by Lyolya Pervushina, Editor at RuFilms

See what we did there? A bad pun. But it is also actually an example of a challenge an audiovisual translator faces when working with stand-up comedy. Wordplay appears in stand-ups more often than you think. At least that is the case for Russian, English, French and Italian. In this case study we would like to talk about this as well as some other challenges of working on a stand-up in the context of AVT.

We should start with the basics. What is stand-up? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the definition of stand-up relevant to this particular case study is ‘of, relating to, performing, or being a monologue of jokes, gags, or satirical comments delivered usually while standing alone on a stage or in front of a camera’.

Judging from this definition what are the challenges of translating a stand-up that come to mind?

First of all, a stand-up should be funny. It is the primary goal, isn’t it? And that is where the difficulties begin. Sure, sense of humor is a highly individual thing which depends on many factors from one’s childhood, country of origin and / or residence to one’s age and taste in movies, for example, because cultural codes are widely different and what is funny to one person can be not funny to another. So the comedian’s sense of humor can be extremely different from that of the translator but that does not give you the right to charge the original. The struggle is real but an audiovisual translator should always convey what the character (or a stand-up comedian) is saying while preserving the contents and the style of the original. After all, the goal here is not to reinvent the comedian and their monologue to suit the translator’s taste but to give the person who does not speak the comedian’s language the same viewer experience as the one native stand-up aficionados get.

In stand-up people often curse and it is crucial to remember that in different cultures curse words have a different weight, i. e. a different degree of obscenity so one should never translate these words literally without giving this any thought. The acceptable level of obscenity is usually determined by the customer ordering the translation. The customer can give you specifics such as a list of forbidden words and the time slot when this particular thing will be aired. The translator has to take these into consideration and act accordingly without ruining the original.

Let us go back to the title of this article and discuss wordplay and other lexical and stylistic devices that appear in comedic pieces and stand-up in particular. Different types of wordplay are not only very popular in comedic writing but also extremely difficult to translate. When we are lucky enough to preserve both the wordplay and the meaning it literally makes us want to sing. Look:


Let’s table the tableware. Можем прибрать приборы?


See that? The original had two words with the same root and different meanings and so does the target language. Also those different meanings are the same across the two languages which is pure luck and pure perfection (it took a lot of searching and thinking but paid off).

By the way, songs are often included in stand-ups, too. Depending on the task these could be translated without rhyme (just to convey the contents) or with rhyme as regular songs which is usually a struggle in itself if you do not have a talent for poems and lyrics, and a particularly tough thing to do with comedic songs such as this one about Dungeons and dragons. Here’s an extract and its translation into Russian for voiceover.

I got my 12-sided di and i’m read to roll Двенадцатигранный кубик в руке,
With a wizard in my goblin crew Средь гоблинов играет маг.
My friends are coming over to my mom’s basement Друзья ко мне приходят в мамкин подвал,
Bringin’ funions and a mountain dew Приносят колу и макдак.
I got a big broad sword made out of cardboard Я принёс картонный меч, снесу вам голову с плеч.

And the stereo’s a-pumpin’ zeppelin

“dazed and confused”

Из колонок звучит Лэд Зэпеллин.
It’s that time of the night we turn on the black light Вот настал момент, включаем ультрафиолет,
Let the dungeons and the dragons begin «Подземелья и драконы» нас ждут.
It’s d&d Это дэ-эн-дЭ!
Fightin’ with the legends of yore Легендарный воин пал!
It’s d&d Это дэ-эн-дЭ!
Never kissed a lady before Я в жизни девочек не целовал!
Nope. He hasn’t. Woo! Нет. Всё правда! //
Now the lord of the rings is our crystal and things Властелин колец, всем кристаллам конец.
We use these as a reference tool В это тоже мы играем, да.
And when we put all our cloaks and tell warlock jokes В балахонах своих шутим про гоблиних.
We’re the coolest kids at the school В школе самая крутая орда.
Now we’re not. Вообще нет.
I know. Знаю.
Now, Teich’s a real bastard but a fair dungeon master Тайх тупой, как гантеля, но мастер подземелья,
He’s got hit points and charisma to lend Он докинет очков за харизму.
And I rehearse in my room of what I call the dragons tune Репетирую я дома драконьи частушки,
When I’m not out with my girlfriend Когда не гуляю с подружкой.
You don’t have a girlfriend У тебя нет подружки.
Yes, I got a girlfriend Нет, есть подружка.
You don’t have no girlfriend Ни фига у тебя нет.


Here the translator managed to preserve the rhythm and convey all the meanings. Yes, the translation is not literal but it should not be.

Let us not forget the everyday struggles of audiovisual translators which are still valid while working on stand-ups. If you subtitle a stand-up, like with any other video the customer will have certain guidelines and requirements concerning the number of characters per second (CPS) and also per line. If you translate it for voiceover it is crucial that you keep in mind that the voice actor should be able to say the line at the same time and at the same pace as the comedian in the original. Same goes for dubbing (though stand-up as such is rarely dubbed, it can be, if it is part of a feature film or a series) but in dubbing one should also take into consideration the lip movement when possible.

Another thing that comedians love is using phraseology. You are in luck if the target language has this phraseological unit or one with the same meaning and implications. If not, you have to come up with another way of conveying its meaning to your target audience. Let alone the case when comedians come up with new words. It is an extremely interesting but all the more challenging thing to do.

Our company has had the privilege and the misfortune (depending entirely on the quality of writing in each individual episode) to work on a ton of stand-up over the last few years. We literally translated hundreds and hundreds of episodes of stand-up shows, as well as those about stand-up comedy. We’ve dealt with episodes with light-hearted topics, those with very dark humor and those in the middle. The author of this case study has worked as an editor on several projects concerning stand-up, including this one series about a struggling comedian trying to make his way to fame. There was one particularly challenging episode where the main character was invited to perform at a synagogue. And literally every other character was written funnier and wittier than the protagonist. Many of the characters also had specific manners of speaking and / or special words. So, it was really important to make an effort to show these speech traits in the target language otherwise the episode would automatically lose half the comedic appeal as stand-up is often based on accents and other peculiarities of speech. Here’s another example of such important speech differences from Vic Henley’s set:

I am from Alabama. I live here. I’ve been here for about 20 years. I… I always found it was funny when the New Yorkers would screw with me and the way I talk, like the New Yorkers are such an articulate group of individuals. You’re picking on me and you’re going, “Bobby, Tony, come over here. Look at this guy. He sounds so stupid.” Я сам с АлабАмы. Но живу тут, причём, уже лет двадцать как. И меня всегда забавляло, как нью-йоркцы любят угорать над моей манерой говорить. А то сами, блин, говорят, как дикторы новостей! \ Вы ржёте надо мной, а сами такие: «Э! БОбби, ТОни, подь сюды. Смари, какой чел. Зырь, какой угарный, да?»


Unfortunately, the original was entirely based on accents so the writing does not show the specificities, however in Russian lexical means were used to show them by using colloquialisms and non-standard verb forms.

As a company we are firm believers in on-the-job learning after the courses finish. So, when a newly-hired translator gets picked for a project the project’s editor and manager are open to any number of (however silly or boring) questions throughout the translation process as well as the necessity of giving extensive feedback after the editing is done. When working with a whole bunch of newbies or those you have not worked with before, it is probably wise for the editor to ask them to do and hand in sample-sized portions of the episodes as soon as possible in order to make sure the team read through the guideline and understood the requirements completely. This is especially helpful on a project that involves comedy because doing so allows the editor to assess whether the translator gets the style, the tone and the sense of humor of the comedian at hand and, if necessary, to stir them in the right direction from the get go and minimize the potential struggle of editing for too long or the need to redo the entire episode. This makes the job much easier and prevents the translators from future mistakes.

Have you ever translated stand-up? What was the most difficult thing for you? Do you have any life hacks to share?