Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Adam's Arm

I was once asked to write something about translating a joke. So I did, but then the piece did not get published. Here it is.


In the mid-nineties, I heard a German version of this joke:

In the Garden of Eden, God asks Adam how he's doing. Adam praises the garden at length, but says he is bored to death. God offers to provide Adam with a solution to the problem: a woman.

"A woman? What's a woman?" asks Adam.

"A woman is wonderful," says God. "She'll cook for you, clean for you, look up to you, obey you, and, best of all, have sex with you whenever you want."

"What's sex?" asks Adam.

"Oh, it's great; you'll love it!" exclaims God.

"Sounds pretty good," says Adam. "What'll it cost me?"

"How about a leg?" says God.

Adam ponders this for a few minutes.

"What'll you give me for a rib?"

I liked how this joke managed to be misogynistic and misanthropic at the same time, and I began to share it with friends, in German and in English. With repetition, I came up with an English variation. After God says Adam will love sex, Adam responds:

"Sounds like it'll cost me an arm and a leg."

"Yes, that's a good price," says God.

Adam ponders this for a few minutes.

"What'll you give me for a rib?"

The idiom "to cost an arm and a leg," which does not exist in German, made a nice addition to the English version.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the joke was emailed to me around 2001 — in English, with Adam's arm! Presumably, someone had heard my version, typed it up, and sent it into cyberspace. Eventually, it found its way to my inbox.

But before this puffed up my pride too much, I emailed the joke to my brother and asked him if he had heard it before; if so, did he remember when? He wrote that he had heard it in college, hence around 1980. And he confirmed that both the arm and the leg had already been part of the price.

However pleasing the idea of my variation becoming an Internet joke had been, the discovery that Adam's arm predated me was much more striking. Apparently, the joke was invented in English with both limbs, but in German, the arm had become superfluous and was dropped with repetition. The joke was no longer a play on words; what remained was Adam haggling.

Then, when I translated the joke back into English, the juxtaposition of "cost" and "leg" led — perhaps inevitably — to the restoration of the joke's "arm," which I had not even known had been amputated.

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