In on the Joke

Youth-led praise team

Youth lead worship on the first night of the congress

We’ve returned to Resistencia after two busy weeks of travel through Paraguay, visiting churches and renewing relationships with friends we haven’t seen in a while. One of the highlights of our recent trip was attending a youth congress at Camp Jack Norment, where we enjoyed two full days of frisbee, campfires, and fellowship.

Unexpectedly, the youth congress also turned out to be an important linguistic turning point for us. I have written about some of our language challenges, and to be sure, we continue to stumble over verbal land mines every day. However, the youth event marked pretty much the first time we have been able to understand Spanish-language jokes. Up till now, something about the combination of colloquial wordplay and the speed at which jokes usually get told have made them hard for us to grasp. A friend would tell a joke and we’d be left blinking in uncertainty while they waited expectantly for our reaction. After a few awkward moments, the obliging comic would clue us in to the double entendres, and only then could we laugh, still digesting our latest lesson in culture and vocabulary.

But this time, we actually got the jokes! Well, most of them anyway. I would share them with you, but of course they don’t translate into English. They hinge on the fact that the word for bread sounds like the word for slippers, or the coincidence that a popular brand of juice sounds like the English word “what” as pronounced with a Paraguayan accent. In their untranslatability, each joke is like a silly little present of linguistic and cultural knowledge, a surprise that only those with the right mix of cultural experience, language skills, and sense of humor will know how to unwrap.

We did hear one joke that does translate (more or less), thanks to the dare-I-say universal appreciation for the absurdity of large and ungainly animals demonstrating some unexpectedly human skills. I’ll let you in on the joke:

1. An elephant playing the guitar
2. A rhinoceros on the bass
3. A hippo on the drums

Q: What kind of music do they play?
A: Heavy metal!

Laughing? If not, perhaps we’ve learned another lesson about humor and culture: no matter what the language, bad jokes will aways be bad jokes.

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