Eating penguin chocolate bars with a couple of Spanish friends the other day got me thinking about jokes, puns and play on words in general. The Spanish translation of the word “pun” is “juego de palabras”, meaning literally “word game”, which sums up just what a pun is. Having always been interested in language and humour, I am a big fan of word jokes, and feel particularly proud of myself when I make what I consider to be an amusing pun (though others might disagree…).
We regularly groan at puns printed on the front pages of tabloid newspapers, and at the jokes printed on penguin wrappers and in Christmas crackers. Last year in fact, The Sun newspaper held a competition to see if its readers could “Out-pun the Sun”, inviting readers to give their best suggestions. Shakespeare used puns in Romeo and Juliet, and puns also appear in Harry Potter and James Bond books, which are internationally popular and have been successfully translated into many languages. Idioms and puns often have similar equivalents in languages with a common root, but there’s always a challenge for the translator to convey the original meaning, and this is why literary translation in particular is such a specialised and highly-prized skill.
Whilst they can be cheesy, and often provoke a groan, some puns are very clever, and they do make us laugh. The best joke on the recently discarded penguin wrappers was:
“Why were the penguins who had just met jumping up and down?”
Answer: “To break the ice”
As shown by this example, one of the great things about play on word jokes and puns is that they are unique in each different language. Those punchlines would mean nothing if translated; similarly a Spanish joke I heard recently meant nothing when I translated it for my friend. It’s part of the richness of each language.
This should be taken into account when reciting a joke to someone who speaks a different language, particularly when broadcasting live on television, as Australian present Karl Stefanovic found to his peril with his joke to the Dalai Lama. The joke: “The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop…and says ‘Can you make me one with everything?’” (groan) was not understood, and did not quite provoke the reaction I imagine Karl Stefanovic was hoping for, creating quite an awkward moment.
We may groan as we hear them, but, as long as they are understood by the intended audience, puns are a clever way of using language to create humour, and can on occasion be very witty. As they say in the article in The Sun: “Nothing beats a good pun”!