Translation Of Humor In Cartoons:


It is sometimes believed that humor does not travel between languages. This has been a motivation for scholars to consider the (un)translatability of humor. However, considering the widespread admiration of some films and TV programs all over the world, one can realize that, regardless of any inconveniences, humor does travel across cultural and linguistic barriers. Having this point in mind, the objective of this study was to examine how it goes between languages and cultures through one of media translation methods, which is dubbing here.

Basic characteristics that all comic events share include surprising, and playing with logic, expectations, conventions and meaning (Nael & Krutnik 1990:43). The two modes are considered as one in this study, since it seems to be difficult to separate them. However, deviating from the norms of conventional, everyday conversation and breaking the rules of politeness and decorum are crucial to all kinds of comedy. Timing and appropriateness of utterance is another factor in creating humor. Sometimes when this factor is violated the resultant surprise is amusing and appealing to the audience. Replete instances of humorous items in the Shrek and Shrek 2 animations and their world wide success as being the most popular animated films among children and adults, and moreover, the successful dubbed versions of these cartoons in Persian in comparison with other dubbed animated films, have been the reasons for choosing them as the focus of this study. Songs and rhyming are excluded from this study since they are a complicated, large category and out of the scope of this study.


There were two objectives for doing this study which was carried out in order to write a master thesis. First, the researcher wanted to figure out what strategies the Persian translators have applied to transfer the humor from English into Persian. Second, it was intended to see which strategies have been more frequently used by translators.


For the purpose of this research, some popular animated English-speaking films have been selected, which are among the most successful cartoons worldwide. Although there are multiple reasons to justify these choices, initially there were two requirements which the research material had to meet: it needed to have dubbed the version in Persian. The second reason is directly linked to the strong humorous flavor of the selected cartoons since the focus of this study is considering the element of humor in translation. To give an example we can shortly refer to Shrek which, as Patrick Zabalbeascoa (2000: 27) writes, belongs to the category of “white background with black spots” which in other words means a text presented as an infantile genre but with elements directed exclusively to adults. In the case of Shrek, the content of humor directed exclusively to adults was a guarantee of interesting and complex research material.

Theoretical Frame

This study is based on Viney and Darbelnet (1995) model of translation. They represent two broad categories, namely direct or literal, and oblique translation methods. These two categories include seven strategies: borrowing, calque, literal translation, transposition, modulation, equivalence, and adaptation.

Data Analysis

Some of the humorous items of cartons Skrek I and II and their translations in dubbed Persian are analyzed here based on the aforementioned model.

“Aren’t you a sight of sore eyes?”  

Persian: Cheshmaye baba ghurim daran dorost mibinan?

In this sentence Donkey states his surprise of seeing Shrek and Fiona, the Persian translation has observed the form, ‘sore eyes’ has been replaced by a cultural term to refer to his own eyes, but this phrase in Persian is  more humorous for the audience. The strategies applied here are literal translation and equivalence.

“Oh, you mean sorting the mails and watering the plants?”

Persian: Manzuret moratab kardane nameha va aab dadane golast?

Donkey claims that he has taken care of Shrek’s “love-nest” when they were in honey moon. Shrek’s utterance is an ironic remark to Donkey since obviously he has done nothing useful in the house, even though he so sincerely claims he has. In this case the visual context makes the utterance humorous. The Persian translation has observed both the meaning and the form. The strategy applied here is literal translation.

“All right, all right, I got it. I’m just darn bored.

Persian: Be darake asfalo safelin ke dure, man hoselam sar rafte!

Donkey is bored with the long journey to “Far Far Away” although he has been told several times that it is far far away; and when Shrek and Fiona get furious at his repeatedly asking “Are we there yet?” Donkey states this sentence. The humor of this example comes from the point that Donkey does not understand the situation even when explained to him, and this happens many times during the story. The Persian translation uses a slang phrase to show that Donkey is angry and bored, which adds to the humorous flavor of the original. The strategy applied is equivalence.

“Now let’s go before they light the torches.”

Persian: Bia bala gheiratan ta dakhlemuno nayvordan bargardim.        

The English idiom, ‘light the torches’, means trying to take revenge. This meaning is indirectly stated in English, but in the Persian translation it is overtly stated with a cultural flavor that comes from the expressions “bala gheiratan” and “dakhlemuno nayvordan”. It can be said that literal translation has been used here along with equivalence.  

“It’s easy to see where Fiona gets her good looks from.”

Persian: Hala dige rahat mishe fahmid ghiafe ghashange Fiona be ki rafte.

The timing of the utterances and their appropriateness in the situation are relevant factors in humor. This is an example of inappropriateness. One interpretation would be that Shrek refers to the beauty that Fiona had as a human, and the utterance is meant to be a compliment to the parents. Another way to interpret the situation is that the parents were not expecting their daughter to return with an ogre, let alone as an ogre, so the situation is awkward and Shrek tries to break the tension by telling a joke. As it turns out, nobody finds it funny, but rather insulting, and the silence that follows is even worse than before. However, this uncomfortable situation is amusing for the audience. Literal translation has been used in the Persian rendering and the tone of the Persian speaker together with the context helps the audience get the humor of the situation.     

“Let’s go bond with daddy.”    

Persian: Berim pedar zan salam.  

The English sentence is humorous since Donkey knows this fact that Shrek and his father-in-law have not gone along quite well with each other at their first meeting and when Shrek has lost his chance to talk to him because of not finding the way through the woods, uttering this sentence shows that Donkey does not understand the importance of the situation for Shrek. In the Persian translation ‘father-in-law’ is mentioned directly which was not mentioned verbally in the ST but the audience knows it from the storyline but the form and meaning are preserved. So here literal translation has been applied.   

“Hey, Shrek! Donkeys don’t purr. What do you think am I?”

Persian: Avalan ke aarvaare, dovoman be man migan khare palang.

The English sentence is Donkey’s complaint to Shrek, the Persian translation uses slang words and a different style which match the previous sentences and context. The strategies used include adaptation and modulation. 

“The position of annoying talking animal has already been taken.”

Persian: Hazrate agha, jatuno dadim geda avail bord.

The humor of this sentence comes from the speaker of it, Donkey, he is trying to show that he is Shrek’s best friend and the Cat can not take his position. He wants to show his disapproval of the Cat using these adjectives, but he is not aware that at the same time he is also insulting his own character. The form has been preserved, but the meaning has been a little altered to match the target culture. The applied strategy is equivalence.

 “I had some rotten berries, I had strong gases eking out of my butt.”

Persian: Tameshke fased khordan haman o nasime molayem vazidan haman.

The humor in this sentence comes from inappropriate time of uttering this sentence by Donkey and the subject matter of it. The Persian rendering has modulated the meaning of English sentence, as in the target culture it is impolite to state such these matters directly. The meaning is observed but the form not. Modulation and transposition have been utilized.  

“Maybe there’s a good reason donkeys shouldn’t talk.”

  Persian: Ye zarbol masale ghadimimi hast ke mige khoda kharo shenakht ke behesh zabun nadad.                                      

This ironic sentence uttered by Shrek shows his unhappiness about Donkey’s talking all the time and the meaning of the sentence along with the paradox of the situation, that is, a talking Donkey, makes the situation humorous. The Persian translation includes a proverb which is not the exact equivalent for the English sentence but with a little change in the Persian proverb it has turned to an appropriate rendering. This change is that instead of word ‘shakh (horn)’ there is the word ‘zabun (tongue)’ in the translation. So here we have adaptation. 

“Donkeys don’t have layers. We wear our fear right out there on our sleeves.”

  Persian: Khara aslant laye laye nistan, una ba shoma kheili fargh daran.

The idiom ‘to wear one’s heart in a sleeve’ is altered with another sentiment, fear. The original idiom means vulnerability and a tendency to show ones feelings; in this case Donkey means that he is scared easily. With a sarcastic intent, Shrek takes the words literally and replies ‘Wait a second, Donkeys don’t have sleeves’. The Persian translation just considers the meaning of the Donkey’s first sentence (having layers) and expands it and ignores the idiom since there is no equivalent in Persian for it. The following sentence uttered by Shrek has been treated the same way; it directly talks about Donkey’s fear. The strategy applied in this example equivalence.    

“It’s no way to behave in front of a princess.”

Persian: Jun be junet konan bi tarbiati.                

Donkey complains to Shrek for his impolite behavior, this violation of the conventions of social behavior and politeness itself is the source of humor, but the following scene in which Fiona, who is supposed to behave like a princess, burps exactly like Shrek adds to the humorous load of the situation. Again applying adaptation in rendering the meaning of this sentence has added to the humorous flavor, the meaning has been rendered according to the context by a cultural expression. 

“That’s me: the noble steed.”

Persian: khar fahm shodi? Un ba man bud.                                        

This sentence is uttered by Donkey and the humor in the original sentence comes from the phrase “noble steed”. In the Persian translation the form is not observed and the meaning is adapted according to the target culture using “khar fahm shodi ” instead of  “Shir fahm shodi” to emphasize the word “donkey” as the focus of the sentence. So the strategies applied here are modulation and equivalence.

“S: Men of Farquaad’s stature are in short supply.

 Persian: Jenabe aghaye lord Farquaad nesfeshun zire zamine.   

D:There are those who think little of him.

Persian: Be injur adama migan kutule vaveyla.                

F: You’re just jealous you can never measure up to a great ruler like Lord Farquaad.

 Persian: Shomaha faghat be in hasuditun mish eke ba kasi mese Lord Farquaad ghabele moghayese nistid.                   

S: May be you’re right.  But I’ll let you do the measuring when you see him tomorrow.”

Persian: Khab didi kheir bashe. Behtare in moghayese ro bezari vase farad ke be didane un kutule miri.

Lorf Farquaad, like Nappoleon, is a very short man and thirsty of power. His shortness often implies some thing about sexual matters, and that he wants to compensate this shortness by material things, such as his castle. In this example the wordplay is in the idioms (to be in short supply, to think little of somebody, and measuring up to something or somebody) and in the different ways shortness can be implied (stressing words ‘short’ and ‘little’ in the idioms). The first two sentences are seemingly a polite description of Farquaad, but the clear stress in the spoken version shows that something else is intended. In the latter two sentences the idiom ‘to measure up’ is first used in its original, real meaning: ‘being as good as something else’. In the response the idiom is back grounded and the original meaning of ‘measuring’ is implied instead. In the Persian translation there is no direct reference to the implied meanings since there are no equivalent idioms for the English ones and the just from the tone of voice of the characters it is understood that there is another implied meaning. Literal translation has been used here.    

“Two renaissance wraps, Medieval meal, Sourdough soft taco please.”

Persian: sosis torki, nun barbari, 2ta baste baghala ghatogh.

The humor in this sentence comes from the previous dialogue between Fairy godmother and the King, as she threatens him to hurt him and instead she orders some food, that is, she breaks her diet. The names of the food mentioned in the original sentence have been replaced by some other food familiar to the target audience, so generally the form is observed but the meaning is replaced by cultural equivalences. So the strategy applied here is adaptation.

 “Shirley Bassey bush” 

Persian: derakhte chaghale baadom                                                                  

Shirly Bassey is a Welsh singer, who became famous in the 60s and 70s by performing theme songs to James Bond films (Wikipedia). Donkey is describing the bush with this allusion, either referring that it has a similar pose to Bassey, or that the head of the human-shaped bush is like afro hairstyle a certain singer used to have. Considering this point, the Persian translation does not contain this information and replaces it with the name of a tree which is familiar to the target audience, so the form is observed but not the meaning, the strategy applied here is equivalence.

“I’m the stair master. I’ve mastered the stairs.” 

Persian: Be man migan olaghe pelle kosh.                  

The “stair master” can refer to a gymnastics device, or being a master in stairs (meaning to ‘conquer’ the steps, or being the best at ‘fighting’ the stairs). In the Persian translation only the second meaning is stated and the English wordplay has not been created in the Persian. The meaning has somehow been observed but the form not. The strategy used here is equivalence.

“Neuter him, give him the Bob Barker treatment.”

 Persian: kubidash kon  bekesh be sikh, zemnan pustesham bekan.

Bob Barker is a US game show the “Price Is Right” host, who has actively spoken against animal overpopulation (Turnquist 2004), and is an allusion here. Donkey states this sentence about the cat. In the Persian translation the meaning has completely changed and replaced by cultural equivalence but the form is somehow observed. The applied strategies are equivalence and adaptation.

“Sergeant Pompous and the Fancy Pants Club Band”

Persian: Daste arazel o obash va sar daste gamboo.

The allusion here is to the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album by the Beatles. The allusion is not direct, but rather used sarcastically by changing the wording slightly. The intent of this utterance is to indicate that the announcer was rude and arrogant, and that it was too much for Shrek that the message was delivered with music in the background, which is something that is sarcastically expected of the rich and famous people. In the Persian translation this allusion is not kept because it is not known to the target audience, and it is replaced by other phrases familiar to the target culture. So the applied strategy is adaptation.

“Almost every body that meets you wants to kill you.”                                                                                                                                                          Persian: To dar vaghe’ ye ikbirie zeshti.

This sentence is uttered to Shrek by Donkey that is expressing his opinion about Shrek and his bad behaviour. In the Persian translation there is no reference to the English meaning and Shrek is addressed by two adjectives to show his lack of respect and disapproval of his behavior. The applied strategy is equivalence.

“You need some Tic Tacs or something, cause your breath stinks!”

Persian: Baba jan mesvak bezan.                       

Tic Tac (officially styled as “tic tac”) is a brand of small, hard sweets manufactured by the Italian confectioner Ferrero. The individual pieces are commonly called Tic Tacs themselves. Donkey believes that Shrek should use some Tic Tac since his breath stinks. Normally stating such a direct sentence is offensive and usually people avoid it, but Donkey does it as direct as possible and it makes the context humorous. In the Persian translation the allusion is not produces, it is not familiar to the target culture, and this name is replaced simply by a verb, brushing. The strategies applied here are equivalence and modulation.

 “Swamp toad soup, fish eye tartar”

Persian: Baghala ghatoghe lajane mordab,  mirza ghasemie eshpele ghurbaghe              

The names of the foods again have been replaced by the foods familiar to the target culture audience to make it more tangible. Humor in this sentence comes from the type of the materials considered as food as they are disgusting for the human beings to be eaten but delicious dishes for ogres. The strategy applied here is equivalence.

“Smelly ogre!” 

Persian: Chie eshghe piaz?                                                                                                                                                                              

Neither the form nor the meaning is kept. An adjectival phrase is rendered by a question In the English version Donkey addresses Shrek as an “smelly ogre” but in the Persian translation there is a flash back to the previous scenes where Shrek states that ogres are like onions, that is, they have layers. Donkey, referring to that sentence, calls him a smelly ogre. In the Persian translation the word ‘piaz (onion) is explicitly stated to show the hidden meaning in the English version. Modulation and adaptation have been used here.

“I have to save my ass.”

Persian: man delam nemikhad mese baghie jezghale sham.                                          

In this scene Shrek and Donkey are saving Fiona from the dragon-guarded castle. Shrek has found Fiona, but the dragon has taken Donkey. Fiona has not met the Donkey yet, and does not know that Shrek has come with some body, so Shrek’s response sounds like he is trying to save only himself and not her. This is an example of homonymy-wordplay since the word “ass” with a double meaning, one of them being ‘donkey’ and the other one ‘bottom’. But in the Persian there is no word with such double meaning to be replaced. Therefore, the wordplay could not be created in the Persian translation and only the second meaning, ‘bottom’, is stated with some cultural modulation to avoid the exact word. The translator has taken advantage of the scene that shows the dead bodies of previous knights to state that Shrek does not want to meet the same fate. The applied strategy is equivalence.

“Oh, stop being such a drama-king!”

Persian: Ooh, mese shahaye tuye gheseha shodi.                         

The verbal humor in this example comes from the change in the idiomatic expression “drama-queen”. Normally someone who is acting a little hysterical over nothing is called a “drama-queen”, no matter what their sex is. In this example the Queen is speaking to the King, who is very angry. Therefore, with this change of words in the idiomatic expression the utterance refers humorously to the ‘profession’ of the speakers as well as to the original meaning of the idiom, to reacting too seriously to something. However, in the Persian translation there is not such an idiomatic expression to be used as an equivalent; the translator has tried to show the Queen’s disapproval of the King’s behavior by just referring to the word “King” as a profession, the English idiomatic meaning is lost in Persian. The applied strategy is adaptation.

“A gender-confused wolf “

Persian: Ye gorge ahmagh                                                                   

In the film the Wolf is always dressed in grandmother’s dress and bonnet (the Wolf from the Little Red Riding Hood). However, he also has a really low, masculine voice and in the beginning of the Shrek 2 he is found reading ‘Pork Illustrated’, a magazine that refers to the Sports Illustrated magazine that is filled with women in bikinis. This allusion has taken one instance from the original fairy tail and created a new, humorous identity for the character. In the Persian translation this allusion is lost and replaced by an adjective to show the disapproval of the speaker since there is no back ground knowledge about the magazine referred to; although the audience is familiar with the Wolf from the Little Red Riding Hood story, the intended meaning is not produced in the translation. The applied strategy is adaptation.


The examples presented in this study are part of a research done as a master thesis. After gathering the data manually from the DVDs available and considering the translations, analyzing the data shows that, based on Viney and Darbelnet (1995) model considered, from among the strategies applied by the translators ‘equivalence’ has been most frequently used.  

Moreover, the target text tends to contain less humorous elements, linguistic ones of course, than the source text; the reason for this is that the target language lacks equivalents for the linguistic items of the source language. However, surprisingly, jokes and humorous items were found in which the humorous load of the target version increased, as compared with the original versions, especially in the scenes that the mouth of the characters could not be seen the translator has taken advantage of the silence and added humorous expressions to the text. There have been also some cases that the source text contains no humorous items but in the Persian translation it has been created.  This can be as a compensation for the loss of linguistic humors in other parts of the text, or to add too the humorous flavor to make it more appealing to the audience.  

A particular feature of Shrek, especially, is that it is probably not accidental that almost half of the humorous elements in this animated film belong to the category of visual. It can be said that maybe these elements present fewer problems in transfer than other humorous elements, especially in Latin and English-speaking countries and their use was intentional with the aim to make the humor of the film internationally available, but in case of Persian it van be different since many children can not read the signs and are not familiar with the brand names which appear in the scenes of the film. It is not possible to transfer these visual elements through translation and if the audience does not have any back ground knowledge about them they would be lost in the process of translation.  


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