By Suze Nowak
Photo credit: Marc Kjerland
“How do you make a duck sing soul?
Put it in the microwave until its Bill Withers.”
Mwahhahahah…snort…grunt. As I broke a rib over one of my all time favourites, I shot a glance over at its German recipient.
Silence and a serious frown of confusion.
And there you have it.
For me, this is the single, greatest disadvantage to living in a foreign country: Humour asymmetry. A disparity of wit, if you like.
Around twenty seconds into an explanation and my Teutonic friend already had the glassy eyed look I myself sport when attempting to get a grip of quantum mechanics. I don’t know why I’d even bothered. After almost a decade of living in a country where The Wizard of Oz is not a Christmastime staple and nobody has heard of The Clangers, I should have known better.
You see, this is not just any foreign country, this is Germany and it makes a difference when it comes to culture, despite the geographical proximity to the UK. I have trained my long suffering German husband to some extent. He is now a fully fledged Faulty Towers aficionado and laughs like a drain at Black Adder. “Allo Allo” and “Dad’s Army” are still a bit beyond him though!
There is an interminable theory that Germans, specifically, have no sense of humour. The customary but nonetheless onerous response being that they do have humour – they just take it very seriously. It is commonly believed that Germans actually laugh three times at a joke: Once when you tell it, once when you explain it and once when he gets it!
The truth is, German jokes just don’t translate very well. But in many ways it’s not so different from the English causticity, sarcasm and cynicism. They do love a bit of slapstick too, which, if I’m not mistaken fizzled out with Benny Hill in the UK.
Lost in translation was never a more accurate explanation for misunderstandings than when it comes to jokes. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this:
When I showed this to my German friend, she said it was “even funnier” in English! Even funnier?
But there is a serious point here. As an expat living in Germany, one issue which which is of constant frustration to me revolves around this very subject. Regardless of how proficient you are at a language, getting humour and personality across is challenging at best, depressing at worst.
My humour, like it or not, is a huge part of my identity. If you don’t understand the banter, you don’t understand me as a person and that can be tough when you are attempting to integrate and ingratiate yourself into a new culture.
As I keep plodding on, fending off baffled looks as I hopelessly translate English jokes into German, I take some consolation from the fact that my daughter won’t suffer from the same problem. Almost six, she still mixes her languages – though I am assured that this will cease in the coming years. I can only hope that, as an adult, she will have the advantage of “getting” both German and English humour and be able to integrate herself into both cultures seamlessly because of that.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to confuse the Germans with my jokes, gleaning at least some entertainment from watching them laugh politely when they clearly have no idea what they are laughing at. No doubt, in a frighteningly short time, my daughter will be translating them for me and helping me save face.
Suze Nowak decided to quit her job in UK ten years ago and with a “now or never” motto, determined to realise her life long dream to learn another language, she upped sticks and moved to Germany. After teaching English for five years at Berlitz Language School, she resolved to concentrate on her dream career as a freelance writer and had great success with her award winning column for www.parentdish.co.uk, “Achtung Baby”. The column followed the trials and tribulations of bringing up a bilingual child and being a foreigner in the country she chose to live in and has grown to love. Ten years down the line Suze has gained a certain proficiency in her second language, has married a German man and has a six year-old daughter who switches nationality on a daily, nay hourly, basis.