31 May, 2006

Lost in Translation

The Guardian asks the question: is it really true, as many Brits say, that Germans have no sense of humor? According to comedian Stewart Lee, it's all a matter of the language barrier:

In December 2004 I accompanied Richard Thomas, the composer of the popular stage hit Jerry Springer The Opera, to Hanover, where he had gained a commission to develop an opera about a night in a British stand-up comedy club. We wrote the words in English and Richard then collaborated on a translation with a talented German comedy writer called Hermann Bräuer. There were two initial problems with this comedically, one cultural and one linguistic. First, the idea of stand-up is somewhat alien to the Germans. They have a cabaret tradition of sophisticated satire, cross-dressing and mildly amusing songs, and there are also recognisable mainstream, low-brow comedy tropes in the form of vulgar popular entertainers. But the idea of the conversational, casual, middle-ground of English speaking stand-up comedy is unknown to the Germans. Indeed, initial attempts by the Hannover Schauspielhaus set designers to render a typical British comedy club floundered as they attempted to formalise the idea of a stand-up venue, and it was a struggle to explain that we needed to reduce the room to a bare black box rather than attempt to give it a cabaret stage vibe.

Second, this instinct to formalise a genre of comedy we accept as inherently informal is not indivisible from the limitations the German language imposes on conventional British comedy structures. The flexibility of the English language allows us to imagine that we are an inherently witty nation, when in fact we just have a vocabulary and a grammar that allow for endlessly amusing confusions of meanings.

The Primer for Real Germans also takes on the charge of humourlessness:

There is a rumor that Germans have no sense of humor. This is absolutely false. They do have a sense of humor, in fact there is even a non-translatable word for their sense of humor, "Schadensfreude". There are two words stuck in this word. The first one is "Schadens" which means "misfortune", "damage", "injury". The other word is "Freude" which means "joy", "happiness". In other words, it literally means "joy for another's misfortune", which is why Mr. Bean is more popular in Germany than in Britain. Germans do not feel any sympathy for Mr. Bean. They are not laughing with him; they are laughing at him.


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