In the early 70’s, as assistant to the president and product manager for a small, NYSE-listed business machines company, I traveled to Tokyo to teach our Japanese affiliate how to sell our new product, the world’s first high-speed, commercial fax machine. I was 27.
My introductory talk was to 60 men, all of whom leaned forward in their chairs, taking notes of my wise words…and everything else I said, too. Many did not speak English, so a man stood on the side, translating after each sentence. Once I got comfortable with the start-stop cadence, I began to work my crowd, raising and lowering my voice, pausing for effect, and gesticulating with intent and drama. Japanese reserve made it difficult for me to assess the effectiveness of the translator’s attempts to imitate my stylings. Nonetheless, just as I was advancing from Product Features/Benefits to Qualifying Customers, a witticism rose over my mind’s horizon. I had a moment of doubt—what if the translator couldn’t tell a joke?—but impulse trampled reason, and I began the ascent (descent?) into humor.
The translator handled the set up well, even raising his eyebrows as I did when wonder was called for. But when I delivered the punch line, he looked at me briefly, paused, spoke rapidly for a sentence or two, paused again, and then resumed his usual pacing.
There was a brief silence, during which I suspected that my joke was a cross-cultural dud. This terrifying pause was, however, immediately followed by much laughing and clapping. I smiled appreciatively and completed my talk to great applause. I made a special effort to thank my translator for his work, especially noting his ability to do stand up.
Days later I learned that the translator had said, “I believe that our speaker is now telling a joke. I do not understand. When I tell you, please, all laugh loudly.”