Words Without Borders January: Enter Laughing

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Just try to get into this year without slipping on a banana peel. ‘Words Without Borders’ this month helps you pick yourself up off the floor, with international humor.

Yue Minjun’s ‘A-maze-ing Laughter, a work of 14 patinated cast-bronze figures. Image: Provided by Words Without Borders by arrangement with the Vancouver Biennale

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Now, You Take My Country’s Humor. Please.
Funny how fast all that “good will toward men” (and women) disappears after the holidays, isn’t it? Actually, no, it’s not funny at all.

So this month’s edition of Words Without Borders breaks with the familiar pattern of focusing on a language’s or region’s literature and arrives with something that in another month of the year the Chinese might call “double elevens”—11 pieces from 11 parts of the world, all chosen to help keep the door from hitting you when your government shuts down.

The current edition, “Laughing Matters: International Humor,” includes an introduction by the nonprofit translation magazine’s editor, Susan Harris, and works of slapstick, farce, satire, and more, translated into English from nine languages and these countries—several of which may not be the first places you think of as epicenters of merriment: Morocco, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Madagascar, Russia, Peru, Spain, France, Uganda, Taiwan, Iran, Belgium.

And not without her own ribald observations, is Harris.

Early in her introductory essay—”A Pun, an Idiom, and an Expletive Walk Into a Bar“—she refers to how so many readers “associate international literature with the most serious of topics—what I refer to as the ‘long dark weeping night of Eastern Europe’ stereotype.”

Susan Harris

Happily, she’s not just archive-diving for the funniest gags she can find, but also looking at the serious business of trying to put over a punchline in another language. International humor is, surely, a laughing matter, she tells us, unless you’re the one watching it fall flat in your translation.

Early on, she wisely gets to Jessica Cohen’s 2017 Man Booker International Prize-winning translation of David Grossman’s standup monologue in A Horse Walks Into a Bar (US, Jonathan Cape; UK, Alfred A Knopf).

That—along with Jennifer Croft’s uncanny ability to cinch quick humor in translating the 2018 winner of the prize Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (UK, Fitzcarraldo Editions; US, Riverhead Books)—is in gold-standard territory in demonstrating just how badly humor travels without a lot of effort by an accomplished translator:

“Grossman told the New York Times that the old joke that gives the book its title (‘horse walks into a bar; bartender says, “Why the long face?”‘) doesn’t exist in Hebrew, since ‘long face’ is not an idiom in that language; it’s that sort of conundrum—finding equivalents for the apparently untranslatable—that people think of when they marvel at translating humor.

Yet that precision of word choice and attention to vocabulary and phrasing animates all successful translation, and is what you’ll find in the pieces presented here.”

So it is that Harris’ article sets you up for such laugh-riots as an “antic account of a flight from hell,” a “sardonic tale of real estate sales” (is that one about the Oval Office?), and the inevitable “treacherous grounds of romance.”

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

A panel from the graphic novel, ‘Quai d’Orsay’ (Self-Made Hero Press, 2014) by Abel Lanzac and Christophe Blain, ‘Weapons of Mass Diplomacy‘ excerpt published in the February 2014 edition of ‘Words Without Borders’

In working a hard room (have you tried selling translated literature to English-speakers lately?), Harris proves to be a funny lady, herself, with her choices of content for her humor edition.

For example, anything called “Weapons of Mass Diplomacy” is something she obviously has put in just to make Americans burst into tears of embarrassment.

The graphic novel Quai d’Orsay (Self-Made Hero Press, 2014), excerpted in this month’s edition of Words Without Borders, is by Abel Lanzac and Christophe Blain, writing at a safe remove in France and translated by Edward Gauvin.

This one was given a film treatment that won a 2013 San Sebastián festival screenplay prize for Lanzac and Bain. You may know the film Quai d’Orsay by its English title, The French Minister, directed by Bertrand Tavernier and notable for Niels Arestrup’s and Raphaël Personnez’s performances.

And then, there’s “A History of Condo Sales” by Taiwan’s Huang Fan and translated from the Chinese by Kevin TS Tang. Briefly, from that one:

Huang Fan

“Ai-ya! Such a hip modern design!” my wife swooned when she first saw a model of the condo.

“The living room’s on a raised platform, and the dining area’s even higher. The bedrooms look like they’re sinking below sea level. You like this sort of setup?” I asked a client.

“Such a hip modern design!” my client gasped.

Worldwide pants are always good for a laugh. So here is “The Curious Story of Dassoukine’s Trousers” by Morocco’s Fouad Laroui, brought from French into English by a favorite translator, Emma Ramadan.

Empar Moliner

The Invention of the Aspirin” (now, that’s how to title a humorous piece) is by Empar Moliner of Spain and is translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush, and, look out, your wife may not be who you think she is.

For that matter, education is pretty much a sad laugh in a lot of places these days, too, and Visegrad-born Saša Stanišić’s “A Classical Education” is translated from the German by Janet Hendrickson and the Germany-based author of the piece.

Hilda Twongyeirwe

And, maybe Harris is on to something. We frequently cover the current interest (translate as wild-eyed desperation) of bewildered readers these days in political books—remember when we were all ladies and gentlemen? And Harris seems to be riffing on the moment (translate as panic) by also tossing in “Baking the National Cake,” translated by Juliet Kushaba from the Runyankole-Rukiga in this piece by Hilda Twongyeirwe, who is a founder of Uganda’s women writers’ organization named FEMWRITE.

There’s much more for you to discover in this month’s edition of Words Without Borders, where a funny thing happened on the way to 2019: they decided we might need a good laugh.

Whatever gave them that idea?


More from Publishing Perspectives on ‘Words Without Borders’ is here, and more from us on translation is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.