Who cares how long the road trip is if Salma Hayek’s going to be there the whole time?…Or something like that.

So be patient. Keep being Spanish. It’s really that simple. It really is. Focus on what you can control directly. You can’t directly control when you become a Castillian Chris Rock. But you can directly control the expansion (and contraction) of your passive vocabulary. Expand your vocabulary. Expand your knowledge. Work faithfully, calmly and enjoyably on each brick and you’ll soon find yourself a nice little lego castle.

If you keep going, you’ll almost certainly make it. But if you stop and give up, you never will. It’s Spanish, dude. All European languages are really just dialects of each other anyway [here’s a fight-starter]. You’re practically there already 🙂 .

For more and better advice, from a real expert, go talk to Ra-Moses, Prince of SpanishOnly. He’s the man now, dawg.

Oh yeah, one more thing. Do you even like “The Simpsons”? It seems as though it has you doing more neurotic thinking than actual laughing. You need to start having fun if you’re wanting to avoid being that sad paradox — an unhappy funny person. Hint: if you’re getting worked up about it, then you’re doing it wrong.

Maybe you need some serious South Park-level potty humor to rid you of all pretensions of (to?) seriousness. Yeah, watch South Park in Spanish. Back in the day, I watched a ton of it in Japanese and was getting compliments on how natural my expressions were (e.g.: “マジかよ?!”) right from day one.

Finally, your take-home points:

  • Let your metric of success be how much fun you’re having, not how much perfect verbal acrobatics you can pull right this instant.
  • Focus on native-like process, rather than native-like results. The results will come from the process. Gosh, I get tense just reading your email 😉 .
  • The coolest part about learning a language by having fun/like a native is that you get to do all that cool stuff that classes usually look down on and treat as a “supplement” to “real” study [because we all know that you’re not really learning until you’re having trouble staying awake and all your school shirts have drool stains from the uncontrollable fits of napping that boring classes send you into but I digress]. You get to eat dessert as your main course all day every day! Ice-cream for breakfast! Don’t go ruin it by mentally abusing yourself over your temporary suckage. Think of all the cool stuff you get to do as “study”! For crying out loud, you’re watching cartoons! You can be a kid again! This is awesome beyond compare. Cowabunga, my friend.
  • If you know more today than yesterday, then you’re winning. Looked at in this sense, the race really is only against yourself.
  • Trust your materials implicitly. You have to. You have no place judging the quality of Spanish-dubbed media; you simply do not have the equipment (yet); you are not at that level (yet), so the rule is: if it was made for native speakers, then it’s good enough for you. End of story. There is one — and only one — question on which you are qualified to pass judgment, and that is: “am I enjoying this?”.
  • You can’t tell jokes before you can get them. If you do, it’s either a mistake or an accident.
  • You cannot analyze before you have anything to analyze with — it’s like trying to use a pencil sharpener when you don’t have an actual pencil to sharpen: you just end up cutting yourself. This is a major problem in the current educational culture of the West [we’re painting with big brushes today*. Deal 🙂 ] — premature analysis. Always with the trying to make pots without clay. Be the Spanish, be physical, learn your katas. You have to do before you can fully understand.
  • Timebox or otherwise limit your dictionary lookups so that you can get lots of quick “wins”, as well as nip compulsive behavior in the bud.
  • Bilingual dictionaries are lying to you. They will never give you the full, true story. Would you tell a Spanish speaker to go digging through her espanol-ingles dictionary to find the “true” meaning of English words? Might as well tell her that El Nino is Spanish for “the Nino”.
  • Last but not least: “Don’t use words to learn the meaning of sentences, use sentences to learn the meaning of words“. Greatest quote ever. Not by me, by the way.

If any of you good-looking AJATTeers has any tips for Farley, please feel free to share 😉 . You always put things much more succinctly than I do. Also, disclaimer: I do not know Spanish.

*I don’t know about you, but I smell another installment in the Baseless Remarks About Compex Social Phenomena series

Series Navigation<< Momentum Over Position: How the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle Can Help You Learn FasterIntermediate Angst: Dealing With Feelings of Suckage >>

  33 comments for “When Will I Get Funny?

  1. Drewskie
    October 6, 2009 at 13:45

    As to the question of how humor is obtained, I don’t know about Farley, but I know how I got mine. I watched funny stuff, then tried to be funny, and frequently failed.

    We get used to the sense of humors of those around us, and it’s in entering a new group that our ability to make people laugh is actually tested. Humor differs from person to person and group to group. For me, I went through a few points during grade school/junior high/high school where I had to switch friends, and was suddenly so un-funny that I actually got some dirty looks. But I kept at it, and soon I got a feel for what was funny around those people, and before I knew it I was the funniest guy in the group.

    I’ve since learned better (that is, I’ve learned how to learn how to be funny), and these days when I’m around new people, I simply turn off the funny until I figure out what makes them laugh.

    In a lot of ways, developing humor is a lot like learning a language. If you stress output before input, you’re setting yourself up for major issues. If you take in a mountain of input from the target group, when you’re ready to make someone laugh, it’ll come naturally. Farley, with Spanish, your target group is an entirely different culture. As Khatz said and as you seem to realize yourself, you don’t even have the tools to process their humor yet. But once you do, make sure you fully understand what’s funny and what isn’t before trying. Input before output.

  2. Jenra
    October 6, 2009 at 14:52

    One of the most frustrating things about learning another language is coming to terms with the fact that you cannot sound as intelligent, funny or coherent as you would be in your native language (at first, anyway).

    I used to find that I only really got the jokes which elementary school children would have laughed at in Japanese. And those were the only kind that I could tell. There were many times when I thought I was saying something really clever, and my (native) boyfriend would just roll his eyes at me and tell me that he might have found that funny 15 years ago.

    I completely get where you are coming from, Farley!

    You just have to be patient! I wish there was a fast way to being funny (without just copying other people), but there really isn’t. You just need to keep on exposing yourself to as much of the language as possible, maybe hang around some funny native speakers, and eventually it will come to you. Don’t despair!

    And don’t feel bad if you find yourself laughing at a really childish joke, because you are still a child in Spanish. One day you will be able to make rooms full of people laugh when speaking Spanish, and that day will feel really really awesome.

  3. Danno
    October 6, 2009 at 15:42

    You could always sink to sarcasm and slapstick and work your way up….?

  4. October 6, 2009 at 15:52

    I would add that once you get to that level, find someone from the native language that you think is funny, and whose humor fits you, and study them intensely. Get videos of their performances/programs, transcripts of their lines, etc. Pay attention to their timing and turns of phrase.

    I did this consciously with Zhao Benshan (赵本山), and while I’m still not anywhere in the same league, I’d like to think that I’m more able to express my inner funniness (his style of humor and mine are similar) in a way that is culturally adapted for Chinese.

  5. Pasqual
    October 6, 2009 at 18:33

    Sure everyone wants to be funny, people like someone who can make them laugh. And this guy with the pseudonym “Farley,” doesn’t want to be “funny” he wants to be “himself” in the language. It’s pretty frustrating communicating in a language like you’re selected a fixed phrase to “attack” like from a menu in ポケモン only to find it’s “not very effective.” And I usually ignore all compliments, especially the ones form native speakers of Japanese cause they’ll praise you even if you can only speak one word. And like Khatz has said in a post of 3 of his, when the native speakers start testing your ability like “he seems fluent, but does he know THIS!?” and then actually know that thing, then I know I am where I want to be (and yet that still won’t be enough.)

    Anyway everyone wants to be able to be “themselves” and able to speak in sort of a similar manner in the native and in their L2. And from day one you are well on your way to that goal. Aren’t there certain words in articles, movies, manga, etc that catch your eye more than others? That’s because of your personality, and you want to learn words that you would usually use in your native tongue. Okay i’m gonna stop before this turns into a post in and of itself. お休み〜

  6. October 6, 2009 at 19:16

    Luckily, humour isn’t always expressed in a verbal way. The first time I went to Spain I spoke no Spanish (okay, I did, but you couldn’t really call that speaking), but still had a bit of fun. I could let people laugh, just because I could express myself in a non-verbal way.

    In Dutch I’m the funny guy. In English… I’m the funny guy. And now in Spanish I’m the funny guy as well. Some of my friends don’t like the fact I’m always talking, or being funny, but many do. But in Spanish it wasn’t that hard to get funny (although sometimes frustrating). Like Khatzu says; you need more input, and only watch stuff you REALLY like. Otherwise it won’t work.Fun = the beginning, the middle and the end. And oh, it’s also your goal. Having fun is THE most important thing in your whole learning experience.

    Luckily I’m currently at the level I can appreciate ‘real’ Spanish humour (like Los hombres de Paco, Sé lo que hicisteis, CQC, Buenafuente, etc.). To be honest; earlier I hated Spanish humour, but now comes so natural to me, that I even use the same jokes with Dutch friends (which doesn’t always work, because they often laugh about other things).

  7. October 6, 2009 at 19:38

    Great points re: having patience in finding your own voice but I wanted to add something regarding the “analysis” issue.
    Khatz, you make the assumption that when Farley notices that a phrase doesn’t seem to be a direct translation and all those questions come to his head, that he is not having fun. If you are right then, by all means, he should try to stop his brain from thinking it/pretend he never thought it (god knows how you do that lol), but it does not necessarily follow that it’s painful. I have that kind of brain and that kind of thinking IS fun for me and is at the heart of my love of languages. The way the expression of a similar idea is phrased reveals a lot about a culture and noticing a difference from your own culture’s phrasings can be a hook to heighten interest. Any time Farley thinks to himself “that’s an odd/interesting way to say such and such” then he (probably) has a something which has caught his imagination. When we are learning as children we constantly ask “WHY??” and if Farley is prompted to ask ‘why’ and is interested enough to go and find out (in Spanish :D), then I would bet he will likely remember that phrase/sentence out of all the others he heard passively.

  8. OOBEY
    October 7, 2009 at 05:34

    I have been learning Japanese by the more input mothod for at least a ear now and I gotta say that it works. And as far as being funny, I will tell you that I accidently understood funny Jaapanese jokes simply because I watched funny Japanese shows and programs alot. It just clicked. There was no cue to joking or understand a joke. It naturally happen and I natural understood the joke or I naturally, but by mistake, made a joke. I love watching Japanese movies and listening to music and my Japanese has improved greatly because I keep watching Takuya Kimura movies and listening to Kreva and L-Vokal alot. So if anyone wants to make or understand jokes in their language, take Khatz advise and keep watching/listening to your target language. Be the language and eventally it WILL click. If it happened to me then it will happen to you. Believe me, my Japanese isnt not great but I had 3 Japanese interviews in straight Japanese and the only reason I didnt take those jobs was because I was afraid that I could speak it well even though I was having a JOB INTERVIEW IN JAPANESE!! (Crazy huh?) Thanks for your help Khatz. Always have fun learning your target language and the language will come to you.


  9. Lane
    October 7, 2009 at 08:27

    Wow. I’m feeling very zen right now. The whole time I’ve really been concerned with being on a schedule and oh no I’m this far behind and stuff like that. I just caught a glimpse of “this really is going to take a long time”… I think I’ll resign to saying “it’ll take a couple of years” rather than saying “I’ll hit 10k August 2011!”. I’m getting a picture of the “fun” thing that he’s been talking about. You do it *because* it’s fun. Follow your interests and all that.

    I can learn to speak ice cream by eating lots of ice cream! and not by memorizing the ingredients.

    I just had my moment of clarity. I have rough goals for the near future. Next couple of years it’ll be 3k kanji plus whatever I need to understand what I’m reading + 10k plus or minus.. whatever without a predetermined rate or expected time of completion. I’ll just queue a few episodes of SMAPxSMAP and do reviews/enter new cards until I’m ready to do something else.

    All I have to do is try to make sure I do *something* every day.

    I think I’m finally getting it. I’m currently at 2200 kanji and 1100 sentences and I’m **finally** figuring out what’s going on.

    Thanks Khatzu.

  10. Zervantes
    October 7, 2009 at 19:10

    I’m a native Spanish speaker and completely fluent in English just in case you’re wondering, if you’re watching the Simpson’s Spain dub, not the South-American one, then that is probably the best translation of a show or movie from English to Spanish I have ever seen. The jokes they can sort of literally translate, they do, the ones they can’t, they adapt and brilliantly so. I can tell on almost every single joke what the original phrase in English was. The problem is, many jokes are not easy to translate literally and therefore need some form of adaptation, so this might be what’s happening here.

    I can’t comment on the South-American dub since I haven’t watched it but a couple of times when abroad, and I really dislike “neutral” Spanish dubbing. Also this might just be me growing up with the dub and all but I like the Spanish voices a lot better, specially Homer’s.

  11. ryan
    October 8, 2009 at 11:16

    thanks dude. i needed a little boost. been realizing lately that im just not having fun with the way im studying.

    I am the great and powerful, EL NINO!!!!

  12. October 8, 2009 at 18:06

    You will already be funny to natives by how you speak in your non-native language due to your funny accent and constant mistakes 🙂

    The only humor I even attempt in a non-native language is dumb word play. This is actually easier for non-ntaive speakers in some cases as we hear/notice words differently than native speakers do as we are learning them. 日本語 makes this a bit too easy for non-native speakers (可笑しいお菓子 🙂 ) because of the variations on Kanji readings (that and we ignore inflection a lot more than we should).

    Seriously, don’t sweat it. Learn the language first, the humor will flow naturally after a time.

  13. Monte Cristo
    October 8, 2009 at 22:18

    Humor issues aside, this is clearly illustrates why:

    1. You should not translate sentences but rather understand them.

    and, for that matter…

    2. You should go monolingual as soon as you can.

    When you keep a foot on the shore of your native understanding for too long the process of new acquisition becomes all too muddy. “Why do they say it like this in this language? Heck, this word isn’t even in the original. Why did they put it there? Wait, what happened to this adjective here? Did they forget about it while translating?”

    Things don’t always even out perfectly (if perfectly means anything) with translations. And this is especially true of humor. Learning a new language is not like trading Pokemon cards. You can’t amass a ton of “English cards” to exchange them for “Spanish cards” and have a laugh. You have to amass a ton of both, THEN you laugh as much as you want. Of course, as it is clearly stated above there’s no reason for not enjoying the road that leads there.

  14. October 9, 2009 at 07:43

    “….just like non-native users of English hate my English.”
    Khatz, you’re the sole reason that I’m now able to understand English literature as well as young african-american girls having a quarrel. I find it to be very educational.
    If I read on, I might be able to participate in that quarrel as an equal opponent ; D.

  15. 亜波愛留
    October 9, 2009 at 13:24

    Hey khatz i got a really good question in regards to monoligual sentences. Currently I’ve done about 3007 kanji in 2.5-3months and I’m at 1000+ sentences. And the method is working so far. I remember you saying in one of you’re blog posts try going monolingual soon in sentences wise,etc. Also you said no need to translate it to English as the difference in the language are major things. Like one thing in Japanese can sound weird in English and vice versa. So like let’s say i don’t translate some sentences which i am starting to do abit. Will i be able to understand everything about the sentence if not translated. I understand you need to go J-J sentences to learn more. But confusing me abit on that subject. Like due to the fact i watched alot of subbed japanese stuff in english for past year or so(until recently i find you’re site around june 2009 and now it’s 0ctober 2009 so been around 4months+). So i ‘ve started not translated stuff cuz i already understand some stuff due to me being exposed to it so many times,etc. But just confusing me like understand J-J stuff is confusing me abit. I think it’s like Japanese to English now to start off but now going J-J stuff without have 100% understanding the sentence in english or understanding it in general but not 100% . This is just confusing me. Can you help me out with this? i.e. give some tips/pointers on this topic cuz just confusing me. I did notice going J-J makes you’re Japanese learning enchance cuz you’re only learning more japanese through japanese which you want to be at but overal just confusing me abit. Can help me out with this that would be greatly appreciated. ありがとうございます

  16. October 9, 2009 at 22:09

    “You are trying to pull somersaults…but you can’t even walk yet.”

    To be honest this is a great summary. Also, from my own experience as a non-native speaker of Japanese I would suggest that you’re going at this very analytically (someone else has already suggested that direct word-for-word translation doesn’t work for humour *or anything*, and he’s right) and that it is also a mistake trying to understand American humour translated into Spanish and then re-translated back into English in your mind. Culturally, different things will be amusing in Spanish. This links into the word-for-word translation point, too – translation at any level fails if it focuses on lexical or grammatical equivalence. “These words = those words” often fails. Tenses also cannot always be directly mapped – in Japanese the て います form can be likened to English present continuous, but it also has a whole world of other meaning just sat there waiting to bite you on the ar$e in the middle of an otherwise cracking punchline.

    To understand Spanish humour I would recommend getting hold of some supposedly funny material from your target *culture*, and watching it. When you’ve done this for about fifty hours, you will begin to get a sense of what is funny. You will find yourself chuckling inexplicably when people say something incomprehensible that other people respond to with laughter and unfathomable exclaimations. You will start to get a *feel* for the meaning of little everyday phrases that aren’t in your textbook but are absolutely essential to functioning in everyday conversation.

    Give it a go, and let us know how you get on!

  17. Drewskie
    October 10, 2009 at 15:20

    A suggestion for exposure to conversational humor, Square Enix released a series of 9 podcasts in 2005/2006. They’re on iTunes, free, and each are between 30 minutes and an hour. They consist of a group of Japanese people sitting around, talking and laughing, and I’m pretty sure drinking (I’m in the early stages, so I can’t say for sure). That might be a good place to go.

  18. October 11, 2009 at 01:56

    I think what Zervantes said is very important. You should bear in mind the regional variations there are in Spanish. After all, a native Spanish speaker can tell instantly whether someone is from Cuba, Argentina, Spain or Colombia by hearing them speak, and humor in the Spanish speaking world also varies widely. Just as British humor is not the same as the American variety there’s no guarantee that a joke in Spain will have the same effect in Mexico or Argentina. Sometimes the reason for this is that a comedian relies too much on local slang. There are TV shows from Argentina like Poné a Francella that I, being Mexican, find nearly incomprehensible, even though the studio audience seems to be having a whale of a time.

    I’m not familiar with the Spain dub of the Simpsons, but I can tell you that the Latin American version is pretty hit or miss. For the most part the translators follow the original dialogue very closely but they often come up with new jokes, especially when they feel the original references to events or personalities are too esoteric for Latin American audiences. The translators can’t always match the wit of the original scripts, of course, but they sometimes manage to write jokes that, in my opinion at least, are better than the English version. All too often, however, they drop the ball and fail to adequately convey what was said by the characters.

    Maybe you’ll get a more accurate idea of what is funny in Spanish by focusing on native comedians rather than translations. Humor being subjective and all, it’s going to be a lot harder to find material that fits your current level of Spanish and that amuses you at the same time. Try the following:

    – La Tremenda Corte, a Cuban radio show from the 50s that is still popular throughout Latin America.
    – Tin Tan, widely regarded as Mexico’s best comedian, recommended films (mostly from the 1940s): El rey del barrio, Calabacitas tiernas, El revoltoso, La marca del zorrillo, El ceniciento.
    – Polo Polo, also from Mexico, known for his lewd jokes.

    The Tin Tan movies can be easily found on DVD for cheap. The Polo Polo and La Tremenda Corte recordings are available on mp3 on several websites and message boards.

  19. Chris
    October 11, 2009 at 11:15

    “Bilingual dictionaries are lying to you.”

    They do have an important advantage over monolingual dictionaries though, and that’s for finding out the words for animals, flowers and other species of living things. Whereas in a monolingual dictionary one would get a whole paragraph describing what the particular thing looks like, its behaviour, its diet and so on, with a bilingual dictionary I could just get the immediate, one-to-one translation of its name in English.

    From the How-to-learn-any-language-forum:

    “Well, the more I think about them, the more I think that monolingual dictionaries are not very useful to the foreign language student. They look cool, but at the end of the day it is much, much faster to get a translation of a word than having to go from word to definition and then trying to figure out what it is. For instance I tried using my Italian monolingual dictionary to decipher some unknown words I had found, but what can you do with for example Martora: Small carnivorous mammifer of the Martora family, with a long body with a long tail, small head, pointed nose and highly prized fur that lives in woods of Northern Europe and Asia.? Of course you might eventually guess correctly what it is but it’s much quicker and more accurate to match directly the foreign word to the concept of a marten that you already have in your brain by way of a direct translation.”

  20. baldanders
    October 11, 2009 at 12:17

    Yeah, humor often doesn’t translate well, particularly if there’s any word play involved. Sometimes you can find an equivalent that’s alos funny, but sometimes you can’t. I’ve been translating something recently that has a pun on “habu tea”/”habu” the venomous snake, and I can’t come up with anything that’s both funny and would work. But cultural stuff also matters- the Japanese have a pretty hard time with certain kinds of sarcasm for instance, while a lot of Japanese “boke” humor is only marginally amusing to a lot of Americans. The differences in humor probably aren’t quite as great between a Spanish speaking country and the US, but I’m sure they’re significant.

    My Japanese is good enough to use kokugo dictionaries, and I certainly do use them. But I’ll never give up my Kenkyuusha J-E dictionary. It’s very useful. And though I don’t use them anymore, I benefited a lot from reading English translations in parallel with Japanese books when I was learning to read. Sometimes there’s just no other way to follow things at all, if what you’re reading is way over your head. But reading stuff that’s way over your head can be very beneficial. Of course once you can follow things pretty well you should give up the translation. I’ve been wanting to learn to read classical Japanese, and I think for that I’ll try reading Genji in parallel with a modern Japanese edition.

  21. HiddenSound
    October 12, 2009 at 06:08

    @ Chris

    Or you could look the animals etc up in Google images, understand what they are and then use the mono-definition as a back up. (and maybe learn some related words in the process)

    Or a children’s picture dictionary would work.

  22. Migi
    October 12, 2009 at 22:07

    Chris….Dude, you seem to have forgotten about something called GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH! Yeah , you can probably figure out that animal very easily that way and maintain the immersion.

  23. CE
    October 12, 2009 at 22:32


    When you have reached the level in which you can use a monolingual dictionary, I believe monolingual dictionaries are always better than bilingual ones. Even in the situation you describe, I think a monodict is superior. By reading the description in the target language, you can see how the target language describes animals (or whatever object you are looking up). This keeps your mind within the target language and allows you to be exposed to a whole host of language that you would be kept from if you just referred to the bilingual dictionary.
    I exclusively use a Chinese monodict, and the sense of accomplishment I feel (“a win” if you will) when I figure out what animal is being referenced is great. If I can understand “swan”, for example, from just a small description then that means my Chinese is really on its way. If I still can’t figure it out, I just enter the word into Google or Baidu images, and see what shows up. It’s better to connect the word to a real-world referent rather than to your native language concept.

  24. Farley
    October 13, 2009 at 08:07

    Wow, thanks for all the great encouragement and advice. You’re right, I’ve been impatient… too focused on the destination – the fun I will have when I’m fluent – instead of the journey – the fun I can have right now!

    As for the dub I’m using, it’s the Spanish dub from the US DVDs, which I believe is the Latin American dub, but I’m not 100% on that. (I am interested in Latin American Spanish, particularly Mexico.) Zervantes and Marco, thanks for the information about the dubs. And Marco, thanks for the suggestions on native Spanish humor – I’m definitely going to check those out and would welcome any other recommendations from anyone else. Your suggestion (and Victoria’s) to check out some humor created in the culture was a good one.

    For the record, I’m trying to watch the Simpsons in Spanish because I cannot resist watching the reruns on TV, and that adds up to a lot of time not doing Spanish. I figured instead of fighting the urge, I should harness it.

    Thanks again, all!

  25. 小僧
    October 14, 2009 at 09:45


  26. Chris
    October 14, 2009 at 16:30

    Actually guys yeah, you’re right, Google Image Search is the answer…man I’m an idiot.

    Even more so, since I’ve been using the site in my studies as well. Oh well. Maybe I’m getting Alzheimer’s :O

  27. 星空
    November 15, 2010 at 10:18

    situatational humor always works. ずっと。
    一番いいできる事:insult your friends, get insulted by them and laugh the whole thing off!
    頭がいい者は”一番いい薬は笑い”って言ったよ。 しなきゃ事は1つだけ:「薬」を捨てて。
    だから、笑ってるは最高。laughter is the best. hands down.

    しかしpuns take work. homophones don’t transalteから (or rarely, if ever)

  28. Ratata
    October 2, 2011 at 06:19

    I know I’m like eons late for this conversation but this has never stopped me from speaking/typing what’s on my mind. 

    I just wanted to add a tiny detail, go a step further than Zervantes did when he wrote about jokes being difficult to translate. The thing is, the translation is not always worth the effort – with all the forces of the Universe by your side you might just not be able to make it anywhere near as good as the original. Therefore sometimes you don’t. You skip the ‘fun’ of this particular quote and make up for it somewhere else (if possible, ofcourse – I can’t imagine not translating a joke in a laugh track featured movie/tv show).

    That’s what they taught me in my translation classes and – to some extednd- I concur with the thought (though it’s easier to do in translating books than witty tv shows).

    So if the guy (sorry, I won’t scroll up the page to find the guy’s nick cause I’m saving up strength for my evening’s Kanji repetition) can’t find anything funny in the translation there is a slight chance that the joke simply isn’t there.

    Dude (Kazu), your writing is addictive, I have to timebox reading it… 

  29. Sakurazuka Seishirō
    October 20, 2011 at 01:06

    Another good article. Makoto Itou is a legend

  30. だきんず
    April 4, 2018 at 04:56

    I wonder if it would be possible for someone to write a script to turn this blog into an easy to navigate book. Like they did for Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide. That would be cool.

    • Captain Obvious
      September 10, 2019 at 02:19

      you have the table of contents bro

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