Homonymy in Russian Jokes about Stierlitz
Homonyms are different words with different meanings, which accidentally happen to be pronounced identically. Therefore, we don’t expect for words that are homonymous in one language to be translated identically to another one (unless the two languages are very close). For instance, the word night is translated to Russian as noch and knight, as rycar’. Thus, homonymy strongly depends on language-specific properties. As a result, puns that are based on this relation are very difficult to translate.
But this does not mean that homonymy is not a cross-linguistic phenomenon. It is found in different languages, but each language has its own set of homonyms and its own jokes based on the inventory. I’d like to devote this post to jokes that are based on homonymy in Russian. The discussion will also make the translation problem obvious.
I will concentrate on a particular group of puns. Certain movies and movie characters constitute sources of inspiration for the creation of jokes. In the former Soviet Union, one such character was Stierlitz, a Soviet agent in Nazi Germany.
There are numerous jokes about Stierlitz. Interestingly, a considerable group of these jokes is based on wordplay, largely homonymy. With most jokes of this type, I cannot see any logical relation between the jokes and the original movie. In other words, it’s rather unclear to me why specifically these jokes are told specifically about this character. But anyway, let us look at some of them. Given translation difficulties, I will leave the homonymous words non-translated, and then explain their double meanings.
1. Штирлиц подошёл к окну. Из окна дуло. Штирлиц закрыл окно. Дуло исчезло.
“Stierlitz approached the window. From the window DULO. Stierlitz closed the window. DULO disappeared.”
dulo in Russian is ambiguous between the verb ‘blow’ in a past tense form and the noun ‘muzzle’. The first sentence containing this string of sounds is thus interpreted, roughly, as “There was a draught from the window”. But the second sentence makes it obvious that dulo is used as a noun, and the word is reinterpreted as “muzzle”, with the last sentence meaning “The muzzle disappeared”. Not very funny, is it? Well, this only shows the difficulty of translating homonymy-based jokes!
2. Штирлиц шёл по лесу и наткнулся на сук. “Шли бы вы домой, девушки. Война всё-таки!”
“Stierlitz walked in a wood and ran into SUK. ‘You’d better go home, girls. It’s wartime.’
suk is ambiguous between the noun meaning ‘bough’ and the plural accusative (and genitive) form of the noun suka ‘bitch’. Since in the first sentence, a wood is mentioned, the word is naturally interpreted as ‘a bough’. But when Stierlitz starts talking to it and even calls it “girls”, it becomes clear that the noun has to be reinterpreted.
3. Штирлиц шёл по лесу и увидел голубые ели. Штирлиц присмотрелся и увидел, что голубые не только ели, но и пили.
“Stierlitz walked in a wood and saw GOLUBYE ELI. On a closer view GOLUBYE not only ELI but also drank.”
Here, we deal with double homonymy. The word golubye is ambiguous, similarly in part to the adjective gay in English. The Russian adjective can mean either ‘blue’ (a color) or ‘homosexual’. In turn, eli as a noun means ‘fir-trees’ (in the plural) and as a verb, ‘ate’ (past tense, plural). Like in 2, we begin with a sentence about a wood, so in the first sentence, the ambiguous expression gets interpreted as “blue spruces” (a very beautiful kind of fir). But the syntax of the next sentence, as well as the verb pili ‘drank’, forces us to reinterpret the expression as a clause “homosexuals ate / were eating”. You can see from 2 and 3 that German woods during WWII formed a rather curious place with rich social life!
4. Штирлиц выстрелил в Мюллера в упор. Мюллер не упал. “Броневой,”- подумал Штирлиц.
“Stierlitz shot Muller at point-blank range. Muller didn’t fall. ‘BRONEVOJ’, Stierlitz thought.”
The adjective bronevoj means ‘armored’ or ‘shielded’, so everything would make sense and there would be nothing funny about the joke…but the family name of the actor who plays Muller is Bronevoj! So Stierlitz’ insight becomes ambiguous. The fact that information from the real world, which could not become accessible to Stierlitz, is brought into the reality of the movie,
contributes to the humorous effect.
As you see, when a joke based on homonymy is translated and then explained, the result is not funny at all. You can appreciate the work of translators who have to deal with such challenges!
Below, I provide several additional jokes of this kind for Russian speakers. All these jokes are based on the relation of homonymy. In the next post, we get back to English facts and turn to a different lexical relation.
5. Лампа светила, но света не давала. Штирлиц погасил лампу и Света дала.
6. Встретив гестаповцев, Штирлиц выхватил шашку и закричал: "Порублю!" Гестаповцы скинулись по рублю и убежали.
7. Штирлиц лёг на гальку. Галька вскрикнула и убежала.
8. Штирлиц сел в машину. "Всё, можно трогать!"- сказал он. "Ого-го!"- потрогала Кэт.
9. Штирлиц топил печку. Через час печка утонула.