Of intended puns and other language barriers
I've just read a very true blogpost about how humour just does not cross borders very well. Borders of language, but mostly, intercultural boders. I guess we're all shaped by whatever environment we evolve in, and humour usually resides in that environment. Humour appeals to things we have experienced, TV shows, books, movies, pop culture in its greater acceptance, family history, you name it. As such, it takes quite a bit of knowing the other to make sure that the joke you're about to make will come across as such. Humour is difficult to translate and difficult to understand when you're living in another country or speaking another language.
What I find hardest however, is how difficult it is to make puns in a language that is not your native language. Not so much because you cannot (as in "you're not able to"), but because the pun presupposes a mastery of the language that people aren't ready to grant you. After all, I'm a French speaking English, or German, so people know that English or German aren't my first language, and they'll be somewhat hermetic to my trying to play with the language that is theirs.
Of course, there are unintended puns. One of the most embarassing moment of my learning-languages life was while trying to make a quiche in the USA (yes, quiche is the one thing I export everywhere I live ;)). I was at the very beginning of my living there, and was looking for grated cheese (Gruyère, to be exact). Which, for the record, simply did not exist in New Mexico. So here I am, talking with my English teacher, and telling her I need eggs, bacon bits and... raped cheese. Yeah. Raped. The thing is, the word for grated in French is "rapé". And since so many English words come from French, I took a stab at it. Wrong stab, it seems. Raped has somewhat of a different meaning than the one I was expecting. That's how you learn, mind you, I'll never forget my English teacher's look, and never ever forget how to say "grated" in English.
But here is another story. There is a phrase in English that goes "I don't give a flying fu*k". Pardon my French. I've always found it funny. And one day I "punned" it, and said "I don't give a fu**ing fly". The first time I said it, I can't remember who it was, but the English speaker that was there said, just a bit embarassed to be correcting me:
"Hmm, the proper way to say this is actually "I don't give a flying fu**". Crap. I was trying to be funny here, but because I am not a native speaker, they thought I had not gotten that right and was making a mistake. That episode taught me two things:
- - No matter how well you master a language, people do remember that you're not a native speaker. This would probably have been considered funny if uttered by a native speaker.
- - A language that you learn is hard to use in a way that isn't conventional.
A bit sad actually, I probably could be quite funny in English, if they'd let me ;). And I realize that my confidence in how well I speak a language can be measured with how funny I try to be. I'm even starting to make jokes in German now! (and they don't come across :P).