Translating German Humour

By Jamie Bulloch

Bulloch photo

The traditional British impression of German humour is well exemplified by a billboard advertising campaign that Löwenbräu ran in the 1980s. Two elderly and rather dour German gents are sitting on a bench. The first says, ‘My dog has no nose.’ The second asks, ‘How does it smell?’ To which the answer comes, ‘It cannot.’ Television car commercials of the time, meanwhile, played on a similar idea, presenting Germans as ruthlessly if admirably efficient.

The pigeon-holing of Germans as a humourless bunch has stubbornly persisted. It didn’t help much when our A-level teacher showed us an episode from a German comedy sketch show, only for our group to sit stony-faced throughout the entire half hour of the programme. Nor have the Germans themselves always been the quickest to dispel the stereotype. Their overt love, sometimes bordering on obsession, for British humour – Fawlty Towers being the best example here – must have to some extent overshadowed their home-grown efforts. I still find it extraordinary that every New Year’s Eve German television shows the classic comedy sketch Dinner for One, in the English original and without subtitles, whereas it is almost completely unknown in the UK.

Superficially at least, the categorisation of German literature has likewise been dominated by terms such as serious, weighty, meditative, brooding, melancholy – the thesaurus could go on and on. And yet contemporary German literature is refusing to conform to these stereotypes. Irrespective of whether the reputation has simply been undeserved all along, or whether a more globalised world of the arts – Anglo-Saxon influences in particular – has left its mark on German writing, literature from the German-speaking countries is awash with humour.

German books that have made me laugh over the past few years include Kristof Magnusson’s Das war ich nicht, Astrid Rosenfeld’s Adams Erbe, Philipp Winkler’s Hool, Juli Zeh’s Unterleuten and Steven Uhly’s Mein Leben in Aspik, to mention only ones that have not (yet) made their way into English. In my own work, humour has been a key element in many a translation, including Daniel Glattauer’s books Love Virtually, Every Seventh Wave and Forever Yours, Martin Suter’s The Chef, Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, Jörg Fauser’s Raw Material and Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake. But most of all in Timur Vermes’s brilliantly audacious satire Look Who’s Back, which has struck a chord with English-speaking audiences, having so far sold more than a quarter of a million copies across all formats.

Before embarking on the translation of this book I was fortunate to spend a residential week with the author, publisher and eleven other translators of Er ist wieder da, during which we dissected the novel and discussed solutions for rendering tricky parts into our respective languages. The most helpful advice I received all week was when both author and publisher encouraged us ‘to do whatever is needed to make it work in your own language’, an idea worth bearing in mind when undertaking any translation.

This licence we were given to tinker with the text proved invaluable when it came to reproducing the humour in English. For even if we might agree that no one nation or language is inherently funnier than another, certain facets of humour are culturally specific, and precariously so. A satire where the wit falls flat through an excessively deferential translation must lose its bite and end up a tough, lifeless read. Given substantial creative freedom, however, you can dismiss any comic ingredients or devices that do not resonate with a domestic audience and invent your own that do. A concrete example of this in my case was the Berlin dialect of Hitler’s secretary, Fräulein Krömeier, impossible to render faithfully. In the English she speaks in a contemporary metropolitan vernacular, not specific to any region, with plenty of LOLs and OMGs, affording a sharp contrast to the Führer’s outdated, stuffy and ludicrously rhetorical idiom. Meanwhile, in the English version the character Sensenbrink talks in absurd business clichés that aren’t there in the German original. Other minor adjustments and inventions are dotted throughout the novel, all with the same purpose: to preserve the humour in English and thereby boost the book’s impact as a satire.

Look Who’s Back is just one of many books around today seeking to refute the reputation of Germans as a humourless people. Being a translator puts you on the front line of the battle to convey this message to the outside world. We need to use all our courage and creative skills to ensure that our mission is a success.   

Based on an interview with Deborah Langton