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January 3, 2011 14:24:50 | in Expat Life

Telling jokes in Peru

By Larry J. Pitman

I had just told one of my best jokes. In California, people would now be rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically. (Well, maybe that is a little exaggerated.)

Instead, here in Peru, I didn’t even get a chortle or a snicker. What I did get was a bunch of blank stares. My audience started looking at each other, shaking their heads and shrugging their shoulders. Then someone, more honest than the others, looked directly at me and said:

“That isn`t funny.”

Of course I was crushed.

I have had to learn the hard way, frequently falling flat on my face, with audience reactions like the above, that my jokes don't travel well. After a few experiences like that, I realized that Peruvians and Americans are different in what each considers to be funny. Clearly, our senses of humor are different.

Sadly, then, my career as a comedian vanished the moment I crossed the border into Peru. Now I just try to stay quiet unless there is an audience of expatriate Americans.

However, it is hard to reform totally. I do tell some of my fifth grade jokes to my classes at the university, but then, they have to laugh, don’t they? Like the one about the restaurant on the moon. Great food, but no atmosphere. Ha, ha.

The first barrier to hilarity is the problem of language. A joke translated from English to Spanish is doomed. Unless you are a linguistic magician, forget it. On the other hand, if I tell my joke in English to Spanish speakers, it is also risky. Many times, understanding the joke depends upon pretty sophisticated language skills and a solid knowledge of the culture. Sometimes, it succeeds. Other times, the person laughs just to be polite. Or I get the blank stare.

Some of my students thoroughly enjoy American television programs like “Friends” or “Two and a Half Men.” However, the humor of such programs is based on situations, and there is plenty of context. It is just not the same as telling a joke about the farmer`s daughter and the traveling salesman.

Finally, comes the time when someone tries to tell me a joke in Spanish. I don’t want to be rude so I laugh. Often, though, I don`t get it. Maybe as I stay here longer, and my Spanish improves, I will get the humor.

Then, there is the ultimate, and most scary, step. That is when I am ready and have the guts to tell a joke in Spanish, and my audience roars with approval. Right now that is just a dream, but, who knows, with a lot of hard work and enough courage, that day may come. That will be a great day when I and my Peruvian friends can tell each other jokes and both sides will laugh sincerely.

In the meantime, have you heard the one about the lawyer and the priest?

Larry J. Pitman is a college professor and writer who moved to Peru in 2005. He is part of the Peru Writers Group. Click here to read his past essays at

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# Luz Marina Usquiano says :
3 January, 2011 [ 11:46 ]

I understand perfectly what you mean....I'm a peruvian living in USA and it's really a pain in the back to tell a joke to my husband (who is american)...when I finish translating a joke from Spanish to English I am exhausted !!!!...and my husband looks at me with sad eyes ...:s....because he knows I tried and it didn't work.

You really have to "know" the culture, history, places, seasons, etc to understand a joke....I can say that I understand most of the jokes in English now, but there are many that could be told in Chinese or German because I didn't get them.

# Fabi Alva says :
4 January, 2011 [ 01:05 ]
I completely get you! Im a Peruvian recently moved back to Lima from Tennesse and I always get the same looking-at-each-other response when I tell my English jokes translated into Spanish, ha ha.
I´m pretty sure you will be able to share laughs with your Peruvian friends soon. A little advice: watch more Peruvian tv (so you can understand how the sense of humor works here) and tell your friends to watch more cable tv, meaning American shows. By the way, what´s the lawyer and the priest joke?
# Mario says :
5 January, 2011 [ 01:33 ]
Hi Larry,

Funny is defined as beyond or deviating from the usual or expected. That means, you need to know first what is the usual or expected in order to deviate from or go beyond it. Funny, eh?

If you want to get a better grasp of Peruvian humor, try listening "Los chistosos" in RPP 89.7 FM radio, 14:30-16:30 Monday to Friday and 15:00-16:00 Saturday and Sunday. They are different comedians, each with his/her own style. Check also:

If you tell some of their jokes, Peruvians will laugh 100 percent of the times, either because you succeeded telling the joke or more probably, because you didn't do it.
# Sergio Cendra says :
5 January, 2011 [ 02:19 ]
Hi Layy,

keep it up! will tell u a joke to make every one laugh in any languague. "an emplyee at the mail office received a letter addressed to God. the letter read ..."dear God, i am a very poor man. My wife is very sick, my children have not eaten in days and do not have proper clothing. Please send me $500 to make ends meet"...the emplyee was deeply moved and told his colleagues about it, so they decided to gather the money to send it to this poor soul but they only collected $ 480.
The following week a second letter was received at the post office by the same man. It read "Thank you some much for your generosity. I was able to cure my wife, feed my children and even buy some clothes but next time please send the money directly to me because the bastards at the post office stole $20"...
hope you like and succed with this one.
# David says :
5 January, 2011 [ 07:02 ]

I could be wrong but the problem is in the translation of words from one language to another. Certain words or phrases just don't make the cut so to speak.
# says :
6 January, 2011 [ 03:27 ]
Dear Readers,

Thank you for your suggestions for improving my understanding of Peruvian humor. Sergio, I like  the joke. I`ll try it out soon. Wish me luck.

# Mr. Dana Jackson says :
7 January, 2011 [ 10:55 ]
¿ Que le dice una piedra a otra ?
¡ La vida es dura !     :-) :-)

# Alita Kelley ( Lomellini) says :
8 January, 2011 [ 04:17 ]
I'm a translator and would like to suggest a handbook for anyone who tries to tell jokes in another language. It's The language of humour (sic) by Walter Nash, available from 

Before you start, make sure the listener will be aware of everything you refer to, and don't try word play unless you're (virtually) bilingual. Feel free to modify the wording if the listener might not be familiar of facts in the joke. Clarify as part of the joke itself.Here are some examples that went over well with Peruvians :

My husband saw a bumper sticker (modify if bumper stickers aren't common where your listener lives).It said "Jesus died for your sins - don't disappoint him"
"Ayer mi esposo vio un aviso en la  puerta de una iglesia. Decia "Jesus murio por tus pecados --no le decepciones"

On the way to the ferry to France you see signs every mile or so "Dover for the Continent"  Brighton, not far away, is very popular with retirees and someone had written under the sign to Dover "Brighton for the incontinent"

Para ir a Francia de Inglaterra tomas el barco en Dover y no muy lejos de ahi esta Brighton que es un lugar preferido de los ancianos  jubilados. En el camino a Dover a cada rato ves anuncios " Dover para el Continente" Alguien habia escrito en uno "Y Brighton para el incontinente"

Lets try Spanish into English now: 
Un mundo para Julios
de Alfredo Bryce Echenique comienza asi:
"Julius nacio en un palacio de la Avenida Salaverry" 
My translation reads "Julius was born in one of those bloody great palaces on Avenida Salaverry"
A reader in Lima knows there are no "palaces" on Salaverry, just pretentious houses, but the reader in the UK doesn't know this. If I were translating for Americans I'd word it a little differently but I can't think of anything that isn't offensive or profane right now...
# Jaime E Rivera says :
5 February, 2011 [ 07:17 ]
Translators of the world, you just earned my respect and admiration! Professional translators, that is.

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