Coffee time beats the daily grind
The Guardian August 5, 2014
Could you be funny in a foreign language? To us Brits, who stereotypically have little more than "where is the swimming pool?", the idea is laughable (the answer, by the way, is opposite the town hall). Yet look to the Edinburgh festival, where every year comics come from all over the world, communicating with us effectively enough to convey humour.
Making us look bad this year will be comedians from France, Russia, Italy, Sweden, Germany and Japan; and whether they are fluent or not, an hour of English standup is fraught with problems. Welcome to the world of standup in a second language.
Frenchman Yacine Bellhouse has been a comic since 2005 and this year is his Edinburgh debut. He is a surrealist – perhaps why his mentor Eddie Izzard was drawn to him – and his show is a translation of his French material.
"It is so hard," he says, "really frightening and it's a big fight with my shyness. I'm waiting more for a reaction [from the crowd] and I try to see their faces, but when I get a laugh, I'm happy three times more than in French. I think, 'they get me, they get my mind'."
Adaptations have to be made, of course, particularly with cultural reference points. Joker Park is substituted by Innocent drinks, French TV host Michel Drucker becomes David Attenborough, and Yacine soon learned that foxes are seen as vermin in the UK, not "beautiful creatures" as he describes them. That's not new – comics who tour their own country will tailor material so that they drop in a mention of the local bad nightclub or the rival town.
The tricky bit comes in the technicalities of translation. Bellhouse, 31, says: "Most of the time I change nothing, but the way English works is different, the rhythms of the jokes change. English phrases are shorter than French ones, which is actually easier as it goes right to the point, but I find it weird – it's so quick. What I lose is a lot of subtle things and funny little slang words that I can't use in English.
"But I've started to create my own English slang as I get better, like [imagine the strong French accent] "don't worry, Rory"; it makes me laugh onstage, but the audience doesn't understand. Then I explain and they start to laugh too.
"Also, sometimes you have to find out how to say the same thing in a different way. So I might need four lines [in English] to tell a joke instead of three [in French], just because there's something I have to explain.
"For me, English is the language of standup. You invented it, so your language is good for that form of comedy, but in France we're now doing it the French way."
Izzard knows a bit about doing foreign standup, having performed in French, German, Spanish, Russian and Arabic. He has long been a good French speaker, but when it came to the others, he had to phase in his second language sections, doing three minutes one night, six the next, and so on. For the German shows on his 2014 Force Majeure tour, he relied on memory, learning a translation of his show line-by-line with the help of his brother, Mark, an expert in linguistics, and dropped the ad-libbing. He says that the mechanics inherent to a language aren't necessarily a barrier to making people laugh.
Izzard says: "It seems to make no difference. In German you have the verb at the end of the sentence in the past tense, so I asked my German friends about this, because the punchline has to be a noun and I didn't know how that could work. But it was Michael Mittermeier [a German comic that Izzard has championed] who said don't analyse it like that.
"In Force Majeure [which Izzard performed three times on the same night in Edinburgh, in three different languages], there's a line that goes, 'Caesar, did he ever think he'd end up as a salad?' Now that translates as 'Ceasar, hat er je gedacht, dass er einmal – aus Salat enden würde?' So it's a four-word punchline instead of one word, but they still laugh at the same point – it works. You can still muck it up; if you plod through that punchline it wouldn't work, but otherwise they dig it, and that's crazy."
Not everything is translatable, though. Igor Meersen, 32, from St Petersburg, and who is in Edinburgh under the wing of Dylan Moran, had to ditch his entire act after painstakingly translating the whole lot and presenting it to Moran.
"I had 20 pieces of paper of material, I showed it to Dylan and he just said, it doesn't work! So I had to write all new jokes; it's like having a second job.
"The problem was the structure of English is so different from Russian, the jokes are impossible to translate. Russian is very flexible, we can mix words in a way that is needed, put them in different places so that you keep the punchline unexpected. You can't do that in English."
There is another English speaker with a tale to tell on this subject – Des Bishop. The Irish-born New Yorker has a new show, Made in China, all about his experiences of doing standup in Mandarin. Linguistically we move into another level now, because of Mandarin's system of "tones". One of Bishop's key routines is about the mispronunciations of his surname. While the "Bi" part of "Bishop" is pronounced with fourth tone, first tone "Bi" means, well, "cunt".
"When they hear 'Bi', they don't think about the potential of using the first tone," he says. "So I gradually lead them into making that link, and for the punchline I use the hand sign instead of saying the word. But because my tones were quite bad in the early days, I was kept saying 'cunt' accidentally without realising, so it kept on being funny for another reason."
Material on mispronunciation, therefore, is a knife-edge, and requires especially precise pronunciation for it to work. By extension, all the comics I speak to agree that puns, idioms and double meanings do not translate – Bishop describes with amused frustration his attempts to translate "your time will come" into Mandarin, as he had a routine that relied on it. Not an unreasonable ask, you might think, as it's a simple enough phrase – but it's one loaded with subtext, and so he couldn't find anything that conveyed the same thing. "There's just no way to punch it out. They laugh about 20 seconds later after you describe it, but that laugh is not a great laugh."
Bishop maintains that when these stumbling blocks occur, it's "because of language, not because of a 'national' sense of humour. People confuse the two. Things like double meanings may not translate, but if you find a way to translate it, the Chinese will laugh just as much.
"I don't agree with the 'Chinese sense of humour' thing at all. Certain types of comedy might require certain knowledge, and there are cultural references and exposure to certain styles, but if you boil it down, it's the same process of making people laugh."
His fellow comics vehemently agree on this. Since his foreign forays, Izzard has been especially vocal in his rejection of the idea of a "national" sense of humour, and both he and Moran have passed this on to their proteges. Bellhouse says that this philosophy clicks into place when he performs in England: "When I get an English audience to laugh, the point is proved. We are the same, we have the same mind, and when I speak to Igor and Francesco [De Carlo, Italian standup] they're in the same mind. It's very encouraging for the future."
The final twist is that performing in a non-native tongue can be an advantage. While having a restricted vocabulary has put off Izzard and Henning Wehn from improvising in a second language, Bishop says he finds it helps – although it's partly connected to the novelty value of standup in China.
"There's a huge history of western people on Chinese TV, but it's all about how good their Chinese is. There are very few westerners doing shit Chinese, so it's very endearing to them. It's a huge asset when I'm improvising, you speak in such a contracted way when your language level is low that it kind of works – there's an immediacy to it. They don't have audience participation in their usual comedy, so they're blown away by someone talking back and making fun of them, even if it is in my crappy Chinese."
There is certainly an "endearing" card to be played. Daniel Simonsen, who won the 2012 Fosters best newcomer award and starred in Vic and Bob's recent sitcom, House of Fools, indeed has an endearing, vulnerable appeal, which is heightened by his thick Norwegian accent. Izzard also reveals some advice given to him by TV presenter Antoine du Caunes: "He told me, 'keep the mistakes, it's cute' – and that's the thing, you just have to get up there, you'll probably get a few things wrong, but if people like you, they'll forgive it all."