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When Comedy Translates
April 19, 2013 - By: - In: Translation - Comments Off on When Comedy Translates

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 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.

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