Sarcasm is so culturally bound.  In my native speech community, it is often used in an attempt to create a “we against them” feeling of belonging.  It is a way to show through words that “I am on your side.”  But it seldom comes across that way to non-English speakers.  I see this over and over, especially among the less erudite lawyers who may still view sarcasm as universal (because they have not yet noticed that the other person is seldom laughing along).

I offer you a simple, everyday situation as example.  A young lawyer has her client’s personal file.  She hands it back to him with a laugh, saying, “Here, take this – I don’t want to steal it from you.”  Without thinking, I process it into the target language as “Here, take this – I don’t want this to be stolen from you.”

The lawyer understands enough of the target language (but not the culture) to notice she did not hear the word “I” and she wanted to.  This is somewhat ironic, as traditional speakers of this language avoid the use of the word “I” in order to be polite and properly humble.  Instead of saying “I am here to speak,” an older traditional speaker would say, “Your servant is here to speak,” referring to herself as “your servant,” the person who is at your service, and not focused on herself by using I, me, and mine.  The polite person, by tradition, avoids referring to herself directly.

But this lawyer wants to be prominent.  So she repeats, adding emphasis and elongation, “I – I don’t want to steal from you!” Suddenly realizing that this lawyer does not want the feel and the meaning conveyed, as much as the literal words, this interpreter says “I – I don’t want to steal from you!”  But contrary to what the lawyer had hoped, her sarcasm falls flat and the client takes his file back with a look of concern rather than humor.  What has gone wrong?

Sarcasm.  The lawyer thinks the defendant is in on the joke, because she is using sarcasm, and if he gets it, he is an insider and they can laugh at the world together.  But as she is joking that she has power and control, and can take something from him, and he cannot do much about it, and that is laughable, he is not amused, as she had expected.  She has divided them instead of uniting them, by insisting on this literal translation, when use of the passive voice would have accomplished her goal in this instance.  Because in spite of whatever language skills she may have, this lawyer does not seem culturally sensitive.

This lawyer does not seem sensitive to the fact that her clients are already separated from her on many levels.  She is a well-educated, well-situated lawyer who has the knowledge to keep her defendant out of jail, or then again, as a new lawyer, she may get him jailed and then deported.  (This interpreter is not claiming that what the defendant did has no bearing on outcome – I am simply trying to relay how the defendant may be viewing things.)  In his view, the lawyer is clearly in a power position.  She is confident, while he is scared and confused.  He actually smells of scared sweat.  She doesn’t seem to see how scared he really is.  She is laughing about stealing something from him. He is not laughing back.

Joking is probably not appropriate at all in this situation.  But if joking is going to be a bonding opportunity, the person with less power cannot be mocked or ridiculed.  There has to be certain level of familiarity, comfort, and mutual trust before joking in such a serious situation could be in the least amusing.  I have seen it work between two lawyers.  And between a defendant and a trusted family member.  As professional comedians can tell you, on the whole, the best kind of humor is self-deprecating, allowing the person to laugh at the speaker.  It seldom causes a guffaw to directly mock the person with the short end of the stick.  There is nothing bonding there.

Behind every joke is something underlying that is serious in nature, and serves a purpose.  One of the fundamental purposes of a joke is to create a feeling of bonding, usually by excluding others.  If the lawyer had joked as I automatically changed it, it might have worked, because it would have included a protective stance:  “I will make sure no one ELSE will steal your things.  I am protective of you.  I’ve got your back, in and out of court.  I won’t let anyone take something that is yours – not your file, and not your freedom.  So don’t worry.”  There might be cause for a bit of a laugh in that, to break the tension, in that undercurrent.

The point is that every joke is the bubbling up of humor coming out of an undercurrent of something quite serious, often dangerous or frightening.  Konrad Lorenz, that wonderful old German scientist, wrote, if I recall correctly, in his book On Aggression (1963) that laughter stems from aggression.  We laugh to “blow off steam” and release tension, among other things.  I believe that we also laugh to make sense of things we cannot understand, and to bond with others by getting someone on “our side”.  Laughter can create a feeling of safety, when it is not directed at the listener.

In this case, the undercurrent that the defendant ended up hearing was: “I have power and control, and I can sit here laughing about you and your case.  If I wanted to, I could steal your file and you are too helpless and low to be able to do anything about it.  But I choose to give it back to you, because I don’t want to steal it.  Just one more way in which I exert my power.  I could harm you or take something from you, and there isn’t much you can do or say.”  No wonder the poor guy isn’t busting a gut laughing, but thoughtfully taking his file back with trembling hands.

This whole analysis may seem silly or contrived to some people.  I am thinking of my brother, in particular, here.  But having studied sociolinguistics, I am convinced that much of what we say is not “just words”.  Indeed, everything we say performs a social function or a purpose.   We use words for many things, and one is to create a feeling in the other person, be it inclusion or exclusion.   The function of saying “take this so it isn’t stolen” is protective. The function of saying “I could steal this from you” is a reminder of who is in power.  And a very misguided and inappropriate use of sarcasm in a tense communication situation, leaving the defendant feeling unsafe and uncomfortable.

The question comes up whether this interpreter was trying to “fix” what was said by the quick removal of the first person and changing it to passive voice.  I would argue that I was not.  I was following what I hope was the actual intent of the attorney – to bond with her client; to joke in order the lighten the mood, and to build trust.  That, I still believe, was her sociolinguistic intent.  However, by insisting on a literal interpretation, her sarcasm came through in a way that I hope was unintended.  And her client left feeling more nervous than he needed to be.