Laugh Contest: Let the Games Begin


Video games feature a lot of amusing characters, but the act of translating humor presents a challenge as it is often tied to very niche cultural and linguistic contexts. Let’s explore some comedic devices in detail to see why translating them is a serious business. 

Humor: Localization’s Worst Nightmare 

Jokes are shaped by the society and culture they come from. Every culture has its unique sense of humor connected to its history, traditions, values, and beliefs. Often, only people from the culture a joke stems from can truly grasp and appreciate the humor behind it.  

Age is another factor that can influence how a joke lands. During video game localization, understanding the target audience and their age is crucial, as crafting a joke for kids is very different from making one for older audiences. Certain jokes are challenging to translate without losing their intended meaning, so they may need partial or complete adaptation through transcreation.  

Challenging Comedic Devices 

There are a few different comedic devices that can be hard to work with when dealing with humor adaptation, such as: 

  • Puns and wordplays: These rely on words that sound or are spelled similarly but may have different meanings to create a humorous effect. To make them work in the target language, localizers may have to creatively rewrite puns and wordplays. 
  • Expression subtleties: Allusion, verbal irony, and subtle uses of humor can all fall flat after being translated. To land a joke, you must capture the original essence rather than directly translate it. 
  • Cultural references and regionalisms: As pop culture figures, books, movies, or everyday phenomena may be misunderstood by a foreign audience, making a direct translation isn’t always the most advantageous path forward. You can benefit greatly by swapping in more relevant references to your global audience’s target language and culture. 

Transcreation to the rescue 

Transcreation is the creative adaptation of content, especially humor, from one language and culture to another. In the context of video games, transcreation is vital to ensure that jokes resonate and remain funny across different languages and cultures. When faced with a cultural gap, translators employ their creativity to find an equivalent joke or invent a new one that suits the new target culture while preserving the essence of the original humor. 

For example, in The Last of Us: Part II, Joel’s joke “What is the downside to eating a clock? It’s time-consuming” was transcreated for French and Portuguese audiences. In French, the adapted joke became, “Tu sais quel est le comble pour une horloge? C’est de devoir tuer le temps,” translating to “What’s the worst that can happen to a clock? It’s having to kill time.” In Portuguese, it was adapted to, “Por que é ruim jogar relógio fora? Porque é perda de tempo,” translating to “Why is it bad to throw away a watch? Because it’s a waste of time.” This process ensures that the humor is not lost in translation, and the jokes are as amusing in different languages as they are in the original. 

Joel’s clock joke in four different languages, clips from The Last of Us II


Humor adaptation is not a quick and simple task. It can require multiple drafts and countless edits to nail the intended tone and effect of the original jokes. However, it is the purpose of localizers to bridge differences between cultures and languages. With the proper skill set and work ethic, translators can achieve effective cultural humor in gaming and elicit a laugh or two in the process. 

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