Interpreting Jokes

Interpreting Jokes

It goes without saying that interpreters have to jump a variety of linguistic hurdles while on assignments, of which some are harder to prepare for than others. Perhaps the most daunting of circumstances for an interpreter is a joke. While jokes can do a lot of good, if misinterpreted they can fall flat, or worse, offend. But there’s a way to go about handling them.

Given that a joke’s humor lies in word play or a cultural reference, interpreting it word for word will likely elicit a lot of head scratching, as this video demonstrates. Instead, an interpreter should determine the purpose of the joke and relay the speaker’s intent to the target language audience. Sometimes, this means explaining what was funny about the joke by quickly providing context. While this strategy may seem to defeat the purpose of a joke, it will help prevent your audience from being confused or insulted. Interpreters must realize that to accept a joke as uninterpretable is not to accept failure.

joke minister

Whether you’re bold enough to try and replicate a joke in another language, or you want to play it safe by explaining the joke and its context, it’s crucial to stay sharp by always improving your vocabulary in your target language. Keep your mind agile by becoming familiar with translations of industry-relevant jargon, commonly-used proverbs, and idiomatic expressions.

At IEO, we want you to have the skills to successfully interpret a joke, not become the punchline of one.

Have you ever had to interpret a joke or get creative during an interpreting assignment in order to explain one? Share your experiences with us on our Facebook and LinkedIn pages!


We offer online training options for legal and medical interpreters as well as translators. Programs include training courses, tests, linguistic resources, training guides, and Skype lessons with interpretation instructors. Our training will benefit those who are aspiring interpreters, interpreters who want to prepare for a certification exam, or certified interpreter certification exams. Training options are available in Albanian, Arabic, Cantonese, French, Haitian-Creole, Hmong, German, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.