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Touching Upon the Translation of the Style of Irony



One of the trickiest subjects in the field of translation is the translation of

the style of irony. This is due to the difficulty of spotting and
undestanding it in the SL text first, and then of finding a possible, good
and matchable version of translation in the TL language, that reflects
similar stylistic functions and implications in the TL (i.e.Arabic here).
The delicacy and subtlety of irony, especially when it is culture-based,
makes it hard to tackle in translation. Yet it is not an insuperable
problem of translation.

This article investigates at some length the different definitions given to

irony in English language. Then, it discusses its different types in
general. Seven of these interchangeable types are singled out,
exemplified for in detail and translated into Arabic, with problems of
translation being picked up and then solved. The paper is concluded by a
framework of translation procedures and steps suggested to help
translators overcome the problems of translating the English style of
irony into Arabic.


Perhaps the most difficult type of style to realize and recognize in

language is the style of irony. It is described by Newmark(1993:132) as
“the most serious and powerful weapon in satirical comedy and farce,
particularly when used to expose pomposity and deceit or to deflate self-
importance”. The general, simple dictionary definition of irony is “a
method of humorous or subtly sarcastic expression in which the intended
meaning of the words is the direct opposite of their sense” (e.g. it is
irony to call a stupid plan, „clever‟) (Webster's New World Dictionary,
3rd College Edition, 1991);"The humorous or mildly sarcastic use of
words to imply the opposite of what they normally mean (Collins
English Dictionary: 2nd 1986); and "Irony is found when the words
actualy used appear to mean quite the opposite of the sense actually
required by the context and presumably intended by the speaker (Wales,
1989: 263).

Other definitions of irony centre more or less around the same

meaning. For example, Leech, (op.cit.) follows H.W. Fowler who
describes irony as “a mode of expression which postuates a double

audience, one of which is "in the know" and aware of the speaker's
intention, whilst the other is naive enough to take the utterance at its face
value" (A Dictionary of Modern English Use, 1926: 295). Irony, adds
Leech, involves the notion of disguise, a mask and a concealment that is
meant to be found out. For example, if someone dresses up as a monkey
to entertain at children, he does not intend to be mistaken for a monkey.
Also, Newmark (op.cit.) defines it simply as “the often (not always)
humorous or sarcastic use of words to imply the opposite of, or some
degree of difference from, what they normally mean.” He regards it as
precisely more of a degree of difference in meaning which translators
have to assess properly than of opposite meaning. Likewise, Nash (1989:
118) defines irony in simple terms as it "… says what it does not mean
and means what it does not say". He considers it in a book on humour,
(1985) as a major stylistic resort in humour. The ironist, he says,
insincerely states something he does not mean, but through the manner
of his statement “…is able to encode a counter-proposition, his „real
meaning‟, which may be interpreted by the attentive listener or reader”
(p.152). He splendidly draws a precise comparison between irony and
sarcasm, as two different terms. That is, although both involve
overstatement and understaement, sarcasm is "ostensibly sincere,
whereas irony states something insincerely. For instance, lets us have the
statement "Tommy is lazy" ‫(تومي كسوومل‬. If we want to be sarcastic we
say: "Tommy doesn't strain himself” ‫يُتعب كتومي كسهوو‬/‫(الكجيهو‬, but when we
try to be ironic, we may say: “Tommy is renowned for his labours” ‫(تومي ك‬
. ‫ يشووهملك و ك(يشووهمد كاهوومل)كا و دة‬. The main difference between the two
versions … is that the second is sharper and more blatant than the first.
The relationship between the two can be simply understood as follows:
sarcasm is a light irony" . )‫(ا وخرُةكهتكمكخهيفكا ظو‬. The fact of the matter is
that usually in language -English or Arabic- the two terms interchange
and explain one another.

A differentiation is made between three major kinds of irony: (1)

dramatic/situational irony ‫( (هتكومكلداي ياومفوف‬implications of a situation or
expression understood by the audience, but not understood by the
characters in the play; (2) Socratic irony )‫(هتكوومكسووطراا يا عظ بركه هوو‬
(pretence of ignorance in a discussion to expose the ignorance of the
opponent); and (3) "irony of fate (pointed to by Leech, 1969: 170) ‫(سوخرُةك‬
‫د‬/‫( ا ط‬adding insult to injury ‫كا طنيكهلة‬/ُ‫(ُز‬, so to speak).

Having established, at some length, the basics of the concept of
irony in language, we now can discuss it as a major stylistic problem of

The very first step before translating an irony is to recognize it in

the SL text. If the translator fails to do so, he will distort the central point
of the original. So, he is supposed to be extremely attentive and caucious
at handling ironic expressions and passages. The procedures as how the
translator can spot and then translate an irony, can be traced through the
discussion of the translation of the following interchangeable types of
irony with their illustrative examples.

Types of Irony

1.Contrastive irony; e.g.

1.Great! I have lost everything! !‫كخورتكس)كش ء‬/‫ط‬

‫ت‬ ‫ك‬.‫(عظيم‬

2.My friend follows‫ك‬a backward diet, fatness diet. He eats everything!

‫كإس كالكُمفركشيئ ً ك‬.‫كوبمكدجييمكا ومنة‬، ‫ُط كسظ ي ًكغذائي ًيدجييم ًكيعخله ً(خلهي ًيينكودا‬/‫(ُع عكص‬

3.You are wonderful! Disgustingly wonderful! !‫(أستكدائع!كدائعكحىتكا طرف‬

As to (1), the discrepancy between „great‟ ‫ (عظوويم‬and „lost

everything‟ ‫ (خووركسو)كشو ء‬is what creates the irony. However, the ironical
word is „great‟ ‫(عظيم‬, understood in contrast to what follows.

In (2), „backward‟ is ironic, taken together with „fatness diet‟, as

there is no such diet. The word „disgustingly‟ of (3) disrupts the whole
statement, converting it into an irony, created by the paradox between it
and „wonderful‟. In language, that is, there is no such phrase as
"disgusting wonder" , unless we mean to use it as a trope, or irony.

2. Reactionary irony

This type of irony involves a statement or a comment by an

addresser and an unexpectedly opposite reaction by an addressee, e.g.

1. -“you are a coward”!‫(أسوتكب و ن! ككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‬


-“Thank you, That‟s very kind of you”: ‫ككككك‬ ‫كبوذاكيونك‬،‫(أشوكرك‬
2. -“I have to teach you a lesson”!‫(( زاي ً كعل كأنكأ طنككلدس ً! كككككككككككككككككككك‬
-“O,‫ك‬I‟ll be grateful”:‫(سومفكأسومنكنعنو ًك وك ككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‬
3. -“Are you deaf/ haven‟t you heard me?‫(بو)كأسوتكأاورأملكأسكتوومب مل ككككككككككككككك‬
-“Your composure astonishes me!”:‫و!ك! ككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‬/‫بشو كبو‬/ُ(

The tone of voice plays a vital role here. For the addresser, it is
usually either a high-high, or a low-high tone. However, for the
addressee, it is normally a low-low tone, which may be more effective
than a high-high tone.

3.Litotes: Irony of understatement:

1. It‟s not worth talking about it. I have lost nothing at all. Only
!‫كمخومنكأ فكلوالدكفططكالكغري‬.‫كي كخورتكشيئ ًكعلىكاإلاالق‬.‫ك(إس كأيركالكُوعحقكا ذسر‬
2. That lady is still too young. She is just ninety years old!
‫كفه كيفكا عوبنيكينكعمرب كفطط! كككك‬. ‫اًييفكدُب نكش هب‬/‫ةكصغريةكب‬/‫(ي كتزالكتلككا وي‬
3. Children hardly eat sweets. They conume tons of chocolate daily
all over the world.
‫كإن وومكُو ووعهلكمنكأان سو و ًكي وونكا ش وومسمالكُمييو و ًكيفكش ووىتكأ و و ءكا ب و و سكككككككككك‬.‫لمهنيا و ووك سر‬.‫(فلم و و كُعن و و ولكالاه و و لكا‬

This type of irony is an underexaggeration that draws upon the

understatement of something which is in actual fact quite the contrary of
that. The first part of each of these sentences displays the understated
irony which is explained in clear terms in the second part of them. The
exclamation marks at the end of the three examples are also suggestive
of irony.

4. Hyperbolé: Irony of overstatement:

1.We have never ever met a guy as honest as him. He always lies to
us!‫كإس كلائم ًكُكذبكعلين ك! ككككككككككككككككككككككك‬. ‫(سكسركيفكحي تن كدبالًكص لف ًكيثل‬

2.This shampoo is the best for your dandruff. It makes it worse than
ever! ‫كإذكجيبله كأسمأكن كس ستك‬.‫(بذاكا غَومليا ش ي مكأفض)كغوملك طشرتك‬
‫علي كهكثري! ككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‬
3.Try our dream diet. It helps you put more weight in a record time!
‫ككعلىكزُ لةكوزسككككككككككك‬/‫كسمفكُو ع‬.‫لميا ذيكحيطقكأحاليك‬.‫(بربكسظ ين كا غذائ كا‬ ّ
‫يفكزينكفي س ! ككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‬

This is contrary to the previous kind of irony as overexaggeration is

manipulated to give the ironical sense of overstatement. Each of the
foregoing three examples explains itself by an overstated first sentence
and an understated second one to uncover the intended irony.

5.Double entendre irony:

1. you are one in a million!‫كيفكاوليمن! ككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‬/‫(أستكواح‬

2. Of course she is not to blame! ‫(ه ط عكالك ممكعليه ! ك‬
3. They love him to death! ‫(إنمكحي مس كإىلكلدبةكاومت! ك‬

This type of irony has a double reference, one negative and another
positive. Although it sounds positive on the surface of it, it is intended
by the speaker to be negative without telling openly. That is, the first
example can be understood to mean peerless ‫ (الكيثيو)ك و‬either as the best or
as the worst person on earth. In the same way, the second statement is
taken to mean either excused for good reasons, or lost one‟s senses. The
third sentence can also be understood straight as a reference to great and
real love, or as an insinuation to extreme hatred of somebody. Having
said that, it is left to the speaker and hearer‟s intentions. On the other
hand, the exclamation mark in such type of irony is quite significant and
suggestive. (For more details about the last three types, see Ghazala,
1994: 277-78)

6. Disguised Irony: The complex irony

It is a type of concealed (Newmark‟s term(op.cit.)) irony. This is

perhaps the most intricate type of irony to spot and translate. It requires
a maximum degree of concentration to locate, understand and then
translate. It is hidden and hard to trace, for it is not restricted to one word
or phrase, but scattered through the whole text.

What adds to this complexity is the cultural, philosophical,
religious or intellectual background of the text. Consider this example by
Jonathan Swift (in Nash, 1989:.118):

“If Christianity were once abolished, how would the free Thinkers, the
Strong Reasoners, and the Men of profound Learning, be able to find
another Subject so calculated in all Points whereon to display their
Abilities. What wonderful Productions of Wit should we be deprived
of, from those whose Genius by continual Practice hath been wholly
turned upon Raillery and Invectives against Religion, and would
therefore never be able to shine or distinguish themselves upon any
other subject. We are daily complaining of the great decline of Wit
among us, and would we take away the greatest, perhaps the only
Topick we have left?”

Here is the Arabic version which attempts hard to match the

ironical atmosphere of the English original:

‫كوذويك‬،‫كوأوألكال و بكالفمُ و ء‬،‫كسيووفك لمهكوكورُنكالح وراد‬، ‫(إذاكي و كات ْموووتكاوووويحيةكُمي و ًكي و‬

‫فوةكيونكبماس و كسلهو كُوعبرضومنكفيو كعضوالهتمك‬/‫دوسو ًكه‬/‫واكيمضومع ًكخخوركي‬/‫كأنكجي‬،‫ا بلمكا ماسع‬
‫داهتمملكسوومكيوونكالعم و لكا رائبووةكيوونكا ظرافووةكسوومفك وورمكينه و كيوونكأو ئووككا ووذُنكص و ماكب و مك‬/‫وفوو‬
‫ُنكاوووويح ك مفه وماكع و بزُنك ي و ًكعوونك‬/‫ع ط ورُعهمكعلووىكن دسووةكيعماصوولةك لعنكيووتكوا عشووهريكه وو‬
‫ك‬، ‫ادكا ربيو ك لظرافوةكهونيكنهراسينو‬/‫كإسن كسشكمكُميي ًكينكاال و‬.‫ا عأ قكوا عميزكيفكأيكيمضمعكخخر‬
‫كاوع ط و و و ك ن و و و مل ككككككككككككككككك‬/‫كهو و وو)كد و و و كاومضو و وومعكا محيو و وو‬،‫ و و و ئطكأعظو و وومكيمضو و وومع‬.‫فهو و وو)كسضو و ووربكهبو و وورلكا‬
It is not easy to catch the ironic tone of this passage. This is what
Newmark (op.cit.) calls the „subtle irony‟ that can be easily overlooked.
It looks rather a normal piece of writing, a mere personal point of view,
intended to defend the miserable status of the religion of Christianity in
British as well as Western societies. Yet, the translator might get help
from the following facts.

1)The passage is written by Jonathan Swift, the famous satiric writer,

which presupposes the possibility of using irony.

2)The main hypothesis, „If Christianity were once abolished‟ is ominous

of satiric message, as it is hard for the British to believe such a

3)The paradox between the abolition of the Christian religion and its
being a so calculated subject.

4)The use of expressons of ironic intent like: „display their abilities‟,
„wonderful production of wit......turned upon Railyery and Invectives
against religion‟; and „would never shine or distingunish themselves
upon any other subject‟.

5)The use of outright critical expressions like “complaining of the great

decline among us”.

6)Self-assertive defensive rhetorical question concludes the text as an

indirect indication of the fallacy of the hypothesis put forward in the first
sentence of the paragraph.

In the Arabic translation, all these points are taken into account. For
example, the use of. ‫ (اموت‬For „abolished‟ instead of ‫(أ غيت ك‬.‫(أو ماكال ب ك‬
for „reasoners‟ instead of ‫(أصوح بكا بطومل ك‬.‫ (ذووكا بلوم ك‬for „men of profound
learning‟‫(دبو لكاوبرفوة ك‬.‫(ُوعبرضومنكعضوالهتم ك‬for „display their abilities‟ as an
alternative for ‫داهتم‬/‫(ُبرضومنكفو‬.‫ (صو ماكبو مكع طورُعهم ك‬for whose genius turned
upon, instead of ‫ (دسوزواكع طرُو هتم ك‬for its strong satiric effect in parallel with
‫ (ص ماكب مكغض هم‬which is the proper collocation in Arabic.

A striking stylistic feature of irony is the use of capitalization with

usually uncapitalized common nouns like: thinkers, reasoners, men,
abilities, point, etc., not to emphasize them, as normally the case, but to
criticize and mock them even orthographically. In Arabic, however,
there is no such feature of writing in the Arabic Alphabet to translate the
English original. Yet, other devices like the use of an exclamation mark
after each English capitalized noun, can be a good equivalent and a good

7.Innuendo: The Strange irony:

An innuendo, says Leech, is a special kind of ironic statement

which is remarkable for what it omits rather than for what it mentions
(1969:174-75). It is a kind of depreciatory irony that draws heavily on
insinuation. The speaker appears to be positive, but means to be
negative. That is, he nunmbers another person‟s merits, to imply his
outnumbered demerits. Put metaphorically, he points out the tip‫(ا غوي) ك‬, to
draw attention to the iceberg‫(ا هي) ك‬.‫ك‬Here are examples:

‫‪1.Who claims they cannot give up smoking? They have given it up one‬‬
‫‪hundred times (instead of: “they have never given up smoking”).‬‬
‫(ينكُزعمكأنمكالكُوعطيبمنكاإلفالعكعنكا ع‪/‬خنيملك ط‪/‬كأفلبماكعن كيئةكيرة ككككككككككككككككككككك‬
‫(ه‪/‬لكفم ن ‪:‬كسكُطلبماكعنكا ع‪/‬خنيكإاالف ً كككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‬

‫‪2.My mother-in-law keeps her quiet for fifteen minutes a day (i.e. she is‬‬
‫(توكتكمح يتكمخسكعشرةكلفيطةكيفكا يممك(أي‪:‬كإن كثرثو دةكبو‪/‬اً ككككككككككككككككككككك )‪so talkative‬‬

‫‪3.Her grand brother is exceptionally clever. He passes the exam once‬‬

‫‪he is exceptionally stupid. He fails very often).‬ك‪(i.e.‬ك‪every three years.‬‬
‫(أخمب كا ك ريكذوكذس ءكس لد‪.‬كإذكُنجحكيفكااليعح نكيرةكسو)كثوالثكسونماتك(أيكإسو كذوكغ و ءكسو لد‪.‬ك‬
‫فهمكُرس كسثرياً كككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‬

‫‪8.Closed System Irony: Catch-22 Logic‬‬

‫‪It is a strange type of irony that occurs when a person criticizes‬‬

‫‪himself/herself harshly to the extent that he/she likes who dislikes‬‬
‫‪him/her, and dislikes who likes him/her. It is termed by Nash (1985),‬‬
‫‪„personal closed system‟. He cites the following illustrative example‬‬
‫‪entitled, „Jill‟, by an English person (p 111) (one or two little changes‬‬
‫‪have been made on the original):‬‬

‫‪He doesn‟t respect himself.‬‬ ‫ككك‬ ‫ك‬ ‫ك‬ ‫إس كالحيرتمكسهو ك‬

‫‪He can‟t respect anyone who respects him‬‬
‫الكُوعطيعكأنكحيرتمكأيكايرئكحيرتي كككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‬
‫‪He can only respect someone who does not respect him.‬‬
‫فططكُوعطيعكأنكحيرتمكاورءكا ذيكالكحيرتي كككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‬
‫إس كحيرتمكب ككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‪He respects Jack‬‬
‫كككككككككككككككك لس كالكحيرتي كككككككككككككككككك‪Because he does not respect him‬‬
‫إس كحيعطركتممككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‪He despises Tom‬‬
‫لس كالحيعطر)ككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‪Because he does not despise him‬‬
‫فططكشخصكوضيعككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‪Only a despicable person‬‬
‫‪Can respect someone as despicable as him‬‬
‫ُوعطيعكأنكحيرتمكشخص ًكوضيب ًكيثل كككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‬

He cannot love someone he despises‫إس كالكُوعطيعكأنكحي كشخص ًكحيعطر)ككككك‬
Since he loves Jack‫كأس كحي كب ككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‬
He cannot believe he loves him‫قكأس كحي ككككككككككككككككككككككك‬/‫الكُوعطيعكأنكُص‬
What proof can he give?‫ي كل يل كعلىكذ كملككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككككك‬

This is an unfavorable style of irony, meant to be taken more

humorously than seriously. An additional ironical feature here is
achieved by laying this trash out in the form of a poem. This implies a
strong criticism and ridicule, for poetry is a highly respected genre of
writing, and this passage can be anything but poetry. By this, it can be
regarded as another example of the third type of irony, „disguised irony‟
(see above), which involves the whole text to imply the opposite of what
is said or written. And this is exactly the case with this extract which is
laid out in shape of a poem, but it is by no means a poem.

On the other hand, this style of irony is described as a closed

system because the person who uses it closes all routes leading to
him/her to the point that he/she refuses any possible exit or change of
affairs. It is the least popular and appreciated style of irony. Perhaps
only complex people apply it.

Conclusion: Translation procedures

To conclude, the translation of irony is as difficult as catching it. It

is hoped that the foregoing discussion of irony and its main types will
easen the burden of both spotting, comprehending and translating it. To
help translators tackle the problems of translating irony more easily and
systematically, here is a summary of the translation procedures of irony,
which are guidelines for finding out the best possible solutions for these
problems: Newmark (op.cit.) minimizes the problems of translating
irony into a broad procedure of straight, one-to-one TL equivalents on
the condition that the SL and TL readerships have similar cultural and
educational backgrounds, which is , he rightly admits, a formidable
proviso indeed. However, more elaborate and detailed translation
procedures of irony are suggested in the following.

1. Locating irony in the SL text.

2. Understanding its cultural, social, political, religious, etc.

3. Taking the semantic and stylistic interrelationships among words
(especially the relationship of contrast and paradox) into
consideration, for irony could lie there.
4. Checking the layout of the SL text, which could be ironical too.
5. Considereing the use of exclamation marks in particular in the
SL, for one of their major stylistic functions in both English and
Arabic is to indicate irony. Question marks can also be
sometimes used to imply irony.
6. Looking for an identical style of irony in the TL (Arabic), which
would be the best solution.
7. Tracing a cultural, social, literary, political, etc.equivalent image
of irony in Arabic, which is equally an ideal solution.
8. Going for a literal translation of the meaning of the ironical
expression and/or image, by investigating the contrastive,
paradoxical words and insinuations ‫ (تلميح تيإش داتكينكارفكخه‬of
the original.
9. Suggesting an equivalent style of irony in Arabic‫ك‬that can reflect
the English counterpart in a way or another.
10. Trying as a last resort, the literal translation of words in a hit-or-
miss attempt (i.e.! ‫)حم و ةكُ كتصي كُ كختي‬.


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