Web Translation Projects/Translation of irony and sarcasm in TV series

The aim of the project is to present irony and sarcasm translation in TV series and to discuss different factors which may affect the whole process. The first part of the project presents general information about humour, irony, sarcasm and the difference between these two wit types. The second part is devoted to audiovisual translation and focuses mostly on subtitles and voice-over. The last part presents possible translation difficulties and discusses how they may affect translators, their ideas and decisions.

This page is a part of the "Translation on the Web" course held by Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland.


To talk about humour and its translation, the best will be to start by defining what humour really is. The Oxford English Dictionary provides the following definition: “quality of action, speech or writing which excites amusement; oddity, jocularity, facetiousness, comicality, fun.” and further “the faculty of perceiving what is ludicrous or amusing, or of expressing it in speech, writing, or other composition; jocose imagination or treatment of a subject”. [1] Another definition can be found in Wit and humor in discourse processing: "Humour is anything done or said, purposely or inadvertently, that is found to be comical or amusing.”. [2] In other words, humour is a verbal or physical action, which is perceived by people as amusing and usually provokes laughter. However, depending on people's interests and perception of the world, some people may perceive certain ideas as amusing, when to others they will be just regular statements or gestures.

Even though it seems to be clear what humour really is and that it can occur in various situations and between different people, it is actually a more complex phenomenon and it consists of four essential components:[3]

1) social context (people usually need a social situation, an interaction with another person, in order to laugh and appreciate humour)

2) cognitive perceptual process (the process occurring in people’s minds, which is essential for proper understanding of humour and receiving given information)

3) emotional response (a response to a given information, which people appraise as funny)

4) vocal behavioural expression of laughter (expressing joy by a loud noise, moving ones head and body)

Forms of humourEdit

Humour translation in TV series is strictly connected with dialogues and exchanging information between characters. This discourse and social interaction are the basis for conversational humour, which may have three forms: [3]

1) jokes (short stories, humorous sentences)

2) spontaneous conversational humour (the humour that appears in everyday conversations and it is not thought out before)

3) accidental humour (physical or linguistic)

Irony and sarcasmEdit

Irony can be defined as a situation when someone makes a statement which meaning is the opposite of what is actually being. [4] In his work The Psychology of Humor An Integrative Approach, Martin creates a very similar statement as he claims that “Irony is a figure of speech that communicates the opposite of what is said". [3]

We can distinguish four types of irony: [5]

1) denotative (when someone decides to use words which have the opposite meaning to the message they actually want to provide)

2) connotative (when people say something that does not have any hidden meaning, but the ironical message makes the receiver think that depending on a context, it may have either positive or negative meaning)

3) tonal (the most important are not only words themselves, but also the way in which they are ordered in a sentence)

4) reference (the most important is the contrast between the fundamentally different factors the unrealistic and the realistic one)

Sarcasm, as well as irony, has the opposite meaning to what actually has been said and in both situations an indirect way of conveying meaning appears. As for irony, it can be perceived as more amusing and is more focused on presenting another person's point of view. Sarcasm is more focused on insulting others, more hurtful. This particular wit type focuses on one person specifically. Sarcasm is more aggressive and it usually means to insult someone. [4] Another definition is provided by Tepperman, Traum and Narayanan who state that sarcasm “also called verbal irony, is the name given to speech bearing a semantic interpretation exactly opposite to its literal meaning”. [6]

Audiovisual translationEdit


According to Diaz Cintas (2014) subtitling is a “translation practice that consists of presenting a written text, generally on the lower part of the screen” (p.. Subtitles are provided in order to reflect the information included in both the image and sound. In the first case, subtitling applies to elements such as inscriptions written on the walls in the background, letters or other messages read by the characters, or posters. In the second case subtitles are usually used to translate the dialogues or songs appearing in the video. When it comes to technical parameters, subtitles should not be longer than two lines (each of maximum 37 characters including spaces and typographical signs) and should not take more than one twelfths of the whole screen. However, there are situations in which placing subtitles in the upper parts of the screen is advised (situations such as when the bottom part is too bright and the subtitles are not illegible enough, some important information is included in the bottom part of the screen e.g. the name of the director of the show or cast members, or when other subtitles included in the original video are viewed in the lower part of the screen.[7]


Second most common type of audiovisual translation of TV series is voice-over. It is an additional voice which is recorder and played together with the original sound. Viewers hear two voices an once - the original speech and the translation. Voice-over appears a moment after the original sound, may finish earlier than a source statement and is more explicit than the voice of the original video. [8] In this type of translation, a translator is restricted by the time in which a character is speaking, as it have to match the time of an utterance. However, there are situations in which a translator has more freedom e.g. when the voice is from the background and we do not see the person talking.

Translation difficultiesEdit

Translation is a complex process in which factors such as grammar structures, cultural background or the audience itself have to be taken into consideration. A translator has to provide a target text, which will present its viewers or readers with the same information that is included in a source text. When it comes to humour, this procedure becomes even more complicated, as the translator has to not only provide the audience of the target text with the message included in the source text, but also make it amusing. Due to this, translating humour can cause more problems than a regular translation. In humour translation, especially when it comes to subtitles and voice-over, detecting humorous statements in the video is the fundamental issue. In TV series, mostly sitcoms, it is easier to do so, as the laughter in the background clearly shows which of the situations are supposed to be amusing. In comedy movies or different types of series the task becomes more difficult, as the translator has to recognize humorous situations by themselves. A translator has to fully understand the source text. If the translator cannot understand the joke itself or the specific elements which make the given example amusing, a proper translation cannot be provided. Only when the source text is properly understood, the translator may think of possible solutions, which will cause a similar reaction of the target text viewers, as they do in the case of the source text audience. What is more, when it comes to translating humour in subtitles, the text has to appear on the screen in the right time. If it is not compatible with the characters’ reaction in the video or their speech, the viewers may feel that they are missing some of the information from the original version. The idea is to make the audience of the target text laugh and sometimes it requires changing both, meaning and grammar of the original version, and adapting it to the target language by using its cultural equivalents. [7]

Cultural aspectsEdit

Rendering irony and sarcasm into another language will differ depending whether it includes any cultural elements or not. When a statement is rather general, or involves something that is well known around the world, a literal translation will probably be enough. However, if it presents any cultural aspect of life typical for a certain country it may cause several problems as traditions in the target culture may be entirely different. In this situation, a translator may change it completely, so as to preserve the humorous manner, or render it word for word, but be aware that it may lose its value. What is more, when it comes to translating sarcasm and irony in subtitles, a translator is being quite limited by the technical parameters and therefore has to think of the best and probably the shortest solution.

Name of the series Original text Polish subtitle translation Polish voice-over translation
Sherlock (S01E02) Watson It’s password protected.

Sherlock: In a manner of speaking. Took me less than a minute to guess yours, not exactly Fort Knox. (00:06:02-00:06:07)

W: Jest chroniony hasłem.

S: Odgadłem je w niecałą minutę. Fort Knox to nie jest.

W: Mam hasło

S: Szybko je odgadłem. Nie postarałeś się.

Sherlock (S01E02) Sherlock: You’ve been a while.

Watson: Yeah, well, you know how it is. Custody sergeants don’t really like to be hurried, do they? (00:28:21-00:28:30)

S: Długo cię nie było.

W: Wiesz jak jest. Policjanci nie lubią, gdy się ich popędza.

S: Długo cię nie było.

W: Wiesz jak to jest. Policjanci nie lubią pośpiechu.



Watson: What are we doing here, Sherlock? Seriously, what?

Sherlock: I don’t know.

W: Here to see the Queen?

S: (when Mycroft arrives) Oh, apparently, yes. (00:15:10-00:15:19)

W: Co my tu robimy?

S: Nie wiem.

W: Audiencja u królowej?

S: Najwyraźniej.

W: Sherlocku, co my tu tak naprawdę robimy?

S: Nie wiem.

W: Chcemy zobaczyć królową?

S: Najwidoczniej.



Mycroft: What are you doing?

Mary: Emilia Ricoletti, I’m looking her up.

Mycroft: Yeah, I suppose we should. I have access to the top level of the MI5 archives.

Mary: Yep, that’s where I’m looking.

Mycroft: What do you think about MI5’s security?

Mary: I think it would be a good idea.(1:02:44-1:03:00)

Mycroft: Co robisz?

Mary: Sprawdzam Emilię Ricoletti.

Mycroft: Słusznie. Mam dostęp to kartoteki MI5.

Mary: Właśnie tam szukam

Mycroft: Co sądzisz o zabezpieczeniach MI5?

Mary: Dobrze byłoby je wdrożyć.

Mycroft: Co robisz?

Mary: Sprawdzam Emilię Ricoletti.

Mycroft: Słusznie. Mam dostęp do tajnych archiwów MI5.

Mary: Właśnie tam szukam.

Mycroft: Jak oceniasz poziom zabezpieczeń?

Mary: Warto by je wprowadzić.

Technical aspectsEdit

In subtitle and voice-over translation, cultural aspects are not the only problem. As both audiovisual translation types have certain technical restrictions, such as number of characters or the duration, they may limit translators and their decisions. Translators have to focus not only on the best possible equivalent for certain part of the source text, but also remember that they cannot exceed those technical parameters. The ideas from the original video should be preserved in the same amusing manner in the target text, however, it is not always possible due to the technical aspects and it sometimes results in loss of the humorous tone.


  1. Simpson, E.S.C., Weiner, J.A. 1989. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press
  2. Long, D.L., Graesser, A.C. 1988. Wit and humor in discourse processing. Discourse Processes 11(1): 35-60.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Martin, R.A. 2006. The Psychology of Humor An Integrative Approach. London and Ontario: Elseviere.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Long, D.L., Graesser, A.C. 1988. Wit and humor in discourse processing. Discourse Processes 11(1): 35-60.
  5. Hutchens, E.N. 1960. The identification of irony. ELH 27(4): 352-363.
  6. Narayahan, S. Tepperman, J. Traum, D.n.d. "Yeah Right” Sarcasm Recognition For Spoken Dialogue Systems. Retrieved from http:://www1.cs.columbia.edu/~julia/papers/teppermanetal06.pdf
  7. 7.0 7.1 Diaz Cintas, J., Remael, A. 2014. Audiovisual Translation: Subtitling. London and New York: Routledge.
  8. Anderman, G., Diaz Cintas, J. 2009. Audiovisual Translation: Language Transfer on Screen. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.