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Finding Humor In Translation

Lesson Plans > Religious Training > Preaching > Cross Cultural

Finding Humor In Translation

Speaking to a group through a translator can be a daunting task, because the audience can easily get distracted--especially if your translator is not fluent in both languages. Also, you as the speaker can get very distracted as well, as there are always surprises in such situations.

One of the most difficult things to deal with is humor. If you rely on humor to keep your speaking interesting, you may find teaching through a translator to be downright painful.

There's a story about a preacher who visited a missionary and preached at his church, using the missionary as his translator. His message was "The Four Ships of Christianity", by which he meant fellowship, discipleship, membership, and worship. Of course, his entire premise was based on a pun, which didn't make any sense to his audience. It was a disaster.

Another story is of a preacher in a similar situation who spends about five minutes telling a joke, and when he is finished, his translator said about four words, and everyone burst out laughing. Later the man asked his translator what he had said, and the translator explained, "I knew they wouldn't get your joke, so I just told them you had told a joke and they should laugh."

The fact is, much of our humor is very culturally or linguistically based. So when speaking in another culture, you should always try out your humor on people in private before wasting everyone's time with jokes that no one will get. If you aren't sure, ask. I would make it a policy to have someone screen each piece of humor I use.

And still be prepared to watch it bomb, and continue on without batting an eyelash.

Even when you've dealt with all of that, you still have one last humor problem to deal with; your audience may laugh in all the wrong places. This can be distracting at best, and disturbing at worst if you aren't prepared for it.

Last fall I spoke at a Sudanese church, and as part of my message, made reference to redeeming soda cans. What I never would have guessed was that in their native language there was no word or phrase to describe that. My translator spent several minutes trying to explain the concept to the congregation, and while I assumed he was working to explain "bottle redemption", but in reality he was struggling to explain the idea of a "soda can"!

Finally, he mimed opening a soda can, and made a fizzing sound, and everyone burst out laughing as they finally understood what he was telling them!

Be ready for anything. Go with the flow. Be relaxed. Let your audience laugh when they want to. And obviously, you have things that are far more important to share than jokes, so focus on the things that are truly important. Your audience will love you for it.
Lesson by Mr. Twitchell

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