Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Translating British Humor

The Eagle and Child is a pub in Oxford where C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and other literary pals met weekly for a drink. The so called Inklings nicknamed their watering hole “The Bird and Baby.” Funny or sick?

My work in progress, A MATCH FOR EVE, is about an American teenager who goes to school in England for a year. As I consider her reactions and the British boys’ response to her, my focus is on attraction, miscommunication and culture clash, often with hilarious results. British humor can be witty and dry, but it can also be crass.

My English husband, an expert on public broadcasting politics and killing time on YouTube, passed on two BBC clips:


These animal voice overs went viral at Bowdoin College and our kids’ school in Maine, showing some humor translates well. If you can make it past the farting gorilla . . .


This political satire requires some familiarity with 80’s music and British prime ministers.

One thing I love about the Brits (as opposed to most Americans) is they don't take themselves too seriously. Also just about anything sounds both funnier and more believable with an English accent. A secret to a happy marriage (20 years and still counting) is laughter . . . and proofreading manuscripts, feeding a manic writer and putting up with this blog. Thanks, Henry!

For more on Oxford and expat life, see my Sabbatical in England posts. Do you have any amusing culture clash stories to share, especially about the UK?

Multi-Cultural Blog Watch:

* Reading in Color had a thought provoking post on racial stereotypes in fiction "Latinos Don't Fall in Love and Asians Don't Tell Jokes."

* Travels with Persephone urges us to slow down to look at the texture of travel. Amanda takes us to Italy, Croatia and Greece, focusing on walkways and rooftops.

* Author Barrie Summy celebrated Valentine’s Day with her adopted daughter and shared how Koreans observe Valentine's Day in their country.

* Through the Sapphire Sky shared Chinese New Year in Japan.

Note: I'm taking a one week blog vacation for the kids' February Break.  Next post Wednesday, March 2nd.

30 comments:

A Cuban In London said...

I love both clips, but the second one cracked me up so much! Especially as Cameron is an heir to Blair, as opposed to Thatcher (well, Blair is an heir to Thatcher, so, there you have it). Many thanks for sending me to my lunch with a big smile on my face. :-)

And yes, I LOVE British humour. One of the reasons why I've settled so well in this country.

Good luck with your novel.

Greetings from London.

tina said...

They were both fun indeed! I don't know which one I liked more-probably the Blair video. I agree with you on the Brits. One thing I always think of with their culture is that they are quite liberated-way more than American society-judging by their dailies. Do you know "Dinner for One"? That has to be the best humor and I think it is British too? I Googled it and found it is on You Tube. That site has like everything. Wow! Cheers to Henry for the two clips and for your 20 years!!

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Sarah

What can I say--I love the voiceovers!! Good way to start the morning by laughing.

Best
Tracy :)

Rose said...

Thanks for the laughs this morning, Sarah! I'm sure I didn't catch all the humor on the Blair/Cameron video, but the animal voiceovers were pretty universal in their humor--hilarious! One of my husband's favorite shows was "Are You Being Served"; I think repeats are still being shown on our local PBS station.

Besides the humor, I've had problems understanding some of the terms used. I read a lot of mysteries set in the UK, and it took me awhile to figure out what jumpers and trainers were--I had totally different mental pictures of how these characters were dressed before:) And beans on toast...thanks to a Welsh blogging friend, I now know that's just what they are!

Bonnie said...

I adore British humour - perhaps it is my child-like, right-brain proclivities. It does not hurt that I descend from Brits and as a Canadian am a part of the British Commonwealth. The satire of Cameron usurping everything Blair is hilarious! And, I agree,if the voice-overs for the animals had been done by Americans or Canadians it would not be nearly as funny.

How fortunate that you have an in-house consultant when writing British scenes in your book.

Thanks for sharing these ...

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Lovely way to start my morning with a bit of Brit humor (humour). *grins*

walk2write said...

I'm sure your husband's time spent/killed on YouTube is purely for work's sake:) Tell him thanks for sharing his research with us.

Supposedly, SAM's ancestry has a Brit or two tucked away in it. No wonder I love him so much. He keeps me in stitches.

Maria Padian said...

My son recently completed a writing project for his acting class in which he wrote a scene where J.R.Tolkien and C.S.Lewis are hanging out at this very pub, talking about their books! I'm forwarding him this post!

Ryan Riley said...

Hi Sarah,

I do not know if you remember me, but I posted on your blog about a year ago as I was looking into studying in England. Turns out I met an English girl travelling in South America and we are now dating!

One funny story is that she uses the word "alright" to describe everything and initially I was like "What do you mean its only alright?!!?". She would reply "Whats wrong with that? Alright is good." Haha so now to designate we both say either its "American alright" or "British alright"

Ryan Riley

David Cranmer said...

I love British humor. EXTRAS is one of the best comedies of the last few years and a favorite around our house.

Great vids, Sarah. And best of luck on the book. I'll be first to buy a copy.

Edith Hope said...

Dear Sarah, I do think that the British sense of humour tends to be rather obscure and is most deinitely an acquired taste. The second short film was very cleverly compiled and I did like the way that a few bars from 'The Apprentice' television programme was used as background music in the opening minutes. Very apt!!

troutbirder said...

Oh my that second video is hilarious. Which give the opportunity for an admissions.I tell all my friends that I basically haven't watch any American television since the 80's which is basically true except for one small exception - CSpans half hour Parliament Questions. Yes I was addicted to Blair making fools our of the Conservative and then tried to imagine Bush II in a similar situation. Speaking of humorous.....

Carol said...

Sarah, I thank you with heartfelt laughs! What fun! I agree about the Brits and their great humor. Congratulations on twenty years of love and laughter! Best wishes for twenty more and several books.

MissA said...

I did reply to your comment on my Asians Don't Tell Jokes, Latinos Don't Fall in Love post, sorry it took me so long!

We studied the UK last semester and I fell in love with it, it helps that I've been reading some YA novels set in England. I've learned some slang like the usage of 'alright' all the time, and learning how intense GSCEs are. haha. I need to present 100 lines worth of British poetry to my English lit class and I want a funny one. Any suggestions? So far I have one by AP Herbert and maybe Edward Lear...

Sarah Laurence said...

All, I forgot to add this message when posting on Wednesday: I’m taking a one week blog vacation for the kids’ February break. Next post is on Wednesday March 2nd. Sorry not to be online much this month, but rest assured that the time has been devoted to finishing a draft of NOT CRICKET that is being fact checked in the UK right now. There are several more drafts to go before I’ll show my WIP to my agent.

ACIL, I knew you’d get it! The sign of being truly bilingual is getting jokes and being able to crack jokes in a second language.

Tina, I haven’t seen “Dinner for One.” Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll check it out.

Tracy, keep laughing.

Rose, “Are You Being Served?” is funny. I’m using a lot of British slang/terms in NOT CRICKET but the advantage of having an American MC who asks questions is that everything is explained or made clear by context. My husband likes beans on toasts.

Bonnie, my husband and our kids are helping a lot. The kids were my first readers and my husband is checking the MS now. The kids have gone to school twice in England, for 6 months in London and for a year in Oxford/Abingdon, and I studied abroad in London while in college. NOT CRICKET comes out of those experiences. I’ll be back in England this summer too for a bit doing follow up research.

Tricia, keep grinning.

W2W, funny husbands are the best. I’m not surprised SAM keeps you laughing.

Maria, what a fun assignment!

Ryan, welcome back! How much fun to meet a Brit whilst traveling in South America. Your comment was alright. Thanks, I’d forgotten that one!

David, “Extras” is funny. Thanks so much for your encouragement on my WIP and congratulations about your baby daughter!

Edith, I have acquired the taste. I hadn’t realized that the music was from the Apprentice – perfect!

Troutbirder, the British Parliament is fun to watch compared to our Congress. You should watch the Daily Show on Comedy Central, an American mock news station that reminds me of British satires. The comedians on the clip with Hari in the post below are from that program.

Carol, thanks!

MissA, I consulted with my English husband, and I must apologize in advance that there is no poet of color in this list of classic humorous poets. Spike Milligan was at least raised in British India. Definitely include Edward Lear. My husband’s favorite is a verse by an unknown poet included in Lear’s collection:

“I eat my peas with honey
I’ve done it all my life
It makes the peas taste funny
But it keeps them on the knife.”

To appreciate this poem, you need to know that Brits hold their knife in their right hand and their overturned fork in left and don’t swap back or turn their fork right side up to eat. They also eat a lot of peas, often mashed and called “mushy peas.”

Humorous English Poets:
Edward Lear
Spike Milligan
Philip Larkin
Louis Carroll
Pam Ayres
Gilbert & Sullivan

☆sapphire said...

I enjoyed both clips very much; the animals speaking each other are so funny! I adore British humour. Have you ever read Project Hyakumeizan's comments( on Tama- cat stationmaster, etc.) on my blog? His British humour is superb. The problem is that my responses are always dull. And thanks so much for the link! Have a lovely weekend!

Bee said...

I wasn't able to watch the first clip, but the second one was so funny! The English are ALWAYS ready to take the piss -- which everyone loves, until they themselves are targets.

My favorite line was about your husband being an expert on killing time on YouTube.
Rebecca told me that their teachers performed skits at "House Plays" last week -- and that one of the housemasters did a hilarious spoof on the famous "Gap Year" hit from YouTube. She said there wasn't a person there who didn't "get" the reference.

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, I’ve replaced the defective Animal clip with a working one so you should be able to see it now. Here's the: Gap Yah clip.

Booksnyc said...

Those animal voiceovers had me on the floor laughing - thank you so much for sharing - what a great clip!

Have a great break this week!

Elenka said...

OMG, those animals! I was laughing right out loud. It was great! Thanks.
I have a hard time, sometimes, understanding 'English' in the second video.

Amanda said...

sarah, kind thanks for the shout-out, and apologies for my delayed visit - i've been out of town for almost a week.

as an american who attended school in england, i eagerly await the arrival of NOT CRICKET.

am now off to read your sabbatical in england posts -- enjoy your february break!

Kelly H-Y said...

Great secret(s) to a happy marriage! Enjoy your break!

Beth said...

"They also eat a lot of peas, often mashed and called “mushy peas.”"

Um... just to let anyone taking this for granted - there are a few English people who dislike peas enough, but cringe with intense hatred at mushy peas. Bleurgh.

The idiosyncricies between English (US) and English are huge and I really look forward to reading Not Cricket when it hits the shelves over here!

My husband is Welsh and we find a huge amount of crazy differences even between English (Welsh) and English. It's insane the different routes language takes! It took me about a year in Wales to work out that "scramming" meant the same as "scratching"...

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Of course I love British humour and had so much fun watching tv in London this past week.... especially a show of outtakes of some of my favourite recent productions. Little Dorrit, for example. And of course the cab drivers always make me laugh!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Yes Sarah, believe it or not, it was indeed a black cab that got lost! Poor man, I felt really rather sorry for him. He was totally befuddled and red-faced!

Jeanne said...

Hi Sarah

Thanks so much for stopping in and having a read of my last few posts...I appreciate it! It is so nice to have discovered you...I am intrigued about NOT CRICKET. We moved to England one year ago with a 17 year old and 11 year old. It has been an interesting learning curve. We came via New Zealand and Australia so the English school system was familiar to them. It was the American International Schools that they found strange. An interesting turn of events for me :)

I am sure as I read thru your blog the pieces of the puzzle will come together. It is what I love about blogging...discovering new and talented people.

I look forward to following you along...best wishes :)

Jeanne

PS..my 17 year old daughter sent me the link to the talking animals this morning..I got a kick out of seeing it in your post as well.

Also.....I love your photography...you have a great eye for it!

Ok...I will stop there....for now :)

Sarah Laurence said...

Sapphire, I’ll have to keep an eye out for Project Hyakumwizan. Your responses are never dull.

Booknyc, keep laughing!

Elenka, you aren’t alone. British is another language. NOT CRICKET aims to bridge that gap.

Amanda, do share your experiences about school in England. I’d love to hear more.

Kelly, I am enjoying the break. We just got back from Boston and found 6 inches of new snow with more coming tonight.

Beth, pea dodgers are most welcome here! A Welsh accent is fun. In NOT CRICKET I have characters speaking in London and West Country accents, with class variances. I find the linguistic differences within one country fascinating and challenging. Thanks, it’s the best type of the encouragement knowing that this novel will have readers on both sides of the pond when it’s (hopefully) published. I enjoyed the humor on your blog too.

Pamela, at least it makes a good story, a lost black cab driver in London.

Jeanne, welcome to my blog! It is so nice to connect with you through Pamela. My husband and I met while we were both studying at Harvard in the late 80’s. Together we have lived 3 years in England (London and Oxford) and the rest in the US (Massachusetts then Maine.) Our dual citizen kids have been educated in both systems, and I’ve been drawing on all these experiences to write NOT CRICKET. The American Schools are unusual even by American standards since there is no national curriculum. I’d love to hear more about your family’s experiences with both the American and British school systems. That animal clip defines viral, but in a good way. The internet does make the world smaller. Looking forward to reading more and seeing more photos on your blog too!

MissA said...

Sarah thank you for the recommendations! I think I'm going to do one by Pam Ayres and I was already thinking about the one by Edward Lear 'How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear' Thank you so so much! I have to memorize 100 lines so I think Spike Mulligan's will be too short...I'll check out the rest tomorrow and let you know :)

cynthia said...

What fun! Hope you're enjoying a nice break, Sarah.

Barrie said...

I must share the first video with my children! Thank you for the shout-out. Looking forward to your book review post, too. ;)