Speaking of stereotypes, Russians usually view themselves as having a highly-developed чувство юмора (sense of humor). We cherish our анекдоты (jokes), however бородатые (old; lit: bearded) they might be.
Indeed, Russians have an impressive catalog of joke categories, from армянское радио (Armenian radio) one-liners to elaborate шутки о том свете (afterlife jokes; lit: jokes about the other world). There are countless jokes about forest animals, political leaders, historical figures, fiction characters. Just about every major ethnic group has quite a few totally non-politically correct jokes.
Yet, in all this abundance, you will not find a single knock-knock joke! Ok, you might find one or two (if you do, please share in the comments). But it will be nothing compared to the rich knock-knock jokes tradition in the US (what about other countries?)
So, here’s the deal – knock-knock jokes are impossible to translate since the vast majority of them is built on wordplay. Consider translating this joke into Russian:
– Who’s there?
– Doris who?
– Doris locked, that’s why I had to knock
The whole entire joke hinges (pun intended) on the fact that “Doris” sounds just like “Door is”. But in Russian Дорис sounds nothing like дверь.
This is not to say that Russian language is short on clever каламбур (pun, quibble, wordplay). The signs are all over, in classical literature as well as in everyday speech. It’s just they never take the “knock-knock” format.
For example, there is a story about Alexander Pushkin (seems like every literary topic starts with this guy). You see, Pushkin was visiting an acquaintance. Now, picture this idyllic scene – Pushkin is in a chair, reading; the host is reclining on a couch and the host’s two young children are playing on the floor. Bored, the host asked Pushkin to come up with a poetic one-liner. Without skipping a bit, the poet offered this one
Детина полуумный лежит на диване (Half-witted bozo is laying on a couch)
Quiz question: Did the host get offended?
Answer: yes, but Pushkin was quick to explain that his acquaintance did not hear him correctly and, in fact, Pushkin’s one liner was Дети на полу, умный лежит на диване (Children are on the floor, smart one is laying on a couch).
Essay topic: Do you consider Pushkin’s one-liner a fine стёб? Why or why not?
Ай да Пушкин, ай да сукин сын! (Atta boy, Pushkin! Atta son of a gun!)
Or take for example this rhyme, familiar to just about every Russian child:
Говорит попугай попугаю,
Я тебя, попугай, попугаю.
Попугай попугаю в ответ,
Попугай, попугай, попугая.
(A parrot says to a parrot,
I will scare you, parrot.
The parrot answers the parrot,
Parrot, scare the parrot)
Some more phrases that sound the same, but are written differently and mean very different things:
И та ли я (And am I the same) sounds just like и талия (and waist) just like Италия (Italy)
Надо – едали which can be translated as “if we/they had to, we/they ate it” sounds just like надоедали (we/they annoyed)
Горда ль (proud, isn’t she?) written just slightly differently becomes гор даль (faraway mountains)
Poetic line О, верь, Мишель! (Oh, believe, Michelle!) turns into a more прозаичная (unpoetic) О, вермишель! (Oh, vermicelli!)
Here are some more for you to enjoy:
О, путана! (Oh, prostitute!) – Опутана (she is tangled up)
Раз били (Hit once) – разбили (broke)
Кокос (coconut) – как ос (like wasps) – here keep in mind that unstressed “o” in Russian words sounds like “a”
Поляна (forest clearing) – Поля, на! (Here, Polya!) – Поля is a diminutive of Полина (Polina)
навес (overhang) – на вес (by weight)
So even though there are practically no knock-knock jokes in Russian, there are plenty of opportunities for wordplay.
Here are two challenges for you so you can pick and choose. The first one is to find other examples of wordplay in Russian literature, songs, jokes, etc. Or come up with your own. The second challenge is to search for Russian стук-стук (knock-knock) jokes.