Lost and Sick in Translation
by Mark Nizer

Dateline 2015 China

Collaboration is at the heart of all live performance. You can't pull off a show with all its nuances and pieces that must come together successfully without being part of a team and relying on others.

I was extremely excited to begin my China tour. I had spent the last couple months translating my show into Mandarin and adding subtitles to my presentation. I hired two University of Virginia Professors who were from China to help me translate my material. It was an amazing collaboration and we had a wonderful experience working together. Unfortunately, the tour turned out to be a quagmire of misunderstanding, political intrigue and culture clashes that would make the Super Bowl look like a tea party.

When I arrived, I reviewed the subtitles with a local to make sure they were accurate, only to discover most of the translations had nothing to do with what I was saying. More often than not, they merely provided a description of what I was doing or just my original translators' ideas of what might be funny to say. And I had no idea.

The subtitles turned out to be impossible to sync with my live performance, anyway. I opted to ask my local handler to translate live for me. She showed up in a spectacular red dress and relished the opportunity. She did well enough, but slowly drifted from the stage into the wings and finally off stage as the show progressed.

As it turned out, an American who spoke both fluent Mandarin was in the audience. He let me know after the show that the translation wasn't even close to what I was doing and he volunteered to do it for the next performance. Since I had no idea how to read the nuances of the culture and was very busy with all my other show-related tasks, I didn't realize replacing my handler's live translation duties with his had created a breach in protocol. She was pissed and, suddenly, everything seemed off.

At the next show, there was a long conversation in the light booth between my handler and the venue's tech staff. After 15 minutes, my handler turned to me to say, "You can't use any of these lights. They didn't pay their electric bill."

First of all, how did it take 15 minutes to get to that, and secondly, why were there lights on in half the theater? No explanation was offered. I did the show and afterwards, they flipped a switch and all the lights I was not allowed to use came on.

That night, I got severe food poisoning and texted my handler for help. No response. For days, I was alone and getting worse. None of my pleas for help were answered. I ended up in an emergency room after my wife was able to reach the producer via the US.

While I was in the emergency room getting IV fluids and a battery of other tests, my handler got on the phone with someone. Although the conversation was in Mandarin, she was very animated, speaking passionately and loudly as I tried to doze off. I reached into my pocket and hit record on my iPhone.

It turned out that, even with a qualified translator, comedy that works in Western culture often just doesn't work in another. Half the time, my new translator would just look over at me and say, "There is no way to translate that." I realized how truly lost I was when he explained to me that in Chinese culture, there is no such thing as sarcasm. Well, sarcasm constitutes 90% of my jokes.

When my tour ended, my translator took me out to show me the reason he loves living in China. I realized that despite my dismal experience, China has much to offer, with a vibrant and fascinating culture.

When we returned to my hotel, I played the recording I made in the emergency room for him to translate. It turned out to be a 30-minute rant to her mother about how horrible I am and how much she hates me. Each sentence was more vile than the one before, and we each roll on the floor laughing so hard my IV bandage starts to leak.




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