Reflections on Translating Dialect in Jokes and Humour

By Christie Davies (University of Reading)


Dialect is probably used more often in jokes and humour than in other kinds of writing. It is even more prominent in spoken jokes. Since it has this prominence we need to consider carefully what kind of translation it demands and whether it should be preserved or discarded in the translation. The present article is concerned with the translation of jokes, humorous anecdotes and comic songs in various Scottish dialects and will examine the translation of jokes and humorous verse that use dialect or at least some dialect. Finally,  nonsense verse will be considered, including that in Scots and conclusions will be drawn out on its implications for the translation of French post-modernists. The emphasis throughout will be on the importance of knowing the social setting before you start translating.

Keywords: dialect, jokes, humour, poetry translation

©inTRAlinea & Christie Davies (2009).
"Reflections on Translating Dialect in Jokes and Humour"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: The Translation of Dialects in Multimedia
Edited by: M. Giorgio Marrano, G. Nadiani & C. Rundle
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL:

1. Introduction

Dialect is probably used more often in jokes and humour than in other kinds of writing. It is even more prominent in spoken jokes. Since it has this prominence we need to consider carefully what kind of translation it demands? Should it be preserved or discarded in the translation? If it is retained, how should it be handled? These are difficult questions and there are no definitive answered but studying them also provides a new approach to the translation of post-modern philosophers. Most of what follows, though, is concerned with the translation of jokes, humorous anecdotes and comic songs in various Scottish dialects. It is based on my earlier work on Scottish jokes seen from a historical and sociological view [Davies 2002] which has forced me to ask the basic question ‘ How and why do they work?’ It is also the key question the translator must also ask. I shall in turn examine the translation of jokes and humorous verse that use dialect or at least some dialect. Finally I shall consider nonsense verse, including that in Scots and draw out its implications for the translation of French post-modernists. The emphasis throughout will be on the importance of knowing the social setting before you start translating.

2. Why bother?

When a translator is faced with task of translating a joke or other humorous item in dialect into another language he or she should first ask is ‘Why bother?’  It might be simpler first to render it into the standard version of language, possibly with the help of a native speaker who knows the particular dialect well, and then to translate this as if it had never been in dialect in the first place.  The main purpose of humour is to make people laugh and the use of dialect is a means to that end.  To strive for authenticity for its own sake is mere sentimentality and if it gets in the way of the reader or the listener to the final translated version laughing, then the effort put into it is not only time wasted but time badly spent.

This is particularly true of jokes because they have no fixed texts.  Good joke tellers do not memorise jokes.  They remember only the punch line and the gist of the story and possibly a particularly good jab line [Attardo 2001] that gets a laugh in the middle of the story.  Then when they wish to tell it on another occasion they re-invent it and produce a new version (Davies 1990:5).  They will adapt the joke each time they tell it to suit the needs and indeed limitations of a new audience.  A Scotsman who has heard a joke told in the rough Doric dialect of the North-East of Scotland, the land of the Turra Coo, might well tell it quite differently to a group of friends in Ayrshire where the dialect is markedly different [Aitkin nd], differently again to the refined Athenians of Edinburgh and in a very different form indeed on a business trip to London, where the people may well find any kind of Scots incomprehensible.  It is impossible to say which is the ‘real’ joke or to say which is the funniest (But see Charteris 1932: 17-20). Given that this is the case, the translator might just as well begin from the standard English version or, if it is not available, begin by turning the dialect version into standard English and then translating that.  It is easier to translate standard English into standard Italian, French, German or any other language with agreed, formal rules that are not just local habit but well and widely understood and usually adhered to. Not having to bother with dialect saves time and effort. Make your audience and readers laugh without sacrificing sophistication; that is your first duty.  It may help, of course, to add local flavour to enhance the laughter but only a hint of flavour is needed, just enough to indicate that the original was not in the standard version of the language.  To search for an appropriate local dialect in the language into which the joke is translated may be largely pointless.

3. Reasons why you should bother

One reason for choosing to retain a dialect version and to make this clear in the translation is if the joke is unavoidably located within a larger oral or written narrative with a fixed setting as in the case below.

On my way home from Edinburgh on one occasion I had as a fellow-traveller a little Welshman who was very talkative, and was specially emphatic on Scotch characteristics - insisting particularly on love of whisky and a disposition to starve the Kirk as being national traits. He repeated the following real or imaginary narrative in an illustration of his contention:
“On a Saturday night a Scotchman said to his boy Bob, ‘there’s half a crown; gang [go] roun’ to Sandy McNab’s public house and bring in a bottle o’whusky.’  As the lad was in the act or leaving the house on his errand his father called after him:  ‘ Bob look here - there’s a penny, bring back twa bawbees for’t [two half-pennies for it]; ye see, if ma heid and your mother’s heid are no ower sair [heads are not too sore] the morn after drinking the whusky, we’ll maybe gang to the Kirk [go to church], and if we dae gang we’ll each need a bawbee for the collection’”.
“That’s the Scotch style”, triumphantly added the Welshman: “two-and-six for whisky, and a halfpenny each for the church” (Ramsay 1873).
[The joke uses the old British terms for money, from the time when the pound sterling was divided into twelve shillings and the shilling into twelve pence. There was a physically smaller coin, the halfpenny (bawbee in Scots) which was of little value as it was only worth two farthings. The large silver coin worth two and six, two shillings and six pence, was called a half a crown because there had once been a more valuable coin, the crown which was worth five shillings. There were four crowns to the pound. The present inferior system of metric coinage with a hundred pence to the pound is the product of inflation and a wish to grovel to the EU prior to Britain’s joining.]

In this tale told by a Scotsman, a joke is set within a humorous anecdote. The humour of the anecdote is mockery of the Welsh, who are stereotypically diminutive, talkative, gregarious and mocking, which traits have enabled the Welshman to tease the narrator without the latter getting annoyed enough to challenge him to a duel. Taffy wraps up his negative comments on the Scots in a joke, which renders them palatable; it is worth noting that it is not an Englishman speaking, so that there is no risk of the Scottish narrator feeling that he is being treated to the condescension of the powerful. The joke is given to a Welshman to tell and he is imitating the coarse speech of lower-class Scots for the benefit of the Scottish narrator, who has recorded the incident for us This implies that we should keep the dialect in the translation because it intrinsic to the setting. But it is necessary also to note that there is not even the slightest hint of the use of any Welsh dialect or of the speech errors associated with those whose first language is Welsh in the way in which the Welshman tells the joke. He is speaking standard English and there is not even an indication of his accent; indeed a Scotsman of that time would not know have known how to imitate or represent in writing the distinctive and attractive English employed by the Welsh. The Welshman is there, partly at least to provide distance, to give the middle-class Scots narrator a chance to tell a story in his own way about a lower class Scottish couple and yet to half-dissociate himself from it. The main thrust of the joke may well have as much to do with social class as with Scottishness.

4. Class Education and Rusticity

This reveals another reason for trying to retain aspects of the dialect in which a joke is told. . Within a joke the alternating use of dialect and standard English may well indicate differences in social class or education or between city dwellers and rustics.  In a conversation within a joke one person may speak dialect or at least an English clearly indicated as local and the other person standard English.  These social distinctions have to be retained in the translation.  Sometimes the dialect is very mild but the educated person using standard English is then made to speak in a deliberately stilted, formal old-fashioned way to exaggerate the contrast.  Consider the following:

Mrs. MacDougall was unable to sleep for indigestion and at 2 a.m. Mr. MacDougall rose, dressed, went out and knocked up the chemist.
“Confound you, sir!” said the man of drugs, when he had heard the tale.  “Fancy calling me out of bed at such an hour for tuppence worth of bicarbonate of soda, when a glass of hot water would do just as well!”
“Weel, weel”, Macdougall returned, “ ’m greatly obleeged to ye for the advice, and I’ll no be troubling ‘e for the soda, efter a’. Guid morning’!" (Ferguson 1936).

Macdougall has a strong Scots accent but seemingly unfamiliar words he uses are but standard English pronounced in a Scots way .It should be made clear in the translation that Macdougall is by far the less educated and cosmopolitan of the two, though he does use quite elaborate forms of politeness, possibly the joke-tellers way of making his impudence more obviously comic. To underline MacDougall’s inferior social position, given that his politeness is real, even though he is very much in the wrong, the narrator of the joke also chooses to use an artificial form of standard English throughout much of the rest of the joke. No one in everyday life would refer to a chemist as ‘the man of drugs’; it is a piece of deliberate facetiousness.  It goes with the chemist saying, “Confound you, sir.  Fancy calling me out of bed at such an hour…”  An irritated Scottish chemist who had just been woken up for a trivial reason in the middle of the night would not respond with this kind of artificial, almost archaic and formal kind of English.  The point of it is to use contrast to make MacDougall the Scotsman, whose Scottish special peculiarities are limited to his pronunciation, look more Scottish.  MacDougall is the archetypal comic stingy Scotsman but it is the chemist’s comically pompous retreat from the everyday English of England, let alone Scotland that brings out MacDougall’s Scottishness.  This contrast should be kept in the translation, regardless of how their individual patterns of speech are handled separately. 

We can see the same contrast in another Scottish joke, this time about religious fanaticism:

An Edinburgh minister was officiating for a few weeks for a friend in a country district where Calvinistic orthodoxy and Sabbath observance were of the strictest.  On the first Sunday, the Minister, after service, took his stick in his hand and set off to enjoy a stroll.  On the outskirts of the village, he happened to pass the house of one of the elders.  The old man, who had observed him, came out, and asked if he was going anywhere on a work of mercy.
‘No’, said the minister, ‘I am just enjoying a meditative walk amidst the beauties of Nature.’
‘I was suspectin’ as muckle,’ said the elder.  ‘But you that’s a minister o’ the Gospel should ken that this is no’ a day for ony sic thing.’
‘You forget’, said the minister, ‘that our Lord Himself walked in the fields with His disciples on the Sabbath Day’.
‘Weel’, said the elder, doggedly, ‘I ken that.  But I dinna think the mair o’ Him ayther, for it.' (Ramsay 1873:50; see also Geikie: 137-8).
[Ken = know, muckle = much; the rest is straightforward, mere local pronunciations, ony sic = any such, dinna = don’t     mair = more, ayther = either.]

Once again the important role of patterns of speech in the joke is to provide contrast.  The minister is an urban, urbane, liberal, educated, cultivated man from Edinburgh, the ‘Athens of the North’ and speaks standard English, though presumably with a Scots accent.  The elder is an uneducated teuchter (rustic) with narrow and rigid religious opinions who is deliberately made to speak in a way that corresponds to this. It is important that he speaks the ludicrous punch line.  But the contrast is enhanced by the slightly precious speech of the minister who speaks of “enjoying a meditating walk”.  What the translator has to do is to preserve this contrast emphasising the social divide between the liberal and educated and those whose minds are limited by dogma and their speech by dialect.  Both manner of speech and content are about the clash of the broad and general with the narrow and particular.

The precious speech patterns of the Scottish chemist and minister provide a form of humour that parallels humour involving dialect.  Here too there is a departure from the everyday language of most people who speak standard English.  Everything they say is correct but anyone who spoke like that would be seen as over-refined, the opposite humorous quality from that of the dialect speaker. A minister, curate or vicar who speaks like this is a standard figure of fun in British comedy, not just in jokes but in films and comic postcards. Their speech has its own inflexible mechanical rigidity (Bergson 1924) and corresponding humorous potential.  We can see a very skilful exploitation of this in the script of the highly successful Anglo-American film A Fish Called Wanda.  In the film: Otto, an American gangster played by Kevin Kline, is angry with Archie, a British barrister played by John Cleese, so he dangles him upside-down from a third floor window by his feet and demands an apology:

Archie: All right, I apologise.
Otto: You’re really sorry?
Archie: I’m really sorry, I apologise unreservedly.
Otto: You take it back.
Archie: I do.  I offer a complete and utter retraction.  The imputation was totally without basis in fact and was in no way fair comment and was motivated by pure malice and I deeply regret any distress that my comments may have caused you or your family and I hereby undertake not to repeat any such slander at any time in the future.

Any translation of Archie’s speech must preserve its stilted, unreal quality.  Archie is in considerable danger and presumably alarmed but he speaks as if he were reading from a formal legal document.  The humour lies in his inability to adapt the way he speaks to the exigencies of his bizarre and frightening situation; he is trapped by the habitual mode of speaking-writing of his profession.  He has himself become a legal document.

It is necessary for the translator then to find an appropriate local equivalent to the restricted dialect spoken by the uneducated rural Scottish elder, a pious, self-taught unsophisticated, Bible reading, rural fundamentalist and to find another for the boozy proletarians who proliferate in Scottish jokes. They must continue to be defined by their social class or position on the rural periphery. But it is equally necessary to discern and mimic the restricted and sometimes impenetrable speech of the educated.  It is very clear to outsiders that the way university professors in the arts and social sciences speak and write has many of the qualities of a local dialect.  They habitually use words that are only used in their immediate ‘ locality’; they are not in general circulation and intelligent outsiders can often not understand what on earth they are talking or writing about.  Should a translator try to discern what they mean and provide a clearer version? It is not impossible; German students from the University of Kiel have told me they find the English translation of Kant easier to read than the original, even though for them English is a foreign language.  Have these students on balance gained more than they have lost?

In the case of Kant I can pose the question in this way because the sage of Kaliningrad had something important to say.  But what if you are asked to translate the writings of a postmodernist who uses difficulty to disguise vacuity.  Sir Isaac Newton showed that there was gravity in vacuity, which is why his face appeared on the English banknotes but I doubt if we can say this about French postmodernists.  The humorous (but not original) move that I have made between the language of physics and that of criticism should in itself indicate what is wrong with post-modern writing and suggest that it is best regarded as a form of humour and translated as such. It is a point I shall return to later.

5. How to choose a dialect in the receiving language

What flavour dialect you choose to translate Scots into is dictated not by sound nor by the nature of the departures from standard English that are the basis of the dialect but by image.  If the Scotsman of the joke is defined by a quality, such as stinginess then the appropriate flavour would be provided by the habitual mode of speaking of a group with that reputation in the country of the translated into language. Take for instance the following:

Two old Scotsmen sat by the roadside talking and puffing away merrily on their pipes.  ‘There’s no muckle pleasure [not much pleasure] in smoking Sandy”, said Donald.
“Hoo dae ye make that oot?” [Why do you say that?], questioned Sandy.
“Weel”, said Donald, “ye see if ye’re smokin’ yer ain bacca [your own tobacco] ye’re thinkin’ o the awfu’ expenses and if ye’re smokin’ some ither body’s [some one else’s] yer pipe is ram’t [crammed] sae tight it winna draw” (Lawson, 1923: 246).

Now it may be that the two Scots are once again rustics or plebs because they are ‘sat by the roadside’, but that is relatively unimportant. What is important is that they are stingy, that they scrounge as much tobacco, a socially shared good, as they can, when it is proffered but worry about the expense when they have paid for it themselves.  Accordingly you may decide that their speech should be rendered in the dialect of a local group with a stingy reputation such as a Swabian in Germany, an Auvergnat in France, a Laihian in Finland, a Genovese in Italy, a Gabrovonian in Bulgaria [Davies 1990,1998, 2002].  But there would be little point in painfully looking for equivalent words as translations for the non-standard English ‘muckle’ or ‘ither body’.  It is impossible to translate the original Scots exactly.  Besides what would be the point of fully and thoroughly translating the entire joke into Swabian or the dialect of the Auvergne or Genoa unless those for whom the translation is intended are from that place.  Speakers of Hochdeutsch or Yiddish, standard French or the French of Brest, standard Italian or the speech of Calabria would not be able to understand the joke quickly enough and possibly not at all.  Rather the translator needs to do is what a dialect comedian does when operating outside his home area and use the standard language but with markers to indicate the place of origin of the two men in the joke.  Besides there may be no appropriate local dialect for stingy people.  If Swedes or Slovaks want to tell a joke about a stingy person, they will anyway tell one in Swedish or in Slovak about a Scotsman, possibly choosing an imported international joke, possibly a local invention, There may or may not be a local convention about how to indicate his Scottishness within the joke through a specific use of the local language but if there is, it is unlikely that this will have any real relation to Scottish dialect.

But what if a Scots joke or anecdote or comic song is about some other Scottish attribute conventionally (Raskin 1982: 180) used in humorous scripts about the Scots such as drunkenness, unuxoriousness, humourless pedantry or religious fanaticism?

In such cases a quite different local target group will be called for.  Consider for example the comic song I belong to Glasgow given below, which was written in very mild Glaswegian by the Scottish comedian Will Fyfe:

I’ve been wi’ a couple o’ cronies, One or two pals o’ my ain; We went in a hotel, and we did very well, And then we came out once again; Then we went into anither, And that is the reason I’m fu’; We had six deoch-an-doruses, then sang a chorus, Just listen, I’ll sing it to you: Chorus I belong to Glasgow, Dear old Glasgow town; But what’s the matter wi’ Glasgow, For it’s goin’ roun’ and roun’! I’m only a common old working chap, As anyone here can see, But when I get a couple o’ drinks on a Saturday, Glasgow belongs to me! There’s nothing in keeping your money, And saving a shilling or two; If you’ve nothing to spend, then you’ve nothing to lend, Why that’s all the better for you! There no harm in taking a drappie, It ends all your trouble and strife; It gives ye the feeling that when you get home, You don’t give a hang for the wife! (Will Fyfe, 1922?).
[A drappie is a small drop A deoch-an-dorus is a farewell drink, literally a drink at the door, from the Gaelic deoch, drink and dorus, door. fu’ means full ie full of drink, drunk.]

Trouble and strife is also London rhyming slang for wife but Fyfe probably knew this and incorporated it. Such images are well known in Scottish dialect humour and have older rural antecedents. In translating Fyfe or indeed, as I shall indicate later, Robert Burns, it is as well to remember that these are men’s songs and poems and require translation into an appropriately masculine dialect form. In this respect I belong to Glasgow has much in common with Robert Burn’s Tam O’Shanter, though in the latter Burns moves back and fore between strong dialect and standard English, the de’il’s tongue, in much more subtle ways and pretends at times to acknowledge the claims of conventional, that is to say female, morality. In either case it is the language of a classic world in which men drink in pubs and women sulk at home, though now in the twenty-first century with its lack of public transport and strict penalties for drunken driving, the Scottish wife is often to be found sitting in a vehicle in the cold car-park of a distant pub, waiting to drive her tipsy master home when he feels ready to leave. The Scots in the song are not careful and stingy but profligate drunks drawn from the lower classes of a big city for whom “there’s nothing in keeping your money, And saving a shilling or two” and it is necessary to match their language with that of a corresponding group in the translator’s country.  In Germany it might be the Kőln dialect spoken by the two plebeian comic drunks Tünnes and Schäll, in Poland it might be the speech of another two comic drunks, Antek and Frantzek.  But what dialect would you choose in a country such as Italy or Israel where Scottish style public drunkenness is frowned upon?  It would be necessary to invent a mangled form of Italian as spoken and sung by the tipsy supporters of a visiting football team from a hard drinking country in Northern or Eastern Europe such as Rangers, Liverpool, Ajax , Bayern Műnchen or Praha Sparta The moral is that the use of the dialect in humour signals a particular comic quality that has to be matched locally but it is a variable quality that differs from one humorous item to another. It is not a linguistic question but a sociological one Let us now turn to an earlier semi-humorous verse about Scottish drinking set in Ayrshire by Robert Burns that has entered high literature. It is recited every year at the very Scottish, haggis munching, toasting with whisky, annual Burns Suppers held on the 25th January in the middle of the grim Scottish winter Traditionally the Scottish women prepared the food for it but did not attend, for it was an all-male carouse in the tradition of the bard himself but there was always a toast to the bony “bonny lassies”, somewhere on their road to inebriation. (For a humour of the reality see Kerr 1904 13-14 and for humorous parallels see Ferguson 1936:10-13, Ford 1891: 135-8). In Scotland “Whiskey and freedom gang thegither”, but only for men.

Tam O’Shanter
When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors, meet;
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate,
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
An’ getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and stiles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm
Robert Burns
[ Chapman billies are pedlars, pedlar chaps ; drouthy means thirsty; bousing at the nappy means knocking back the liquor; fou means full, drunk; unco means uncommonly, exceptionally ; slaps are gates.]

Once again we see how the contrast between a local dialect and standard English is used to maintain humour. The first nine lines describing the scenes in the pub as Tam O’ Shanter freely boozes late with his cronies are in Ayrshire dialect. It is the male speech of drunken, convivial Ayrshire and appropriate to the situation. The description of Tam O’Shanter’s ‘sulky, sullen dame….nursing her wrath to keep it warm ‘ is in standard English. Indeed it is in high literary English, again as in the joke about the chemist used both to provide an extra comic image and to emphasise by contrast the Scots that Burns has used to portray the jollity of the pub, a Scots closer to Tam’s own mode of speech and that of his fellow carousers in the bar.

Indirectly it makes another point about dialect, namely that is often a rough masculine speech, whereas women of the same social class may well take on the more refined speech of a higher social class, not only from a wish to appear to be of a higher social standing but also because it is the language of respectable self-control, the quality that their own men folk lack, a lack which is much to the women’s detriment. The outside male lower-class world of hard-drinking, fighting, gambling and whores in cutty sarks where dialect prevails is a direct threat to women and particularly to wives at home possibly with children to feed and protect with limited resources. This is why such women will tend to side with the moral disciplining of their own men by the politically powerful middle classes and will move their speech in the direction of the standard language to take on the feel and sound of respectability. Society is a conspiracy between the middle classes of both sexes and women of all classes against lower class men, whose freedom and disorder must be curbed. Language reflects this.

6. Dialect and Nonsense

Dialect can be an excellent source of nonsense humour precisely because it is impenetrable to outsiders.  Consider the following piece of humorous verse, A Scottish Love Song, most likely composed by the Scottish humorist John Joy Bell, best known for his vernacular stories about Wee Macgreegor:

A Scottish Love Song by J.J. Bell
Oh, haud your whishts and dicht your nebs
And scart your lugs forbye
And soop her up and ca’ awa’
And kep the kittIe kye;
For whigmaleerie’s in the pook,
The clabbadoos is loupin’,
The tapselteerie’s boot her e’e
The glaur is in the gowpen!

Oh, leeze me on the bogie roll
That in the jawbox sooms,
The baikie bummin’ by the byke
To snod the neeps and plooms!
The champit tatties fleein’ laigh
Sae sweirt and blate and jaggy
The soor dook skirlin’ up the lum
They mind me o’ ma Maggie!

[Very approximate translation into standard English
Oh hold your tongues and wipe your noses
And scratch your ears as well
And sweep it up and call away
And keep the ticklish cows
For the bauble it is in the worts
The shellfish leap and grab
The topsy-turvy’s round her eyes
Your hands are filled with mud.
Oh joyous twist tobacco
That in the back sink floats.
The bucket humming in the bees’ nest
To prune turnips and plums!
The mashed potatoes flying low
So timid, lazy, prickly
The sour bung screaming up the chimbley
Remind me of my Maggie]

For the outsider it looks at first like a genuine Scottish love song written in dialect. Once it is rendered into standard English, it is revealed as complete nonsense, even though the unfamiliar words are genuine Scots.  Bell has not made up the words he wrote, he has merely strung together obscure dialect words and one or two proper nouns within sentences whose grammar is regular.  It could be sung, for on the whole it scans and some of the lines rhyme.  But a love song it ain’t, even when allowances are made for the outlook held by the grimmer or more prosaic Scots that comes out well in the jokes below

A Scotsman asked his employer to let him off work for a day or two to get married.
On his return he was asked by his boss if his wife was a nice girl
“Well”, replied the workman honestly, “she’s God’s handiwork but she’s no’ a maisterpiece” (Ferguson 1936: 74).

A Scots couple had just married in a cold Kirk without a steeple on a characteristically freezing Scots morning and had left by train for their honeymoon. In the train the wife began to weep.
”Why are you crying”, asked the husband?
“Nobody loves me and my hands are cold”, sobbed the wife
Replied the husband, “ God loves you and you can sit on your hands”,
Minister’s address before a marriage service near to the Scots town of Peebles
“My friends, marriage is a blessing to a few, a curse to many and a great uncertainty to all. Do ye venture?”
After a pause, he repeated with great emphasis, “ Do ye venture?” (Ramsay 1873: 81).

Bell gives his song a sub-title, so it becomes A Scottish love song or so it seemed to a Sassenach, Sassenach being an opprobrious Scots term for an Englishman, the Saxon, the Sais.  It makes fun both of the dialect, and of the inability of the Sassenachs, to understand it.  An Englishman hearing it sung would find it incomprehensible but might accept that it was a love song.  It is in fact a deliberately and cleverly constructed piece of absurd verse that is risible not because it is gibberish but because it is nonsense; they are not the same. Those who might wish to translate it could with profit look at the way other translators have in the past dealt with Lewis Carroll’s humorous nonsense verse, though with the caveat that they that they are not the same, merely similar in certain respects.

Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogroves
And the mome raths outgrabe
(Carroll, 1965 [1871]: 175).

Many of the words are complete inventions but fortunately they are known to Humpty Dumpty who explains them.  If we insert Humpty’s ‘translations’ we get:

It was four o’clock in the afternoon and the lithe and slimy lizard-corkscrew-badgers
Went round and round the grass plot surrounding a sundial and made gimlet holes in.
The shabby, flimsy mop-like birds were miserable
And the lost green pigs bellowed, sneezed and whistled.

The version derived from Humpty Dumpty’s comments version remains classic nonsense humour but the original is gibberish, though written in English. The meanings, nonsense meanings only emerge from Humpty’s commentary which also includes some amusing etymologies.  Translating the original Carroll poem into languages other than English must have been difficult because of the need to provide a version of the gibberish that can then be subjected to an arbitrary yet reasoned transformation by Humpty Dumpty.  Humpty Dumpty renders what had been merely a baffling puzzle into something more fully humorous, through his bizarre yet somehow systematic explanations. 

Perhaps the best way to translate a serious passage that makes no sense into another language would be for the translator him or herself to take on the role of Humpty Dumpty and provide humorous understanding, regardless of whether that was the author’s intention.  It would be merely be turning the utterances of a real fool into those of a court fool. It is the most appropriate way to tackle the translation of French postmodernist philosophers into other languages

Professor Richard Dawkins FRS, holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and inspirer of the The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, has savagely attacked the writings of the well-known French philosphical-psychoanaltyical-linguistical theorists Fėlix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze for being incomprehensible. He quotes the two translated passages below from their works in support of his argument

We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously (Félix Guattari).

In the first place, singularities-events correspond to heterogeneous series which are organized into a system which is neither stable nor unstable, but rather ‘metastable,’ endowed with a potential energy wherein the differences between series are distributed . . . In the second place, singularities possess a process of auto-unification, always mobile and displaced to the extent that a paradoxical element traverses the series and makes them resonate, enveloping the corresponding singular points in a single aleatory point and all the emissions, all dice throws, in a single cast (Gilles Deleuze).

Dawkins comments:

No doubt there exist thoughts so profound that most of us will not understand the language in which they are expressed. And no doubt there is also language designed to be unintelligible in order to conceal an absence of honest thought. But how are we to tell the difference? What if it really takes an expert eye to detect whether the emperor has clothes? In particular, how shall we know whether the modish French ‘philosophy’, whose disciples and exponents have all but taken over large sections of American academic life, is genuinely profound or the vacuous rhetoric of mountebanks and charlatans?

Yet surely the problem indicated by the campanile atheist and malleus Creationistorum, Dawkins is an artefact of the translation of these passages from French into English and of the framework within which the translators must have approached these men’s works. The translators treated their works as if they were bona fide communication to be translated in such a way as to convey precise meanings, which of course they do not and cannot. This has unfairly exposed them to the scorn of the godless sage of Oxford, who has treated them as if they were medieval scholastics arguing about how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. If the translators had approached these men’s effusions from a humour perspective it would have been clear that the writings of Guattari and Deleuze are more akin to asking the question ‘how many pins you can stick in an angel?’ If translators from French to English had been employed who were used to working with dialect verse like John Joy Bell’s A Scottish Love Song, they would, of course, have seen that the original passages in Guattari and Deleuze were best regarded as humorous. French Postmodernists speak a dialect of French that is not understood by those who know only everyday standard French. French postmodernspeak evolved in the same way as a dialect, namely as a result of not having to communicate with outsiders and it has come to perform the same social function for which a dialect can be used, namely to maintain a social boundary between the insiders and those they wish to exclude. But postmodernism is playful and does not admit of fixed meanings and so its exponents have come, albeit unconsciously, to parody their own theory of language. The problem with the English translation is that it does not make this clear enough. In consequence American literary theorists, who don’t do irony, have been unable to see the joke. Also those such as Sokal and Bricmont [1998] who have written parodies of this kind of opaque writing and had their parodies published in utterly serious journals have failed to see that you can not parody a parody; you can merely make it more explicit To parody them is to break a bread-and-butterfly on a wheel.

Let me put it this way. If in the course of life, someone comes up to you and talks nonsense, your first and most likely interpretation is that they are joking. You do not take them seriously, nor do you immediately get angry and call them “mountebanks and charlatans”. Accordingly translators confronted with a piece of text that is so unclear that it cannot be treated as bona fide communication should not then produce a translation that leads to the original author being regarded as a mad actor or as a liar Rather for ethical as well as theoretical and practical reason they should treat the original text is a piece of humorous discourse and they should aim to make the readers of the translation laugh. This is particularly appropriate in the case of postmodernists who deny the fixed meanings of texts such as Achtung Minen! , or È pericoloso sporgersi or Do not exceed the stated dose and in consequence are liable to be nominated for Darwin awards (Northcutt 2002), a point that should appeal to Professor Dawkins, who is a fulminating Darwinist. But surely in relation to the postmodernists’ own writings the uncertainty principle applies, so that if we know where they are, we do not know where they are going and vice versa? Given that the translator has to meet deadlines and satisfy readers, would it not be sensible to make the humorous possibility one’s first choice. There is no way anyone can show you are wrong, for deconstruction always opens the way for reconstruction and complete deconstruction permits open-ended reconstruction. It shows incompetence if a translator misses the humour in an item (Chiaro 1992; 86) but surely by extension of this argument, a good translator should always try to provide humour even where the native speakers fail to understand it is there. We can justify this on theoretical grounds if we regard bona fide communication and humorous communication respectively (Raskin 1982: 100) not just as ideal types but as unbounded abstractions, which can be employed quite independently of an author or speaker’s intentions or a listener or reader’s expectation. this enables the translator to move freely between them.

On this assumption it is reasonable to reframe and reclaim French post-modern philosophy as J J Bell type humour and to rescue it from the heavy condescension of scientists and clear thinkers.

7. Some Conclusions

1) Before starting to translate a humorous text that is in dialect it is best first to ask whether it is worth bothering to make the effort to find a good equivalent in the language into which it is being translated. Sometimes there are good reasons for investing considerable time and effort in doing so. Sometimes there are not.

2) Always ask why dialect is used. It will indicate regional, ethnic or national identity but it may that in the context of the joke or other humorous item other social identities are more salient, such as those rooted in social class differences, education or lack of it, urban versus rural and male versus female. This must be reflected in the translation.

3) Always ask why the central character has a particular ethnic identity and which particular conventional ethnic script underpins the joke or anecdote. By humorous convention the Scots whose humour has been discussed are canny (cunning and stingy), fanatical Calvinists and Sabbatarians, hard drinkers of whiskey to the point of public inebriety, coldly and hard-headedly realistic rather than romantic in their perception and treatment of women. In choosing a dialect in another language to represent Scots when translating, remember that the choice must reflect the theme of the joke rather than just the sound or feel of the dialect. This is true more generally when translating any kind of joke using dialect.

4) Always bear in mind that a dialect may be a vehicle for nonsense humour, Because outsiders will be unable to understand a dialect, it is easy to deceive them and the humour may combine parody and deception as in post-modern thought.

(The proof of what I say may be seen in the differential growth of women’s suffrage. It is first introduced in rough masculine hard-drinking frontier societies such as New Zealand, Finland, and Australia and in the Wild West state of Wyoming. It is needed to provide a base for civilising the lower class and frontier men. Likewise Prohibition movements are a coalition between women of all classes and the respectable classes of both sexes to stop lower class men from drinking by making the commercial manufacture and sale of alcoholic drinks illegal. We can see this in the USA and also in Scotland. When the women of the hard-drinking Scottish city of Dundee first got the vote, they promptly voted out Winston Churchill in 1922 and replaced him with Mr Scrymgeour, leader of the Prohibition Party).


Aitken, John, nd, The Humours of Ayrshire or Travels with a Bookstall, Kilmarnock, D.Brown.

Attardo, Salvatore, 2001, Humorous Texts, a Semantic and Pragmatic Analysis, Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter.

Bell, John Joy, 1929 Hoots, Dundee, Valentine.

Bergson, Henri, 1924, Le rire. Essai sur la signification du comique. Paris: Éditions Alcan, 1924.

Burns, Robert, 1791, Tam O’Shanter, in Selected Poems

Burns, Robert, 1998, Selected Poems, Cambridge, Cambridge UP.

Carroll, Lewis, 1965 (1871) Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, in The Works of Lewis Carroll, Feltham, Spring.

Charteris, Archibald R 1932, When the Scot Smiles, London, Alexander Maclehose.

Chiaro, Delia 1992, The Language of Jokes, London Routledge.

Davies, Christie, 1990, Ethnic Humor Around the World, Bloomington Indiana, Indiana UP.

Davies, Christie 1998 Jokes and their Relation to Society, Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter.

Davies, Christie, 2002, The Mirth of Nations, New Brunswick, Transaction.

Dawkins, Richard, 1998 Postmodernism Disrobed, Nature 394, pp 141-143, 9th July.

Ferguson, James (Fergy) 1936 The Table in a Roar, London, Methuen.

Ford, Robert, 1891 Thistledown, A book of Scotch Humour, Character, Folk-Lore, Story and Anecdote, Paisley, Alexander Gardner.

Fyfe, Will, 1953 (1922?), Songbook, London, Francis Day and Hunter.

Geikie, Sir Archibald 1904, Scottish Reminiscences, Glasgow, James Maclehose.

Kerr John, 1903, Memories Grave and Gay, Edinburgh, Blackwood.

Lawson, T Gilchrist, 1923 The World’s Best Humorous Anecdotes, New York, Harper.

Munro, Michael, 1985, The Original Patter, Glasgow, Glasgow District Libraries.

Northcutt, Wendy, 2002, The Darwin Awards, New York, Plume.

Ramsay, Dean Edward Bannerman 1873, Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character, Edinburgh, Gall and Inglis.

Raskin, Victor, 1982, Semantic Mechanisms of Humor, Dordrecht, Reidel.

Sokal, Alan and Jean Bricmont 1998 Intellectual Impostures, London, Profile.

About the author(s)

Christie Davies M.A. PhD (Cantab) was educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge where he was a senior scholar of the college and Wrenbury scholar in political economy. He obtained first class honours in both parts of the Economics Tripos, was president of the Union, acted in the annual Footlights Review and was a member of a British debating team that toured the United States. On leaving Cambridge he was a radio producer on the BBC Third Programme before becoming a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Leeds and later moving to Reading where he has been in turn Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, Professor and established Professor.

Professor Davies is the co-author of Wrongful Imprisonment (1973), author of Permissive Britain (1975), co-editor of Censorship and Obscenity (1978), author of Ethnic Humor Around the World: a Comparative Analysis (1990 and 1997) and of Jokes and their Relation to Society (1998) and co-author of The Corporation under Siege (1998). Christie's academic articles have been published in the leading journals. He has also been a regular contributor to national and international newspapers.

His main research and teaching interests continue to be in the comparative and historical study of morality and of humour. He is currently completing a third book on the sociology of humour for Transaction of New Brunswick, N.J. and is seeking a publisher for a book on the moral transformation of Britain during the last half of the twentieth century.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Christie Davies (2009).
"Reflections on Translating Dialect in Jokes and Humour"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: The Translation of Dialects in Multimedia
Edited by: M. Giorgio Marrano, G. Nadiani & C. Rundle
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL:

Go to top of page