Do foreign jokes work in English?

Have you ever heard the expression ‘lost in translation’? If you have seen the film with the same name, you’ll understand what it means and remember the hilarious scene in which Bill Murray shoots a TV ad for a brand of Japanese whiskey.

As language learners, travellers or just citizens of the world we all have found ourselves in situations when something being said was just untranslatable, sometimes things are difficult just to explain to speakers of other languages. There are words and expressions in our own language – often idioms, proverbs or words that are ‘local’  or particular to our culture- that are very difficult to communicate in a different language. Even a language as versatile and universal as English is today can cause problems when we try to tell someone that really funny joke from our country.


The Guardian has published a feature about jokes around the world and whether their English translations live up to the original. With English being a lingua franca for hundreds of millions of people all over the planet one would expect a good translation to be enough to guarantee a good laugh.  Why don’t you try by yourself and tell us? You’ll find the transcriptions and English translations right below the video featuring jokes told by natives in their own languages.

Do you think it’s a cultural problem or just a matter of getting the punch-line right? Are different things funny in different languages?  Can humour be globalized?

Taking into account that English speakers are not known for their foreign language skills, many good jokes might be lost in translation for them. On the other hand, I guess British humour is not for everyone either-  remember Manuel from Fawlty Towers?


  • Hilarious (adj): funny, something that makes you laugh
  • Shoot (v): to photograph or record. As a noun it’s an informal word to refer to a photographic assignment or session with a photographer
  • Lingua franca (n): a language used for communication among people of different mother tongues
  • To live up to something (v): to fulfil (an expectation, obligation, principle, etc)
  • Punch line (n): the culminating part of a joke, funny story, etc, that gives it its humorous or dramatic point
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