Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Misunderestimating German Humour

Preposterous article by Stewart Lee in today's Guardian asserts that German humour is limited by, amongst other things, the stricter structure of its language. Lee sounds halfway convincing - until he gives an example of a "joke" he believes isn't translatable into German because it relies on an unexpected "pull back and reveal" at the end:

"I was sitting there, minding my own business, naked, smeared with salad dressing and lowing like an ox ... and then I got off the bus."

This is actually quite easily translatable into German, if someone thought it worth their while to do so. But it would no more raise a laugh in Germany than it would in England.

Lee also blames German compound words for being less flexible, and so less potentially funny, than English tacked-together-descriptors: "Thus (Lee writes) a federal constitutional court, which in English exists as three weak fragments, becomes Bundesverfassungsgericht, a vast impregnable structure that is difficult to penetrate linguistically, like that Nazi castle in Where Eagles Dare." Difficult to see what Lee is driving at here, but the gratuitous reference to the difficult-to-penetrate-linguistically Nazi castle suggests desperation rather than insight.

Everyone knows humour is the last thing one gets in learning a new language. Lee's article demonstrates this in spades. He doesn't get German humour, but then he doesn't appear to have grasped the English variety either. Mangelhaft.

Postscript - German joke:
Two men are discussing WWII. They're on the subject of concentration camps.
"My grandfather died in Auschwitz, as it happens."
"So sorry to hear it, how awful!"
"Yeah, he fell out of his watchtower one night, pissed out of his mind."

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Lost in translation

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