December 26th, 2013
I can well believe that this story from the letters page of the London Review of Books is variant #35 of one of the standard jokes told wherever two or three translators get together, but I still reckon it's worth telling:
Like Chris Sansom's story about translators, mine too is possibly apocryphal (Letters, 19 December 2013). A friend of a friend was the personal staff officer (PSO) to an air marshal. The great man was told, at short notice, to address a Nato meeting. He said he'd use the speech he'd delivered recently at the RAF Staff College. The PSO pointed out that it contained a joke about cricket which only the Brits would understand. He was assured that all would be well. When he got to Brussels, the PSO took a copy of the speech to the instantaneous translators. They agreed that the joke was impossible, but said they knew how to cope. When the air marshal approached the difficult section, the delegates heard in their headphones: 'The air marshal is about to tell a joke. It is about cricket. It cannot be translated. In the interests of Nato solidarity, please laugh when we say – "Laugh."' On the way back to London, the air marshal said: 'Didn't the joke go well. I told you it would.'