Getting the laugh

Comedy doesn’t travel well. It is notoriously difficult to translate because different cultures do not share the same idea of what is funny. When it comes to Roman comedy the problem is confounded because of the time factor.

This is what we grappled with last weekend at Madingley Hall while reading Plautus’ Mostellaria. The issues can be grouped as follows:

Coarse banter between two slaves, using a lot of insulting language and name calling. Nineteenth and twentieth century translations of such language sounds stilted. It is difficult to get the right level of insult, unless the slang in question has survived into classical Latin.

In-jokes. Some of the “jokes” were decidedly unfunny to us. We do not know the source of the joke.

Visual. These plays were more than text. Action was an integral part of the play. Without the gestures we can only get part of the humour.

Innuendo and puns – the play is riddled with this and it is very difficult to translate even once you have identified the pun. It can be nigh impossible to make a suitable word play in English. Translators of text meant to be read can add a note but translators for the stage may have to make compensatory puns elsewhere.

Universal – There is a section where the slave Tranio fearing he has been found out, turns to the audience and asks if anyone would like to earn a quick buck by swapping places with him, adding that only after their hands and feet have been nailed to the cross can they come and apply to him for the money.

Then there is the question of source text/target text orientation of the translation. Classists and students of classics may wish to have a translation that aims to be as close as possible to the source text. I do not think this will do for the stage as the dramatist will want to create a similar impression on his audience as Plautus had on the Roman audience. Action and gestures, together with costume, masks and the set are essential contributors to the effect. The translator would also try to inject the humour into the text by using modern idiom and possibly some anachronistic jokes.


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