Chapter 1: The Quest for Pura Vida

But “Pun” Only Means One Thing

I never realized how relevant puns were to my life until I couldn’t translate them.  Sure, I knew I had a certain affinity for them, but I didn’t quite appreciate how much of my humor and self-expression is derived from words and their meanings and connotations.

Last semester, I was an RA at one of the residence halls on campus, and my wing theme was puns.  The residents’ doors sported jewels such as this:

“Are you hungry?”
“I could use a light snack.”

I also took a Shakespeare class and actually learned what puns are.  They don’t have to be funny, and can be used to deepen meanings.  For example, in Hamlet, King Claudius asks Hamlet, “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” and Hamlet replies, “Not so, my lord.  I am too much in the sun.”  In this, Hamlet uses “sun” to mean four things:

  • “sun” as in light, meaning that the court is not properly mourning the recent death of the old king, Hamlet Sr.
  • “sun” as royal symbolism in that Hamlet is too close to the throne for his own comfort.
  • (auditorily) “son” as in he is too much the son of Hamlet Sr. to lighten up.
  • “son” as in too much the son of Claudius, who is now (since his marriage to Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude) Hamlet’s stepfather.

In this, Hamlet takes the cloud imagery in Claudius’ own words and plays off it to form a four-pronged attack.  Hamlet uses words like this the entire play, which is a major reason that he is my favorite of any of Shakespeare’s characters.

The problem is that this doesn’t translate to Spanish.  English is a unique language in that there are so many words that sound or are spelled the same, but have several unrelated meanings.  This is also one of the reasons it is such a frustrating language to learn.  I consider myself lucky that it is my native language.

A few weeks ago, on the first day of my creative writing class, my professor used Shakespeare as an example that literature is alive.  When she said that, I got excited because I assumed that meant she understood English since I couldn’t imagine anyone reading Shakespeare in another language.  I asked her about it later, and she said that although she had taken a class where they read Hamlet in English, it was ridiculously hard, and that she had read all the rest in Spanish.

I personally think that English is worth learning on a fluent level just to be able to read Shakespeare, but let’s be real, even native speakers such as myself have trouble reading his plays without help.  In part, this is because we don’t get the cultural references and mode of speaking, but it’s also because Shakespeare is a linguistic genius and we have to actually think about the depth of meaning to seemingly nonsensical lines such as the aforementioned one.  While to us it may make more sense for Hamlet to say, “Shut up, Claudius, I’m obviously in mourning since my father just died, like you and the rest of the court should be but aren’t, which makes me think something fishy is going on,” Shakespeare manages to achieve this meaning and more in far fewer words, while at the same time developing the intellectual nature of Hamlet’s character.  Also, as much as I am obviously practically on Shakespeare’s level as a writer (ha), I will concede that his version of the line flows infinitesimally slightly ok, worlds better.

Anyway, a couple of weeks after hearing my professor talk about Shakespeare, I came across a Spanish translation of Hamlet in a bookstore.  I specifically looked up that same line and “sun” was translated to “luz”, which means light.  This does a better job of bringing across the first two meanings than “sol” (sun) might, but the latter meanings are lost no matter what because neither word is anywhere close to “hijo”, which means son.

I tried explaining this concept to a Tico friend of mine who has a good grip on conversational English, but I’m pretty sure I botched it.  I then tried to explain a couple of funny puns with a bit more success, but I imagine it’s hard to completely understand them without having grown up using the words and without the cultural context.

“‘I was trying to figure out why the tennis ball was getting bigger, and then it hit me.’  See, obviously it literally hit the speaker, which is always funny (right?), but there’s also an expression in English that when you suddenly realize something, it ‘hits you.’  Yeah, like a bolt of lightning or something, I don’t know.  So both happened at the same time, see?  Yeah, it’s funnier when it doesn’t have to be explained.  Let me try another one.”

A couple of days later, he sent me a pun over facebook, and I almost fell out of my chair I was laughing so hard.  “It’s hard to explain puns to kleptomaniacs; they always take things literally.”  This pun also happens to translate well into Spanish, but it’s one of the few.

There’s actually no word for “pun” in the Spanish language.  The dictionary translates it to “juego de palabras” (word game), but that’s not specific enough for my taste.   Probably the closest thing would be to say “double meanings” but I’m pretty bummed that the concept doesn’t exist as we know it.  That’s why The Big Bang Theory isn’t quite as good when you rely on the subtitles.  The puns and cultural references just don’t translate.

As I learn more Spanish, I appreciate more how structurally different it is from English and how this affects (and is affected by) culture.  I’m starting to realize that I’m not only learning Spanish to communicate with people and experience other cultures, but also for the sake of the language itself and learning to appreciate it as well as my native tongue.

And like I say it’s worth learning English just to be able to read Shakespeare, I’m sure there are native Spanish-speakers who would say it’s worth learning Spanish just to read certain literature.  My goal is to find that literature and do just that.  It may take a while; my reading skills are nowhere near the Spanish equivalent of Shakespeare’s level.  I still struggle a bit with Los juegos del hambre (The Hunger Games) and I’ve read it before in English.  But I have two semesters to develop my Spanish and a lifetime to refine it.

P.S. Here are some of my favorite puns for your entertainment:


I just foiled your plan.

Is this the real life? Is this just Fanta Sea?
I went to the zoo the other day, but the only animal there was a dog.  It was a Shih Tzu.
I went to the zoo the other day, but the only animal there was a dog. It was a Shih Tzu.
All the toilets in New York’s police stations have been stolen. The police have nothing to go on.
And that's how he got through the cell wall.
And that’s how he got through the cell wall.


And of course, the best pun song ever.


4 thoughts on “But “Pun” Only Means One Thing

  1. Great post. My favorite Hamlet puns come in his interaction with his college buddies–R. and G. I love the addition of the visual pics to emphasize and in some cases to complete the pun. I wonder if there should be another term for puns like these, that rely so heavily on some extra-linguistic device like a picture.

    1. Yes! I especially love the bit when he accuses Guildenstern of thinking he can play him like a pipe. Dialogue with Polonius is always fun too.
      Maybe there is a term in another language, and thousands of miles away, someone else is lamenting that there is no English word for puns that rely on extra-linguistic devices.

  2. The “luz” translation could be more clever than you think. “Dar luz” is to give birth in spanish, so maybe the translator was intentionally going for the multi-layered punnyism you explained earlier…

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