When Comedy Translates

by Translation Guy on April 19, 2013

The first rule of comedy translation is:  “Don’t do it!”  Comedy is too local to translate well.

Comedian Jon Stewart’s borscht-belt shtick is fresh off the Catskills turnip truck — as local as comedy gets here in New York City,.

Now he’s biggest in China. So how is it that this local genius is so easily internationalized?  His recent bit mocking North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, “Nuke Kid on the Block”, has racked up close to 3 million views in China of all places, making it one of the most-watched “Daily Show” clips ever.

But it’s the Chinese-subtitled version that got all the hits in China.  I wonder how good the subtitles are? So much of Stewart’s comedy is filled with references to American current events and pop culture. Chinese readers please let us know on the quality of the subtitles in the comments section.

The Daily Show provided its own questionable back translations of those subtitles in a follow-up segment, “localized” for Stewart’s new Chinese fans.  It featured a bandleader cracking wise in Chinese,  live from the Great Wall, a long moment perfectly lost in translation. In Big Ratings in Giant China, Stewart claims to reach the most coveted Chinese demographic, “peasants aged 18 to 34,” offering up gags like, “How about this air pollution?  I’ve seen Confucius quotes that are clearer.”  And “What do you call a hundred Taiwanese citizens in a bathtub?  Chinese!  Because Taiwan does not exist independently.”

That clip had earned about 5,000 hits on DailyShow.com by April 11.  But a Chinese-subtitled version posted to Sina had already reached a quarter-million.  So a segment on the show’s popularity in China is 50 times more popular online in China than it is in United States, according to Max Fisher at the Washington Post.

Kudos to the fan translators who labor so hard to make Stewart work in Chinese.  Some claim that more is at work here than just laughs.  Or maybe this is just comedy at work, because the whole stand-up culture is the act of the outsider, the dissident challenging and mocking the powerful.

Evan Osnos of The New Yorker covers this in How Jon Stewart Blew Up in China, quoting some Chinese commenters:  “I hope everybody sees this. Don’t mistake it for just a comedy show,” wrote one person on Weibo, the micro-blogging site. “When will China have its own Jon Stewart?” asked another.

It’s interesting to see that comedy shows can have their own foreign policy.  And it’s those translating fans who make that policy so infectious.

I’m still interested in watching Jon Stewart clips, so next time we’ll take a look at how late-night news parody translates into Arabic.


  1. Jeff says:

    Wow, this makes me really happy. As a huge Daily Show fan currently living in China, it’s nice to see both worlds collide.

    • Ken says:

      There’s been a lot of that lately. I don’t expect it to let up anytime soon.

  2. Actually a lot of the comments on the Chinese site aren’t actually related to the video at all.

    • Ken says:

      What were they about?

  3. Samir Daqqaq says:

    Great clip, Stewart is a genius, not surprised he translates well.

  4. Evelyn says:

    That North Korean news anchor is just amazing, also great shot at Nancy Grace.

    • Ken says:

      How do you say Bombasitic in Korean

  5. I remember years back living in Germany, they did a shot for shot, line for line remake of Fawlty Towers in Germany, done in German and it just didn’t work. I never really thought comedy translated, it relies too much on nuance in the language, but apparently I was wrong.

    • Ken says:

      Depends on the comedy though, doesn’t it. John Clease to Mr. Bean.

  6. Gary Lockton says:

    There is an increasingly growing number in China, especially the younger generation who love to promote subversive stuff, highlight the lack of freedom of the press or entertainers, show what kind of people the Party does business with and supports. This, I wuld say in my own opinion, is more about China than it is about John Stewart.

  7. somery van says:

    I must be old too, because I did laugh at the Moody Blues joke.

  8. Bambi Corso says:

    My question is did the B-2’s actually hit their targets?

  9. Doesn’t highlighting this issue, make the Party take notice and therefore make it harder for Stewart clips to stay up on Chinese websites for long?

  10. Graham says:

    Not sure Stewart will work in Arabic.

  11. Pervaiz says:

    Chinese consider North Korea as big a joke as we do over here?

  12. Jen says:

    The youtube clip you have posted has around 200,000 views, so the quarter of a million hits in china isn’t actually that much more popular.

    • Ken says:

      Hmm, I see your point, and the link on Sina is bad so we can’t compare. Tempest in a tea pot?

  13. Great article.

  14. Sam Lampert says:

    Nothing gets laughs like North Korea, easy target in any language.

  15. Austin? Really? I just don’t get it, what kind of plan is that?

  16. Frank Parker says:

    Reaction to a ridiculously restrictive media in China? Although how good the translation or how the comedy works in Chinese is something I can’t say.

  17. That is a great clip.

  18. There are just a whole lot more Chinese people, so on the basis of relative popularity, it’s about the same.

  19. Leandro says:

    Possibly because they just don’t have anything like it in China.

  20. Some of the comments, and given this is done with google translate, seem kind of evenly split in thirds as to like the video, don’t like the video, and Chinese spam.

  21. Emir B says:

    Chinese are becoming more Americanized like the rest of the world? They love our sneakers, burgers, soda, etc. why not our comedy?

  22. Marcia says:

    I never understood how John Stewart was considered funny in English, let alone other languages.

  23. Karen says:

    I don’t think Dailyshow.com is a good reflection of how popular that segment was in America, considering most Americans can watch the show live, or tend to go to youtube for clips. Aggregate the ratings for that night, plus the youtube views plus the website hits and then, you have a more accurate comparison.

  24. Erin says:

    Something like John Stewart could never exist in present day China, too critical, so obviously despite things getting lost in translation, the broader strokes carry over and have a mass appeal.

  25. Hopefully the popularity of this bodes well for China, and political reform if political satire is so popular with Chinese youth.

  26. Yeah, usually comedy doesn’t translate. Chinese isn’t in my wheelhouse, so I couldn’t say how good the subtitles are, but it is strange that it works at all.

  27. I think the popularity of the clip has a lot to do with the politics of it, average Chinese people aren’t big fans of North Korea, and probably also enjoy the digs he takes at the US as well.

  28. I imagine it has a lot to do with the increasing cosmopolitan nature of Chinese middle class, with the opening up to world markets and going overseas for school, that they would hunger for things like political satire. This clip is especially gripping for them, as while we think of it as a global issue, for them it’s a regional or local thing.

  29. Sunny says:

    Well, I think it’s rather obvious. While over here we tend to think of North Korea and their crys of war as slightly ridiculous, this is a real issue for the Chinese with them being right next door.

  30. Who doesn’t love Windows 95 jokes?

  31. MARIA says:

    A lot of it is subversive politics, they have nothing like this in China where a person could openly take pot shots at whoever they want, including their own government.

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