Giving a concrete definition of humour is certainly difficult, and translating it from one language to another it’s even worse! Experienced localisers sometimes argue that some forms of humour simply remain untranslatable, due to linguistic and cultural factors. Most of the time, in fact, humour is a type of social game and, when it works, people react with laughter. For this reason, if mistranslated, puns may be incomprehensible and not generate any kind of hilarity. Rules, expectations and solutions are culture-specific, which presents a challenge for the translator.
Humour: a question of subjectivity
It must be said, of course, that the success of humour translation varies according to the subjectivity of what other people may or may not find funny. Humour also depends on genre, as some of its forms, particularly situational or anecdotal ones that highlight universal aspects of human life and are funny to people of all backgrounds, are easier to translate than puns or idiomatic expressions that are unique to a particular culture.
While language reflects the values and beliefs of a culture and the latter is expressed in language, there are languages that share nothing in common. For example, a brief look at all Chinese idioms that include the word ‘family’ shows how important this notion is to culture and provides some insight into the composition of the family and its possible dynamics. Being able to fully understand the cultural background of people from very different backgrounds in terms of values and ideas requires mastering the complexity of a language.
High on Life
As far as humour in the video game scene is concerned, High on Life, a bizarre first-person shooter made by Squanch Games, achieved great success in terms of narrative and content thanks to its flashes of dark humour and light-hearted register. The work, by the authors of Rick & Morty, effectively reaffirmed the value of comedy by presenting a fast-paced pace, foul-mouthed and politically incorrect jokes, a certain insanely sci-fi imagery, and being over the top at every single moment. In short, we are not dealing with a Call of Duty, but rather with a shooter that goes out of its way not to take itself seriously and that seems to have the makings of an extremely entertaining story.
High on Life includes a decidedly high amount of dialogue in all phases of the game, but it should be pointed out that, at least at present, the game is not dubbed in Italian. In fact, localization is only available for texts and subtitles, which could turn the nose up at those who are not particularly familiar with the English language.
West of Loathing
Released in 2017, West of Loathing is a comic adventure role-playing video game developed by Asymmetric, a single-player spin-off of Kingdom of Loathing. The characters are stylised figures set in a fantasy western-themed frontier setting. Although by its nature it shares characteristics with other RPGs, West of Loathing departs from them and the genre with its humorous, fast-paced, and addictive feel. The distinctive marks of West of Loathing are its writing and the strong sense of humour with which the dialogues, signs, and game situations are imbued: littered with puns, idioms, and jokes, West of Loathing is a perfect object of study from the point of view of transcreation.
Here too, as in High on Life, the lack of an Italian localization must be emphasised. The dialogues in English, full of very specific terms that are essential to be able to go on with the story, could force the player to use a dictionary during the game sessions.
Knowing the culture of the target context
When it comes to humour (and not only), knowing the culture of the target language is essential in order to localize and make the text effective and, above all, understandable for the player. Above all, being aware of the cultural context, paying attention to the meaning of puns and jokes, is important to avoid serious mistakes and misunderstandings at the linguistic level. GLOS offers a video game localization course, where you can learn the secrets of video game translation and specialise.