87 Comments

  1. I saw it like MikeD does (“Kowalski” is now one foot tall), rather than as swazoo does (height depends on how “Kowalski” is held). It works for me either way, though.

  2. Very interesting! As my earlier italics may have hinted, it never even occurred to me that it could be anything other than the elevation the head is being held at!

    I’ll take you-all’s word that the joke still works for you in that interpretation. I’m not sure it does for me,but I’m still getting used to trying to think of it that way. 🤓.

    What I can say about it is that for me it spoils the connection with the several related follow-on jokes you want to tell. Which I thought would be in the thread but couldn’t find today on quick perusal.

    There were two guys who rented a boat from a concession with many boats (sorry, I’m adding this protective detail too soon) and went out fishing on the big lake. They found an excellent spot and hauled in many fish. As they prepared to return to the dock, one remarked they should mark the spot so they would know where to come next time. The second guy said they couldn’t mark the water — but he had a good idea, they could just mark it on the deck of the boat!

    (2nd beat). But his partner replied, No, we couldn’t be sure of getting the same boat!

    (The parallel to Kowalski seems to me inescapable, even if not super overt.)

  3. Mitch4: I agree with your interpretation that the height depends how high the head is held. That is the true and correct interpretation (and this his how schisms happen).

    Happy birthday, Uncle Irv. I hope he is celebrating with his nephew somewhere.

  4. As one more take on why that is the better interpretation, let’s return to the original text. One of them holds it up and says “Oh my God, it’s Kowalski!” / His friend says “No, he was taller than that.” The holds it up is key here. If the taller were just about the severed head’s height in itself, there would be no function served by the holding-it-up note. The holding-it-up is what makes the held elevation relevant.

  5. “As one more take on why that is the better interpretation,…The holds it up is key here. If the taller were just about the severed head’s height in itself, there would be no function served by the holding-it-up note.”

    That doesn’t make it better. That just explains why the swazoo interpretation is probably the intended interpretation. It doesn’t make it better.

    In my opinion, I think the joke would be funnier and better if they didn’t hold up the head. They just come across a severed head. The first person say “Oh, my god it’s Kowalski!” and the other person looks at the head lying on the ground and and says “No…. Kowalski was taller”.

    Well…. I think it is funnier. Tastes may vary.

    Without holding the head up its a “Andy, why are you in my wifes closet?— Well, Everyone’s got to be somewhere” joke. With holding the head up it becomes a “Andy, thank goodness you are here in my wife’s closet; you can help me look for the bastard I just scared out of my wife’s room” joke.

    Both funny but with different focuses.

  6. I just think it’s interesting any Google search looking for the origin of this joke only brings me to this thread.

  7. “I just think it’s interesting any Google search looking for the origin of this joke only brings me to this thread.”

    I figured maybe the joke has another person’s name. So I google “severed head joke” and ….. enough with the Kathy Griffin articles already! Sheesh!

  8. Woozy says: That doesn’t make it better. That just explains why the swazoo interpretation is probably the intended interpretation. It doesn’t make it better.

    In my opinion, I think the joke would be funnier and better if they didn’t hold up the head.

    Woozy, I’m afraid you must be equivocating on that term better, or something along those lines. Or incorrectly trying to make this a case that fits with the
    “authorial intent” discussion we went into recently.

    When we’re talking about baseline interpretation the idea of choosing the better one from some selection range mostly has to be choosing the most accurate one. What you’re offering instead is the interpretation which (in your view) makes for a better joke. And you give this away by in fact offering a different joke. “In my opinion, I think the joke would be funnier and better if they didn’t hold up the head. They just come across a severed head.” This is reinforced by your Andy-in=-the-closet example – again you offer two different jokes (or anyway two different variants of one joke), with an actual difference in the content, the wording — not two interpretations of the very same content, which is where we started out comparing.

    I agree that it would still be a fine joke if the text said the head was left sitting on the ground and the accurate interpretation of the “shorter” remark was based on its visible height sitting on the ground. That would be the better interpretation, of that wording. Also a fine joke is the one we have, where it says he holds up the head, and the most accurate interpretation the “shorter” remark was based on its elevation while being held up. That would be the better interpretation, of that wording. But you can’t really take it the other direction, arguing from “better joke” to “better interpretation”. That gets backward which judgement is supervenient on the other.

  9. “Woozy, I’m afraid you must be equivocating on that term better, or something along those lines.”

    And……?

    Deety said, and I quote “As one more take on why that is the better interpretation…” (emphasis mine). I don’t think it’s better. I just think it is more likely to be the intent of the author. But in no way does that make it better.

    “the
    “authorial intent” discussion we went into recently.” When? When did we go into authorial intent?

    A third joke: The man holds it up and says “It’s Kolwalski”. Then he raises it higher and says “Now it’s Abraham Lincoln”. Then he lowers it “And now it’s Dopey”.

    I guess to my mind the being oblivious to the obvious and necessary (lacking a body obliterates any use of height as a method of identity) makes the joke funny. If you have to hold the head up the other person has to somehow be making the too large a logical leap that the space under the head is the body and that’s a step of logic that just doesn’t flow so well with me.

  10. “Better interpretation” is a statement about the meaning of a particular joke (either by conscious authorial intent, or by the text alone – I don’t think the distinction is important here). Whether one could have a “better joke” by changing the joke is different from having a “better interpretation.”

  11. That’s fine. You’re explaining why you think a slightly different joke would be a better joke. That is not in any way an argument against Deety’s and others’ demonstration that the elevation interpretation — of the one joke we are given the text for — is the better interpretation. Better than the height-on-the-ground interpretation. Of the same original joke, that we have one text for.

    Making a (argued to be) better joke, and constructing arguments and comparisons saying it is the better joke, is in no way constructing a different interpretation of the original joke and argu8ng it is the better interpretation.

  12. I guess I see your point and interpreting a joke in a way that doesn’t work and is obviously false can be a “wrong” interpretation but for a joke that works for many ways but mostly the same reason I’m not sure in interpretation is “wrong” if it doesn’t really change the meaning of the joke significantly.

    After all didn’t we have a long discussion recently where the main consensus was the authorial intent isn’t important? (of course, in that argument I argued that that was a bit of an overstatement… but in this this joke is a severed head doesn’t have height… that the authorial intent may have been the holding of the head was mistaken for height,.. and that others may have missed that but got that height as identifier is obliterated is the joke, …I’m not sure “better” interpretation should be authorial intent.)

  13. woozy, the discussion about authorial intent was about whether one should get the meaning from the text alone, or whether what the author intended is also important. e.g. do you decide if Dumbledore is gay based purely on the content of the published novels, or do you also consider things like what Rowling was thinking at the time she wrote it, or tweeted after the fact. That’s an interesting distinction, but I don’t see that it’s relevant here.

    Here, you’re suggesting the joke would have been “better if they didn’t hold up the head.” That may or may not be true, but then you’re not interpreting the joke that was posted here, you’re creating a new one. If I say that the Harry Potter novels would have been better if Dumbledore had been a lecherous skirt-chaser, then that’s not based on the text or the authorial intent, so isn’t an interpretation of the existing novels; it’s just a proposal for a different novel.

  14. I think the reason deety’s reading of the joke is better is not just that that reading is funnier, but that those who read it that way are more fun.

    WW: Yes, “death of the author” does not mean “death of all semantic meaning”. I’d say the it’s the opposite. That when the text is the only determiner of the meaning of a work, the meaning of the words and sentences becomes crucial. As I’ve said when we discussed authorial intent before, I’m loath to say all interpretations are equally valid. For example, a character could be lying to another character, so the words they say don’t convey truth and if one reads them as true, then one has lost the meaning of the text. Or a character might be speaking sarcastically, saying something opposite of their intended meaning. If one fails to pick up on that, then one is not interpreting the text, but interpreting a misreading. In a writers’ group meeting I attended just the other day, someone commented that the author hadn’t described a character so it wasn’t clear what he looked like. However, the author had clearly described him and the commentator had overlooked that part.

  15. Singapore Bill: “I think the reason deety’s reading of the joke is better is not just that that reading is funnier, but that those who read it that way are more fun.”

    Oh, shoot! I had meant to say earlier that deety had convinced me to change my interpretation of the joke, but now I can’t say that without looking like I’m sucking up. Unless. . . unless I can find some super-subtle way of saying it through paralipsis.

  16. I do like how we’ve not only beaten this horse to death, but continued until there’s just a stain on the pavement. One of the (many) great things about this community!

  17. woozy; “I guess to my mind the being oblivious to the obvious and necessary (lacking a body obliterates any use of height as a method of identity) makes the joke funny. If you have to hold the head up the other person has to somehow be making the too large a logical leap that the space under the head is the body and that’s a step of logic that just doesn’t flow so well with me.”

    I guess I’m with woozy on this one, as I think the “holding the head up” weakens the joke, even if that WERE the original ur-joke (as it probably was). But, let a thousand flowers bloom, let a thousand Kowalski heads be stumbled across.”

  18. I’m not sure what point you are making Winter Wallaby. The interpretation of Dumbledore being gay or straight seem equally valid to me. And interpreting it one way vs. another is not making one story into anything else. It’s still exactly the same story in exactly the same text.

  19. My point is that if you choose to change the story to a new text, as you did with the Kowalski joke, then it’s not the same text.

  20. WW: That’s it, right? I haven’t read the later books, but I have found some places where folks discuss this and possible support in the text for a gay Dumbledore.

    “This younger Albus Dumbledore’s long hair and beard were auburn. Having reached their side of the street, he strode off along the pavement, drawing many curious glances due to the flamboyantly cut suit of plum velvet that he was wearing.

    Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”
    https://literature.stackexchange.com/questions/1901/is-there-any-textual-evidence-to-support-that-dumbledore-was-gay

    That passage could be read as a hint that Mr. Dumbledore was gay. It could also be read as he was just a very flashy dresser, a real fashion pioneer. Either interpretation can be and, even if I prefer one to the other, the text is ambiguous.

    But, if I one declares that it is obvious that Mr. Dumbledore is gay because the text says:

    “This younger Albus Dumbledore’s long hair and beard were auburn. Having reached their side of the street, he strode off along the pavement, drawing many curious glances due to the flamboyantly cut suit of plum velvet that he was wearing. As he went, they could all hear him loudly proclaim ‘I’m gonna go find some men to f*** now, because I love c*** because of how gay I am.'”

    …well, that certainly is Wrong (with a capital W), because you’re not reading the words that are on the page. Death of the author says that all interpretations of the text should be seen as equally valid. It does not say all variations and derivatives of the text are equally valid.

    This raises and interesting question that comes up when reading a work in translation. I recall reading a book as a student, The_Tin_Flute, (which was actually called _Bonheur_d’occasion_in the original French, meaning “secondhand happiness”) in an intro to Canadian literature class. There were two English translations of the work available in the bookstores, an older one and a rather new one. We were told we could read either. I realize now that I do not like that idea. But I was far less sophisticated then. How could we possibly interpret the text and have a discussion about it when we were experiencing different texts? For the record, I preferred the older translation, I thought it had a more lyrical flow.

    In later years, reading other works in translation (from a variety of original languages) I learned one thing you couldn’t do for sure when interpreting the work was lend any importance to the title because it was just as likely made up by the translator. As I developed a taste for cinema, I’ve come to see this in foreign films as well.

  21. I read of an example of the difficulties of translation. In a French movie, a policeman addresses a teenager who I guess a geezer may call a juvenile delinquent, using the form “tu” for “you”. The kid replies “Ne me tutoyez pas!” That’s hard to translate without introducing a short lesson on the French pronouns. The translator had the policeman say “Now listen here, son,” and the teenager reply “Don’t call me son!” That works pretty well.

  22. One of these days, if I find myself able to settle in for some extended reading, I may finally read In Search of Lost Time. I’ve never read that, although back in the 70s I did read the related Remembrance of Things Past.

    I’m actually a fan of accurate translation for the most part — which I would call literal translation except that so many people think that is something bad, and they take that remark as an excuse to whip out hilarious examples of unfortunate results from what they choose to label literal translation, but is usually instead calques, or context-poor translation-by-parts followed by mechanical reassembly.

    HOWEVER, when there is some kind of word play or phonetic effect or consciousness of language … a range but I hope you see what I mean … I enjoy seeing clever solutions to the puzzle of maintaining or reproducing to some extent those effects in the target language. One of my favorite examples is the novel Tres tristes tigres by Guillermo Cabrera Infante. A simple accurate translation would be “Three Sad Tigers”. And that wouldn’t have been a bad title for an English translation of the book. But you can hear something going on with the /t/ and /tr/ sounds in the Spanish phrase — and in fact there is a traditional tongue-twister that is built on that phrase. So I thought it brilliant that the published English translation, by Suzanne Jill Levine, was called Three Trapped Tigers.

  23. mitch4: What is “literal translation”?

    “accurate translation” seems difficult to disagree with, but perhaps there’s some semantic background behind the “accurate” that I’m not familiar with.

  24. There are phrases in a language that don’t translate properly to another if you just translate each word. To be accurate, you sometimes need a less literal translation.

  25. Winter Wallaby: For example, idioms. Google “russian idoms” to find some good examples of things that would NOT do well if translated literally.

  26. Opera translators have particular difficulties because the translation has to be singable to the original music.

    “Good night” is only two syllables in English. Translators sometimes resort to “So good night” for “gute Nacht” and “So good night then!” for “buona notte.”

  27. “My point is that if you choose to change the story to a new text, as you did with the Kowalski joke, then it’s not the same text.”

    But I no-one has changed the text of the Kowalski joke at all. We have giving examples of moving the head up and done to different heights to emphasize the “the held up height” interpretation, and gave an example with the head specifically left on the group to emphasize the “height is an inappropriate identitifier” interpretation. But no-one suggested changing the joke in anyway.

    If you wish to interpret Dumbledore as having being been a lecherous skirt-chaser there are plenty of ways to do that without changing the text.

  28. MiB, there is an essay/preface on that topic that I thought really very fine, by Andrew Davis*, in an edition of his English performing libretto for the Ring. He talks about factors like those you mentioned and others related, such as where the tonal emphasis falls.

    (* Not the Andrew Davis who is my primary care physician.)

  29. Mitch4: I’ve got that libretto. I remember he gave a possible translation of “Wehwalt” as “Woe King” but was afraid that when Hunding called out “Woe King! Woe King!” someone in a London audience might stand up and shout “Next stop Basingstoke!”

  30. Brian in STL/Phil Smith III: I get the need to not have a literal translation. What I was asking about was what mitch4 meant by being a fan of literal translation. I don’t understand what that means, except as what mitch4 specifically says that it’s not: translation of specific parts followed by mechanical reassembly.

    I’ve been studying Spanish and Chinese (and am not great at either). For Spanish many of the words and sentence structures have a pretty much one-to-one correspondence with English words and sentence structures, and so the process of translation often seems more direct (and literal?). However, for Chinese often what I would think of (perhaps wrongly) as literal translation ends up being clunky at best, or nonsense at worst.

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