Issue 2 |

Advisor's Foreword

by on February 12, 2015

After the successful inauguration of Unravel last November, a number of people from different linguistic communities expressed their compliments on account of the first issue to me.  Some came from my own campus at the National University of Singapore, while others came from a local junior college and universities abroad.  After the release of its first issue, Unravel has not only reached a wide readership but also won approval for its quality.  Kevin, the editor-in-chief, tells me that the readership and contributor list are still expanding; considering the editorial team’s tireless efforts to create a quality online linguistics magazine, this is not very surprising.  All in all, the advisors are very proud of Unravel’s editorial team and contributors.

The second issue discusses the topic of translation.  Coincidentally, my good friend, Nala, forwarded me a link to a TED Blog article discussing “the art of translating” a TED Talk by a comedian (Posted by: Kate T. May, May 22, 2014) as she knew I teach a class on Sociolinguistics of Humor this semester.  Apparently, this particular talk was translated into 33 different languages from the original English version, and this blog post discusses challenges that translators face when working on comedy.  The writer cites a Greek translator, Dimitra Papageorgiou, from the TED talk translation team as stating, “If you have to explain the joke, it’s no longer funny”.

One of the phrases that gave different translators a headache from this talk was a colloquial phrase uttered by a Palestinian-American adult speaker, “If I can can, you can can”.  The TED Talk translators provided strategies to retain the funniness in the original utterance in their translations.  One of the tips mentioned for translating humor is to “keep things simple”.  This can be counterintuitive to novice translators as one will feel responsible for explaining the contexts or cultural-specific information in translation, but TED Talk translators explain that long, explanatory translations can kill jokey natures.

To convey humor, the translators came up with a strategy of keeping things simple, sometimes by incorporating relevant wordplay in the target language in translation.  Other times, translators take advantage of orthography to retain humor, as TED Talk translations are essentially subtitles of talks.  Japanese translators used both hiragana and katakana in this case.  By default, hiragana characters represent native words and katakana characters are reserved for non-Chinese loanwords.  Thus, expressing the non-Chinese loanwords in katakana in the Japanese translation effectively delivers quirkiness and humor.

I must confess that I’ve long been obsessed with non-standard usages of the word can in contact linguistics.  After learning that someone said “If I can can, you can can” in this TED talk, I was extremely curious whether the modal auxiliary can also has other meanings such as ‘possible, capable, acceptable, etc.’ in Arabic spoken by Palestinian-Americans.  This is due to its striking similarity with the usage of can in the Hawai‘i Creole expression “If can can, if no can no can”, which is a calque from Cantonese.  These “can can” sentences also make sense in our beloved language, Colloquial Singapore English—another variety known to have been influenced heavily by Sinitic substrate languages such as Hokkien, Cantonese, etc. (By the way, if you know an answer to my question about Arabic whether can functions something else than a modal auxiliary or not, please email me! )

The phrase “if I can can, you can can” blew my mind with the powerful humor that was carried by the speaker’s extraordinary oratory skills.  I became a believer of the phrase; it was no longer just linguistic data but it also became words of self-encouragement.  It is not because I have a thing for non-standard can. I was simply taken in by the bracing and encouraging attitudes conveyed in the use of this non-standard English phrase.

I see the same spirit in Unravel.  It is packed with positive, optimistic, and affirmative attitudes about our language and everyday life.  So, readers, be ready to have your mind blown by the brilliant works of the editorial team and contributors in this second issue!

Mie Hiramoto
Advisor to Unravel
Associate Professor of English Language and Literature
National University of Singapore


May, Kate T. 2014. Funny in 33 languages: The art of translating Maysoon Zayid’s hilarious TED Talk

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