Lost In Translation

I think I’m pretty good at English. I read newspapers, I devour novels, and I watch TV and movie, I speak and write quite well and make only small mistakes or have little trouble spelling difficult words. English is – I think – a language that I  to have conquered a long time a go. True, it took me several months to understand broad Scottish accent, but it’s more because these Scottish people talk like something is stuck down in their throat! But after a while, I could actually understand what the taxi driver was talking about!

So when last week our friends suggested to go to Melbourne International Comedy Festival – in Perth, yes, they were doing a roadshow – I said yes, out of curiosity. But I had a small reservation, I was afraid I wouldn’t find it funny. Having a single person standing up alone on a stage telling jokes for 2 hours is not a familiar concept for me. I didn’t grow up with this type of… errr… culture. I don’t remember any Indonesian comedian has done it. Normally the stage will be filled with people who talk all at once at the same time (and do horrible practical jokes, but we are not going there).

There’s always a first time for everything. I’ve done ballet and opera, so why not comedy? Bring it on!

But just like what I was afraid of before, it happened. One guy came doing an opening, who wasn’t really terrible. I understood his Australian accent (yay!) and could pretty much follow whatever he was saying. For the first 3 minutes. He mentioned about coming to Perth the first time, and saw a guy walking with a Spiderman costume and Batman mask and thinking, “wow, this town must be really safe”. I got the joke. Why? Because I knew what he was referring to. I’m familiar with Spiderman, and I know Batman. So I chuckled.

That was the first and the last time I found the whole show slightly amusing. The guy then introduced the first comedian, who had a guitar on the side. He’s Australian as well, but he spoke like Usain Bolt running for a victory in Olympic Games, so fast that I didn’t get  a single word he was saying. Then he was singing something, which I didn’t get either. I turned to twitter and played with it for the next 10 minutes or so.

A guest star from Edinburgh was on the next performance. Edinburgh is famous for its Fringe Festival, the world’s largest art festival, so I presume having someone from Edinburgh must be such an honour for Australian’s comedy world (judging from the laughter level in the room that night, I believe she was doing really well). At first I smugly thought I would understand her better than the guy before, since I spent a couple of years living in Scotland. I prepared myself and hope for the best. Alas, I didn’t understand her either. Not just her accent, but the entire jokes. By the time I caught one or two words she uttered, she had fired another 20 and I kept losing her. It didn’t help that she used dialects that probably all Westerners understand but for someone who speaks English as a second language wouldn’t learn at school or pick it up at newspaper or TV. Plus anything, and everything, she was referring to, was something local, something Western-ish, something an Indonesian and Asian wouldn’t understand.

I realise now that to understand a comedy, not only you have to understand whatever the person is saying, you also need to have an understanding of local knowledge and current affairs as well. Like when one performer said Bunburry and people laughed, I have no clue why. What happened in Bunburry? What is it associated it? If I don’t have such knowledge, then I wouldn’t understand it, and the joke would be a waste. I tried to ask mr.mck about some words the Edinburgh lady was saying, but when he repeated it, it’s a slang that I’ve never heard of unless I’ve spent my entire life living in an English-speaking country.

I was frustrated and decided not to return after the break. It’s also humiliating to see others were enjoying the night and laughed their heads off, while I was sitting there, staring down at the stage, having no clue whatsoever about what was going on. I refuse to say that I failed though. I reckon the jokes don’t translate cross-Atlantic or cross-continent really well. What we think is funny, wouldn’t be something others consider funny in a different part of the world, and vice versa.

Maybe, if I have been living here long enough, I would understand why Bunburry is funny.

In the mean time, I’ll just stick with opera and ballet.


  1. It always took me awhile to ‘decipher’ Aussie accent so for you to understand Scottish is amazing! Comedy can be hard, I remember when I first moved to the States and my husband loves Comedy Central channel, I sometimes had to ask what’s so funny hahahaha but after awhile I got the jokes. You’re right tho’ some jokes are too difficult to understand that when I watched stand up comic with my family they wouldn’t understand what’s so funny.

  2. Maureen: Maybe I don’t have funny gene in my bone but even Comedy Central isn’t funny for me. I understand The Simpsons or South Park, for example, but I won’t find them funny enough to make me laugh. Stand-up comedy on the other hand is a different league! Maybe I should watch an American ones, probably I’d understand them better. The British ones so far have failed me, and Australian has done the same…

  3. Nit, I think understanding or perhaps appreciating comedy is more about understanding a culture. It needs some knowledge of the area, anecdotes related to that culture as well as current affairs. I happen to like/enjoy stand-up comedy even when I lived in Jakarta (thru Jakarta comedy club) n subsequently the Melbourne comedy festivals when I lived there some years ago simply because I can get escape from the crazy world news stories where bombs and violence seems to be the central of attraction. Too bad, I missed the info abt this comedy festival in Perth. I would have loved to go and laughed my head-off.

    • Linda: exactly. I don’t know about Australia enough to understand the anecdotes and local lingo, so all were lost in me. Promise I’d tell you about this event the next time :)

  4. Yes, you should watch American ones instead, Mbak. Or Canadian (I love Russel Peters!).
    Speaking of accent, there’s this one British guy, Eddie Izzard, who’s really funny. Check his act on youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJ2yRTRlMFU&feature=related)

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  5. John Doe says:

    yes – being able to speak and listen English well isn’t enough to enjoy entertainment such as stand-up comedy. Most of the time comedians make use of a lot of things – current affair, like what you mentioned — and sometimes pun, local lingo, or a combination of all of them.

    This is like, for example: an Indo-speaking Australian trying to enjoy himself/herself by watching Republik Mimpi…

    There are universally enjoyable standup comedies — to name a few: the legendary classic Abbott-Costello (youtube “Who’s on First?”), and Russell Peters.
    See if you can enjoy them a bit~

    • John Doe: thank you. It’s a bit frustrating and humiliating – I felt I was not smart enough to understand the jokes. I guess I have to be patience and learn about the culture more, and see what happens in 6 months. Thanks for the links, appreciate it :)

  6. found your site on del.icio.us today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later

  7. makasih buat infonya diberikan bro :)
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  8. It’s posts like this that keep me coming back and checking this site regularly, thanks for the info!

  9. mantab nich blognya, kunjungan balik ya bro di download ebook gratis, kumpulan, buku, pecinta, buku online, ebook, download ebook, cara membuat blog, bisnis online
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  10. I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

  11. Greetings from Maureen’s blog
    and Casablanca!
    I agree local jokes etc. are difficult to understand if not stayed in that city/country long enough.

    It was nice meeting you! :)
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  12. I’m quite different here, I usually don’t get the American comedy/Comedians. I love Family guy/American dad but can’t stand south park!
    I think different cultures find different things funny, for example the English like sarcasm in their comedians but the dutch like a more crude type of humor.
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  13. INFO thanks. INFO good many great comedians
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  14. I can so relate to this. I grew up as an English speaker in South Africa. So going to the UK wasn’t that big a deal. Well at least that is what I thought. In Scotland it took ages to figure out that ‘hoof it’ had nothing to do with a horse or ‘snaaring’ was snowing. And in Liverpool where husbands family come from I still need a translator for some of the discussions. And comedy – just didn’t get it! One show – have I got news for you- took me three years to finally find funny.

    • Kerry-an: I’m so glad I’m not the only one! Honestly looking around and seeing people laughing their a** off while being the only one person in the room who has no clue on what was going on, was devastating!

  15. Very true. You would need to know the current affairs in order to laugh with the rest. Definitely need to stay updated with news!
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  16. Too true, mastering the language doesn’t means you understand the culture; not to mention growing up with the eastern culture which also different from the western culture could add another difficulties, misunderstanding on a lot of things, and you will ends up lost….
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  17. Good post, adding it to my blog now, thanks. :)

  18. Duh Nit, susah banget tuh comedy ngerti comedy festival, apalagi pake Scottish.
    Kapan hari keluarga Dean dateng dari Scotland, gw kaga ngerti satupun apa yg mereka bicarakan.

    I salute you!

  19. BRITS are sheep and love to follow the media? u all are a discrace , all of you drink and get drunk and have in one point of yr life dscraced yourselfs as have i, what gives anyone the right to dictate regarding kates behaviour – PATHETIC british are hated in all of europe and regarded as scum due to media obcessed football alcohol sluping chavs you all are! We in scandinavia hate you. The royals are more then any of you could hope to be dont declare how one must or must not act!


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by White and Tilly McKay, Finally Woken. Finally Woken said: new blog post: Lost in Translation http://finally-woken.com/2010/06/lost-in-translation/ […]

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