Humor in the Entertainment Industry



It seems the humor in comedy, commercials, and comics I have seen, being in the U.S, don’t always cater their humor to the cultures they are working with. For me, as a Mexican growing up in the US, humor was always lost. At times, when going through webcomics or tv shows, I felt that I was laughing because I knew it should have been funny, or I was simply reacting as more of an awkward or confused laugh. There were many instances where humor was lost due to the Spanish variant being used as well. These realities cause an issue with self awareness and affect us more in a negative way. I think, if humor isn’t adapted to me, then is it adapted to fit the needs of the many variants of Spanish in Latin America? One thing that may be funny for me may not be for someone from Argentina, even though we both speak Spanish. To me and many others, humor is a way of coping, and it’s one of the simplest ways to connect with others—through the power of laughter.

The adaptation of puns, rhymes and idioms into movies, tv shows, and video games is a huge challenge for the localization industry. Depending on the target language, it might even be impossible to really convey the meaning of the original joke. The main reason is because humor is frequently tied to someone’s culture. In Spanish, this represents a bigger challenge, since we are talking about a language that is the official language of 18 countries that want to preserve their identity at all costs.

The Importance of Giving

Now more so than ever, the entertainment industry is growing and localization shouldn’t be placed at the backend of processes. Humor involves an immense amount of creativity, cultural understanding, and a need for quality. Until more companies realize that, their poorly-localized product will continue to hurt their brand and disconnect them from the foreign language customers they are working to reach. 

It is important to address this problem because quality is not only a linguistic issue, but a perception issue, and, depending on the customers, the number of different dialects in Spanish affects this perception. It is worth noting that Spanish dialects are important to the speakers because it reflects their identity and individualism.

Humor is a way of coping, self awareness, well-being, and inclusivity, and that is why it is important to further research and understand how culture influences the perception of humor and its usage. It is a challenge in terms of professional quality management in translations. In a way, it can push a translator’s skills and abilities to the next level because it takes more time, focusing on the references, the language structure, current events that impact jokes, and being more up to date at times with new comedic content. When working with translating humor, it’s important to allow inclusivity in the genre for others to enter or enjoy it as a way of coping or communicating.

Risk Factors

When it comes to the importance of humor, it is necessary for translators to work on it adequately because humor only exists if its recipients are able to process it. To translate jokes from one language into another, we need deeper intercultural knowledge, combined with linguistic abilities, to achieve the necessary adaptation. Translators need to understand literary devices such as hyperbole, metaphors, synonymy, ambiguity, word play, etc., so that they can use them in a clever way to reveal the amusing function of the text. At times recreating a joke is much better than trying to force the joke from the source text, since the essence of the original joke is far more crucial. With that said, it is important and necessary for translators working with humor in any media type to understand the styles of humor between cultures. However, there are factors that contribute to not always getting those meanings across as best suited, especially with humor.

  1. Humor is closer to talent than skill, something not easily learned. Are the translators able to write well with a sense of humor, and are they creative? That also comes hand in hand when working with humor and entertainment content.
  2. The appreciation of humor varies individually and it is very much dependent on the translator’s sense of humor.
  3. Lack of resources and detailed guides in some companies. Even looking at comedians and shows who are making content for us to work with, is there a way to use them as data collectors where we can gain from past and current comedians or shows who know more in detail about these aspects of humor and pop culture references and new events that some translators don’t necessarily have insight to as much?
  4. I can not emphasize strongly enough that there are great differences between individuals and subgroups within each locale.


There are restrictions on content due to space and time availability. There are tight deadlines, which inform decisions on what should be transferred to get the best meaning across.

2. The medium changes from oral to written, which entails thinking about character limitations for readability. Thinking about readability, there is a need for simplifying vocabulary, simplifying syntax, merging short dialogues, and even deletions. This has been a large reason for why subtitles are given bad rap and why maybe we aren’t always able to pick up the joke as we would like it to be.

Video games

It is worth mentioning that mastering the target locale and being a proficient translator may not be enough in the case of video game localization. Just like in working with other media involving humor, creativity is necessary.

  1. In the case of video games, localizers have to stick to the tight space restrictions imposed by the graphic user interface.
  2. Localization of humor should have earlier input into development, especially with companies that always work to place games in different locales. Have them work toward creative approaches much earlier in the development cycle.
  3. There are still many professional game developers who only understand working with localizers/translators while dealing with typical localization challenges such as space restrictions. However, how can they learn to understand creative localization changes? They learn throughout their careers and some conferences, but how can universities, companies or training institutions better support creativity earlier when dealing with different cultures for those outside localization?

Finding Solutions

Building a holistic approach in quality of humor and having a report that checks on improvements in quality based on how many cases there are in Unacceptable < 55% , Low Quality 55% – 69% , Medium quality 70-85% > , and High quality > 86% ranges.

The focus can be on the following categories: readability, correspondence, adaptability, inclusivity, reaction, reachability, safety (psychological), relatability, idiomaticness, consistency, fluency, and locale convention. 

It’s important to decide on the most important key dimensions based on the type of media we are working with, the area we are focusing on, and the type of humor. For example, High quality in a holistic approach might look something like:

  • 9   – minor errors that don’t affect the meanings or hinder the expected reaction we are working towards.
  • 9 – Subject Matter expertise influences the target translation to provoke humor while missing minor details.
  • 10 – Perfectly conveyed meaning. No typos.
    • Communicate both Implicit and explicit meanings of the source text with regards to the specifications.
    • It results in expected reaction from the target audience.
  • 10 – Perfectly intelligible and readable, perfect cultural adaptation of jokes and puns into the target language. Text was indeed humorous on the target side.

For the quantitative part, a translator’s feedback should be implemented where the Language Lead is a subject matter expert in the entertainment industry and is aware of the humoristic features that needs to be preserved for the target language that they are overseeing. Even providing surveys and asking for audience feedback can go a long way. Each locale is unique and should be just as important as the next. One way your company can stand out is to really focus on your products and making sure your guides and workflows can help the process succeed for each product. This means making an inclusive workflow or thinking more of how each product has special needs for its successful launch, especially if the aim is global. There first needs to be thorough research and planning, making sure you have all the resources needed for your target audience and their language variant. 

More time would need to be invested in better testing of translators in terms of transcreation and the creative end they have. If possible, have a team of creators that work alongside translators because this can also help translators who are close to understanding the more challenging specifics that go with humor receive the training and concepts or theories they might not know about within the group they are working with (this can fall back with more partnerships outside our industry and how it can come a long way). In case finding SMEs in humor is harder to attain, building these groups can come in handy. In terms of testing, it can really determine tier 1-3 workers. Learning about Semantic Script Theory of Humor and General Theory of Verbal Humor would benefit translators as they aim at identifying the elements of a humorous text, something that would provide us with the necessary tools both to generate a humorous text and to recognize one when it is presented to us. Secondly, it discusses the concept of joke similarity and looks at how to measure the semantic distance between jokes (these would be great for translators themselves). This can fall with other media as well, beyond humor in games. 
The use of humor is perhaps one of the simplest ways to demonstrate mastery over a given language and a deep understanding of the social and cultural norms within which humorous communication is taking place. For that reason, more research and dedication should be made especially in regards to humor that connects us during hard times. There is a need for more companies within entertainment to conduct proper market research and consider the different variants within one language.

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