The essence of the joke and of literary satire is wit. which it is usual to distinguish from humour. The word in English originally meant 'mind' or 'understanding', later 'cleverness': a 'witty child' to Shakespeare means just a clever child. But already in Shakespeare's time it was gaining its modern sense, 'the power of giving pleasure by combining or contrasting ideas', the quality of speech or writing which can 'surprise and delight by its unexpectedness'. In the seventeenth century wit, 'a just mixture of Reason and Extravagance', was the essential component of all poetry; and in its modern sense wit remains close to poetry. Like poetry it rests on the ability to discover and reveal the power hidden in language: e g. similarities in sound (puns or rhymes), or unsuspected parallels In grammar and syntax. But whereas a great deal of poetry is untranslatable, because it depends so closely on the rhythms and associations of words in a particular language, some of the essentials of wit can be translated, provided that the essential ideas can be put across. Thus, Voltaire's comment on the unjust execution of Admiral Byng can probably be rendered in any language: 'Dans ce pays ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres' ('ln this country it is considered good from time to time to kill an admiral to encourage the others'). The translator need only use any literal translation of 'tuer' to convey the idea of murder against judicial execution, and find the right equivalent for 'encourager', which coming in the place of the expected 'terrify' is the point of satire. Oscar Wilde's wit is nearer to poetry: 'The English country gentleman galloping after a fox is the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable' can be translated only if there is an equivalent to 'unspeakable' which gives the proper parallelism.

These examples show the essential features of verbal wit: ingenious compression, a sudden revelation of hidden implications, and the linking together of two incongruous ideas. [111]


Hodgart, Richard. Satire.

Last modified 1988