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Can you translate jokes?

Sergio Kobylanski


Some societies associate humor with creativity and see it as a positive trait. For some others, it is not a very desirable quality, since, they say, it reduces the individual's serious-mindedness, and is not considered a drive for creativity. However, there is no record of any human society without a sense of humor. There are few meeting points between people on earth, at any time in history. Humor is one of them.


Scientists and researchers took it very seriously, using it as a tool to analyze societies. Many times understanding how they work through the relationship they have with humor. Something like: "Tell me what your jokes are, and I will tell you how you organize socially".


"Laughter is the shortest distance between two people" - Víctor Borge.

On the other hand, some studies indicate that language shapes thought. Some examples: 1. If Hebrew or Arabic speakers were asked to organize pictures from old to recent, they will start the timeline from the right. 2. There is an indigenous community in the Amazon that does not have words for exact numbers, and they just use "a little" or "a lot". 3. In Russian, the way the verb is said reveals the speaker's gender.


So, if societies are so distinct from one another, and they even organize their thoughts differently, is it possible that they laugh at the same jokes?


Well, except in cases where the basis for the joke or the punch line are specific to a particular community or area, the answer is yes. Regardless of its geographical location, a funny story will generate laughter in whoever hears it. We can verify this very easily: how many times have we watched a foreign movie, and someone tells a joke we already know, slightly modified to make it fit, culturally or linguistically, but the punch line is the same? And you still laugh.


The element that stamps the passport of these traveling jokes is human-made translation. Smart, skillful and creative humans who can adapt almost every message. For humor is slippery, and many times it sneaks under irony or sarcasm, which, of course, represents a labyrinth impossible to solve for artificial intelligence.


The distance between two people might be a few centimeters, or meters after the recent pandemic, and still, there might be a closed door separating them. It is comforting to know that laughter and humor can be a knock on the door and translation, the key that opens it.



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