What's your opinion about subtitling of puns?

  Since the 18th century, puns in English have been often described as "the lowest form of humor."   A pun makes use of homonyms, similarly sounding words which have very different meanings.    For example   "here: and" hear"are homonyms, just as "their" and "there" are homonyms.    
  It seems to me as an editor and subber of K dramas, the use of puns for humor is many times greater than its use in English entertainment.   About 65% to 70% of Korean words are derived from Chinese which is a multi-tonal language in which the same phoneme spoken in a different pitch may have a very different meaning for the same phoneme in a different tone.   Korean is no longer a tonal language but the root meanings from Chinese remain attached to the phoneme.   As a result, for example ga, which is the first syllable in Korean, has seven entirely different root meanings derived from Chinese.  The problem is compounded  with "native Korean" which comprises about 30% of Korean which adds two more root meanings to ga.   So the Korean language provides a rich source for anyone wishing to create a pun.
   Korean screenwriters seem to love to add humor by using puns which must seem very clever and funny to native speakers.  However, when we subtitle the pun,  what happens?  Suppose the pun involves the use of the word bae -- some of the meanings are stomach, boat, pear, and multiple (as in double, triple, etc).  
   Hearing a pun in the dialogue,  the subtitler does the following:
   1.     Subtitle more or less literally with no explanation, knowing that the viewer is going to see it as a "non sequitur" I.e., it will make no sense in the context of the conversation.
   2.     Subtitle more or less literally with a translator's note (TN) explaining that it is a pun.   But if you need to explain a joke, it's not funny anymore.   And does the viewer need any language lesson in a romantic comedy?
   3.   Use some creativity to think of a clever English pun with the same "feeling" as the Korean and know that with high probability, the other language subbers are not going to be able to  translate the English pun and make a pun in their own language.   (Note-- usually our Korean to English subbers "flag" the pun by saying "word play" or "same sounding words")..
   4.    Post a note to channel manager or chief editor to delete the segment as the subtitle is not going to make sense to non-Koreans.    Viewers, of course, will hear the Korean and wonder what they are missing.   
   So what do you think is the best course to follow with puns and why?
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Number 3 (find an English equivalent), and explain the pun in detail in Team Discussion for Other Language moderators.

For many years, I was the official Greek translator of “Asterix” and this was the most dreaded part for me. Even the characters’ names are puns there! Of course the names had been pre-decided, but all the rest? Ugh!

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I honestly appreciate when subtitlers put the note explaining the pun or joke. I watch Kdramas and Cdramas not only for the fun of it, but to learn about a new culture, and jokes are certainly part of a culture. However, I understand that translating them is difficult. There are some puns and jokes that my mom will make in Armenian, but directly translating them to English without giving some cultural context would make no sense.


Agreed! I noticed that in a recent series… I think it was Her Private Life - can’t remember. It was SO helpful to understand the punning.

ps of course if it is going to take the subbers ages and ages to get all the nuances into the subtitles that would be too onerous … but I LOVE getting a sense of the language and texture of language when I am watching a show. It helps me engage with the intelligence of the writing and the way a character is depicted.

Well, I would prefer number 2. This would keep the meaning of the original pun. If you would think of an English pun, other languages teams would try to find one in their respective language and this would destroy the original meaning of the pun.

It’s fun and interesting to read the exact translation and then the explanation and similar pun in english.

However, in a middle of a conversation there is just too much text and I rarely am able to finish reading it all before the next line of text pops up. So for that reason it would be easier to just get the english pun right away.

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Approach 2. Because you should accommodate both groups. :slight_smile: Same approach I use for idioms, to give everyone the best take and expand understanding.

In one drama that had an abundance of puns and other jokes based on words…we used the word itself in italics…then the T/N with the explanation. Many were Chinese homophones… :slight_smile:

I would avoid 3 particularly in a historical or costume drama not set in the modern age…due to anachronisms.

1…would be confusing even for some viewers literate in the original language.

GeNie of the Lamp

It is good approach for describe your project and its looking so nice and attractive.

For me it depends on the genre, situation and story.

If it is a story that lives from funny, humorous moments and I had to read the explanations all the time it wouldn’t be fun anymore.

If it is a more serious story I’d prefer an explanation to the origin expression (e.g. if they recite old poems or buddhistic verses in a drama, ist shouldn’t be written into something modern).

Sometimes it’s also possible to understand certain things better, when dramas keep the original but add an explanation, e.g. I once watched a fantasy drama in which the character got colourblind. Later she should choose a fabric for her wedding dress. Since she saw everything as grey she finally chose a green colour. Her future man then had a monologue asking himself if she wanna tell him something through her choice (he didn’t know that she was colourblind).

Some months later I watched another drama that had a scene with a dialogue that said a man got a large green hat by his wife (explanation: she betrayed him/had an affair). Even though I thought before what the green colour might mean it wasn’t explained in the other drama (probably because Chinese viewers know it), but through the other drama I then knew the meaning.

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What you mention is the cultural info, not puns. The original poster was asking specifically about puns, which means a play with words that can have two different meanings, or a word that resembles another with a very offensive or humorous meaning. Or if an ignorant person (or deaf old person) mistakes a word for another or tries to use a very lofty word but doesn’t know how to use it so it has a very comical effect.

For cultural info, sayings, proverbs, mention of myths etc. my reply would have been very different, by all means explain in a note. I’ve always done that for food, holidays etc.: left the original with a note underneath.

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Thank you irmar.

Then I’d prefer a translation that works in that (other) language instead of keeping the origin language’s words.

=> option 3

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