Brothers Paid to Translate YouTube Silliness for Chinese Speakers

Brothers Paid to Translate YouTube Silliness for Chinese Speakers
What you need to know

BC and Lowy on bringing English language YouTube silliness to a Chinese speaking audience.

Listen
powered by Cyberon

Video sharing website YouTube’s vast reach means that any silly video someone takes the time to upload has a potentially global audience. On the world’s most prominent video platform, viral clips zip around the globe at the speed of data buffering, so that when a pop music hit like “Gangnam Style” is released in South Korea, people around the world will be shimmy shuffling and gallop hopping along.

One barrier YouTube has not managed to break, however, is language. This is a limitation that is felt acutely by many in the Chinese-speaking world, for whom the cultural and linguistic gap could not be much bigger.

Twin brothers Benson and Lowy Chang, 30, are working to bridge that gap with their YouTube channel, BC and Lowy, which now has more than 850,000 subscribers and videos regularly earning several hundred-thousand views making it one of the most popular in Taiwan.

The brothers are longtime fans of English language TV shows themselves, and despite living nearly their entire lives in Taiwan, they have managed to bring their language and cultural fluency to near-native levels through years of dedicated binge watching. They are now pouring their translation talent into their YouTube channel to help others make the same leap.

The concept behind the channel is simple enough: Take popular Western video clips and add Chinese subtitles. But its success lies in the extreme attention to detail and cultural nuance that the brothers commit to each one of their translations as they work to make these English language videos engaging to a Taiwanese audience. In doing so, they are creating a conduit not just for YouTube silliness, but also new ideas and perspectives that they argue would be difficult to find elsewhere in Taiwan.

TV junkies

Benson first started the project nearly five years ago. “At the very beginning it was simply because I loved to watch all of those sketch shows, Saturday Night Live, Key & Peele, stuff like that,” he says. “I think it’s really a shame that the Taiwanese audience can’t enjoy that wonderful material because of the language barrier.”

His very first video was a Saturday Night Live parody of High School Musical. It did surprisingly well, so he decided to keep going and later roped his brother into the project as well. From there, the channel took on a life of its own, and the pair is now working on it full time, releasing a new video just about every day.

In addition to the YouTube channel, they also offer a blog with additional context and background for each video, breaking down not just the challenging language but also the complicated cultural signifiers that are absolutely essential to making sense of even the most inane YouTube clip.

The blog also has the added advantage that it creates a revenue stream for the project. YouTube monetization rules mean that channels cannot make money from reposted content: In fact, all the revenue from the traffic to their videos is paid to the original content creators, so ad revenue from their blog is what keeps them going.

Translating across culture

To maintain audience numbers, the brothers create translations that capture the humor of the original English language jokes. “There are millions of ways to translate one sentence. You must find one version that can speak to Taiwanese people most effectively,” explains Benson. “In order to do that you can add a lot of internet memes that are familiar to Taiwanese people, or current events, no matter whether it's political or other social events.”

For example, in one video in which an athlete is raised up in the air by his teammates, the original English reads “His teammates help him to his feet. They raise him heavenward,” but their Chinese subtitles read “隊友們將他扶起來,直接在場上使出『馬祖遶境.” That translation is pretty direct up until the phrase “raise him heavenward,” which in their rendering reads something like “lifts him as though they were lifting Mazu’s Sedan Chair,” a reference to Taiwan’s famous Mazu religious pilgrimage that sees worshipers hoisting the idol of the sea goddess Mazu above their shoulders and then parading it around the country. The turn of phrase maintains the exuberant religious allusion from the original, but casts it in a more familiar light for their audience.

Their explanations also occasionally delve into English grammar. The blog post for the famous “Sweet Brown - Ain't Nobody Got Time for That (Autotune Remix)” video helpfully explains that the double negative of the title does indeed add up to a negative and not a positive, a tricky bit of grammatical logic for those still learning English.

Then there are the context explainers, which also play a very important role: The best translation in the world is not much good if your audience does not know any of the references in the video.

They certainly had their work cut out for themselves explaining the Obama Anger Translator bit performed at the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner. Their explanation goes on for a bit more than a thousand words, delving into phrases like “adversarial system,” “Deepwater Horizon,” and "Khaleesi is coming to Westeros." Quite a bit to unpack, but also totally indispensable for any Taiwanese viewers who really want to get what America’s press corps was finding so funny that evening.

The serious side of dumb YouTube videos

Now several years into the project, Lowy says that they have expanded beyond their original focus on comedy and entertainment and are taking on some meatier topics as well.

“Basically we want to bring a new perspective to every issue. Whether it's about gay marriage, drugs, or any social issues,” says Lowy. “We want to bring a fresh perspective to Taiwanese people to go through every option. I believe that is the way that you find a better solution. If you only know one side, I don’t think that’s a good approach to finding a solution.”

One topic they have taken on repeatedly is drug legalization. Benson believes Taiwanese people have a lot of misunderstandings about marijuana in particular, so they shared a clip from a recent Michael Moore documentary looking at the results of Portugal’s decade-and-a-half long experiment with blanket decriminalization of all drugs. “Most people don’t know what decriminalizing drugs actually means or what it actually does,” says Lowy. “So we want to bring that perspective to Taiwan.”

They also feature videos related to U.S. politics, gay marriage and Taiwan independence, but the topic does not need to be related to high politics or controversial policy questions to stir debate. They say their most popular video of all time was of a talk given by dating expert Matthew Hussey that raises the question of who should pay the check on the first date, the man or the woman. They say the comments section was flooded by viewers coming down on every side of the issue.

The general consensus among Taiwan’s netizens? “Popular opinion is that the girl should offer to pay, and then the guy should have no problem to pay,” says Lowy.

“It’s about the gesture,” agrees Benson. “Because I think Taiwanese society is still very much paternalistic. Like guys are expected to be a certain way, and women are expected to be a certain way, even on a date.”

Don’t read the comments

They say one reason they are looking outside of Taiwan is that they feel Taiwan’s traditional media is failing to create the sort of content that could spark these socially relevant discussions. “Traditional media is just picking up trashy stories. Reporting on trivial stuff,” says Benson.

He adds that their videos have the potential to reach Taiwanese young people in a way most other media cannot. “Most of our audience range in age from 16 to 30,” he says. “We want to create an atmosphere to get them to be interested in politics, in social issues, and Taiwan.”

Of course, wading into hot button issues comes at some peril. They received heated feedback for their videos related to drugs. One commenter sardonically questioned, “So everyone will be able to use drugs without consequences?” Another predicted that “Taiwan will become the drug capital of Asia!”

But, for the brothers, this response is not entirely unwelcome as it shows their effort to provoke thoughtful reflection is working. “Our videos could be very controversial, or you think that you don’t like our video, you think that we have our own agenda, but our ultimate goal is to create discussion,” says Lowy.

Editor: Edward White