Lost in translation

Giacinto Palmieri on parochial English-speaking comics

I have been reading with renewed admiration about Eddie Izzard’s plans to move to France for three months and perform, not for the first time, his comedy there.

However, the very fact that this decision has received so much coverage, compared in its boldness with his achievement of running 43 marathons, got me thinking about the general attitude of comedians in the English-speaking world towards what lies outside of it.

Recently I have started to collaborate with a group of people who write Italian subtitles for English language comedy shows. A famous comedian I contacted told me that he was worried that a project like this might involve ‘a big hassle for small return’. We all agree on the ‘big hassle’ part, translating comedy is never easy. But what about ‘small return’? To his honour this specific comedian has never disdained small and smallish venues for his live performances. How does that compare, in terms of reaching a new audience, with the opening up of a potential market of 60 million people?

Despite his reservations, this comedian very kindly put us in contact with his DVD production company, which showed some interest, at least as long as they thought the service would be free. Given that we were, however, talking about a commercial enterprise, we raised the possibility of getting a small but still undefined percentage on the DVDs sold to the Italian customers. Apparently this was enough to make the communication channel dry out.

So, what’s the moral of the story? The first reason of this lack of interest in reaching out to the non-English speaking world is, of course, the sheer size of the English speaking one. No comedian would probably feel too restrained in their reach if they had to ‘limit’ themselves to audiences in, let’s say, Toronto, Melbourne, New York and Edinburgh. It’s the same reason why native English speakers tend not to learn foreign language or why in a shop you can find a shelve of CDs labelled ‘World Music’. It’s a new version of the old ‘fog on the channel, the Continent is isolated’ attitude, although this time extended to the entire English speaking world. More justified, that’s for sure. But still parochial.

A second reason can probably be found in the ‘big hassle’ bit. I mean the idea that comedy is not only difficult, but impossible to translate. We all agree that puns and obscure or hyper-local cultural references don’t travel well. I would never, for instance, propose to subtitle a Tim Vine DVD. But that leaves out a probably much bigger portion of comedy that does travel well. I have friends in Italy who have bought and appreciated Eddie Izzard’s DVD box set thanks to the fact that it comes with Italian subtitles (one of the very few cases in that sense), despite his audacious flights of fancy might not strike as the easiest thing to translate.

Even satirical comedians such as Bill Hicks and George Carlin have been met by great interest when translated, given how their humorous meditations on the mechanisms of power can reach far beyond their references to, let’s say, the alleged framing of Lee Harvey Oswald. We should never underestimate people’s ability to relate in their own way.

Which brings me to a third, almost unspeakable possible reason for this lack of interest. I mean the idea that humour, at least as it’s expressed in the tradition of stand-up comedy, is a gift given from God to the English speaking people, while the rest ‘just don’t get it’.

The comedian Henning Wehn has done a brilliant job in debunking this stereotype with reference to the Germans and I refer you to him. Of course it’s an idea that is too ludicrous to be seriously discussed, but it might still lurking in the recesses of somebody’s unconscious mind.

Going back to Eddie Izzard, what I find revealing about his choice is that it seems to have been motivated by idealistic reasons, specifically his belief in a common European identity. There is probably a lesson to be learned there: reaching out to non-English speaking people is difficult and there is no practical urgency to do so, but it’s actually a good thing to do.

It’s the removal of a major barrier for a huge number of people and it reminds us of how much of the human experience is actually universal. As big, rich and comfortable as it might be, English-speaking comedy is still a bubble. There is a world out there.

  • For more details about adding Italian subtitles to DVDs, visit ComedySubs here.

Published: 9 Dec 2010

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