Author and linguist Alan Garner once said: "The more I contemplate the process of translation, the more I want to find a dark corner and die."
The process is particularly tricky with humour. There are all kinds of reasons why much humour does not easily cross cultural boundaries. One of them is that different cultures have different taboos.
George Carlin once said: "I think it's the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately." But when in an alien culture, finding the line is easier said than done. And the crossing of the line has to be done artfully. Mere offensiveness does not a funny person make, as Roy Chubby Brown's tedious rant against political correctness proves.
Below is the video and lyrics of a song I wrote last year which is based on this article. Below that is my attempt at rendering it in Chinese.
Billy - If you can't open YouTube, the Youku version is here.
Billy would have sex every night his friends all wanted to know whyHe wasn't handsome and his income was low as you or I
Women would send him Facebook messages and call him on the phone
Honestly I don't think Billy's ever slept alone
I said: "Billy I know this afternoon you're getting laid twice.
But could you please take the time to give me some advice"
Billy said: "Son there's only one thing about me you should know
My standards are very very very very very very very low.
"So son when you meet a girl just be your charming self
Go for the under-confident ones who are left out on the shelf
It doesn't matter if she's ugly, sweaty, flatulent or rude
Most important go for the ones with really low I.Q."
One of his partners was a big fat tattoo wearing seven time mum
One of them couldn't even come without a thumb in her ear
Whenever Billy walks up to a barrel he doesn't scrape from the top
He even says yes to the girls who use the phrase "Paki shop"
Billy said: "Son you'd never believe the fetishes some people have
One girl asked me to spit in her face and call her a dirty chav
One night in a public toilet a girl said "Let's do it here"
Even though the guy in the stall next door had raging diarrhea."
Billy said all this wisdom applies to women too
Say yes to all the dirty old men who grope and ogle you
Some of these men won't even bother taking off their socks
Scientists call this phenomenon the Wanker's Paradox
Nowadays I use this knowledge to chase after girls
I'm not after yoga teachers, film stars or Miss World
I don't care if she's a beautiful soul or has a charming face
Now I'm going on a date with a woman who looks like Ricky Gervais
Aside from the U.K slang words such as "chav" (white trash) and "Paki shop" (a racist term for a corner shop owned by people from the subcontinent), this can't be directly translated into the language of a nation where sex isn't ubiquitous in the media. You can't sing about taking pride in having one-night-stands, let alone in public toilets.
So, how could I maintain the spirit of the English version while singing about things the Chinese could relate to?
I changed the main character to a female, and changed the character's goal to finding a marriage partner rather than getting laid.
This makes it about an issue that gets a lot of media attention in China and among China watchers (leftover women). And it ends by talking about a much bigger social timebomb (leftover men). It attempts to maintain the spirit of the original without being filthy or discussing taboo subjects.
《小美》 - Xiao Mei (with subtitles) If you can't open YouTube, you can see the Youku version here.
Xiao Mei from Dongbei is almost 28
She has a very high income but she still hasn't married
Her parents, colleagues, friends, brothers and sisters
Have all told me of their fear that she'll become a leftover woman
Recently I asked Xiaomei: "Are you worried too?"
On the spot, she invited me to her wedding next year
She said she'll find a husband, she knows this for sure
Because her standards are very ve very very very very very very low
She said she'll start dating very soon
She said she doesn't require her boyfriend to be rich
She's not after a government official or a tall, dark, handsome millionaire
She'll also accept men who gamble and smoke
Her ex-boyfriend was a loser who never graduated
She left him after they were together for a year
It wasn't because her boyfriend took a shit on the street
It's because he didn't allow Xiaomei to swear
Xiaomei said single men should have the same attitude as her
Please don't care too much about girls' apperance
You also shouldn't care too much about whether her skin is pale
The only thing that matters is whether she can give you a baby
I've learned a lot from Xiaomei
Now I don't mind girls who pick their noses
My married life will start very soon
Now I'm going to tell my parents about my highly flatulent lover
Straddling the boundary between mindless vulgarity and mindful vulgarity can be a challenge.