Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Subtitling TV and Movies for the Masses

Every single western TV show or movie available to the Chinese masses on the internet has the Chinese translation of the program at the bottom of the screen. For some time now, I've been wondering who comes up with this ubiquitous text. I just found out the answer.

From CNN (H/T to The Peking Duck's Twitter page):

Photo from Daylife.com

SHANGHAI, China (CNN) -- On Saturday at 10 a.m. it's show time for Brenda Zhang and her subtitle team. They roll out of bed, meet each other online and chat, while their modems download the latest episode of "Prison Break," which just aired half a world away on Friday night in America.

Once they have the show on their hard drives, the team spends the rest of the day creating subtitles for it in Chinese before putting it back online for other fans to watch.

Dozens of such groups exist in China. They are voluntary and are translating a mix of media, from books and magazines to games, TV shows and movies. The translated products are for an audience whose primary means of accessing foreign entertainment is the Internet.

The members of these online translations groups participate out of a desire to improve their English. For many there is also a passionate interest in overseas content and a desire to make it accessible to other Chinese people.

"This is a way to fulfill your life and do something you are interested in," said Zhang, a 24-year-old who translates for a team that calls themselves "Showfa."

"I think Chinese people need to know something different, to see how the foreigners think about life, think about love."

Read On
These people who do these translations are committed to their hobby. I can't exactly understand why they care so much given that they don't make any money off of what they do. But then again, I spend time on this here blog every day and I don't make any money on it. So I guess I can see why they do what they do.

The article says that there is a strict application process for being accepted into these groups. One member of the 1000fr group said "she had to translate 300 words in 15 minutes." These standards, translating words (probably with no context), surely explains why most of the translations are so awful.

When watching these Chinese subtitled programs, I can recognize a lot of the characters flowing across the bottom of the screen. It's hard for me to say whether what I'm kind of understanding gels with the English going on on the screen though. But Qian often (actually more often than not) has something to say about how terrible the translations are. She usually turns them off or switches it to the English translation, if possible.

The translations don't cut it for Qian, who has really good English. But it obviously works for the majority of Chinese people, who aren't proficient in English.

Whatever one thinks about the quality of these translators' work, there's no questioning their quantity.

As the article states, shows are turned over often within hours of their showing. If "24" is on on Tuesday night in America, you'll most likely be able to find it on the 'net in China by Wednesday (remember, China is twelve hours ahead of the US). Being able to watch TV shows as they air lets young Chinese people watch the show at the same rate as those in the States.

From what I've seen and heard, the most popular shows for young Chinese people are "24," "Desperate Housewives," and "Prison Break."

The most popular show during my time in China, by far, has been "Prison Break." I find this amusing since the show isn't particularly popular at all in America. I've watched a bit of it. It's painfully bad. You see pictures of the lead character "Scofield" all over Xi'an selling jeans or whatever. I've heard a lot of Chinese guys tell me how handsome they think Scofield is and lots of girls lament that he's gay in real life. The Prison Break phenomenon in China is indeed a curious one.

In addition to TV shows, American movies with Chinese subtitles across the bottom of the screen are everywhere. I've been impressed with some of the titles available. Both the Darren Aronofsky film "Pi" (I like its translation 死亡密码 - "Death's password?") and the 80's film "Stand by Me" are currently available with Chinese subtitles at PPlive.com. Neither of these movies are that popular in the States. Seeing that they've been translated, the Chinese 'net has just about every movie out there. Go search for whatever you want on PPlive. It's probably on there.

All of this stuff is, of course, illegal. Right now, the powers that be seems to be completely ignoring it though. Whether this culture will continue into the future will be an interesting thing to observe.


Anonymous said...

STAND BY ME not popular? What planet do you come from? You were probably a tyke when the movie came out theatrically, but it was a modest hit theatrically, a big hit on video, and regularly plays on American cable.

PI was also a critical and commercial hit when it was released theatrically (you were probably in middle school when it came out). It had a small roll out from Trimark Pictures and was one of the independent company's few theatrical hits (it went under and its catalog was bought out by Artisan, who also went under and were bought up by Lion's Gate) and it was the talk of the Sundance Film Festival in 1998 (when the festival was still worth a damn), and the rest is film history. It's easily found in North American video shops, so it's not like we're discussing something truly obscure, like how Xi'an DVD shops stock subtitled copies of HELL CAMP 7, Passolini's SALO, or Sergio Martino's BIG ALLIGATOR RIVER.

I won't argue that PI is off kilter for mainlanders (however, I think STAND BY ME fits snugly within predictable, local, mainstream tastes), but if you want to be credible, spend five minutes and research the things you discuss about "back home," man. It's not that hard to find STAND BY ME's box office gross. The film literally made Rob Reiner & Billy Crystal's Castle Rockprodution shingle, and it was so popular in Japan that is spawned a successful, localized stage production. It was a huge international hit.

You may aspire to be like a foreign media-on-china resource variation of Danwei, but you need to look at Jeremy Goldkorn's credibility. It comes from research and getting his ducks in a row before he offers up an opinion or analysis, no matter how trivial the error. When you remember this quality and apply it regularly, maybe you will one day earn greater respect.

Anonymous said...

@anon Oh geesh man its all relative. Did you not see the "that" in italics? I was 30 when Pi came out, does that qualify me to claim without question that 8 out of 10 Americans have no clue that movies existed. I remember it vaguely but it is never rerun and no one ever talks about it.

As far as "Stand by Me"... very popular movie in its day, you are quite right. But when Mark words his sentence as not "that" popular, I have to agree. Sure my generation knows it as a hit film but it is not one that has transcended generations like Star Wars for example. Yeah it was popular, but I agree with Mark, in the big picture of American cinema and pop culture.... it was not "that" popular. And I would be more than happy to take you on in a live chat channel on the subject of movie knowledge.

Mark has a great blog, evidenced by the amount of trolling that all good blogs get, get your ducks in a row and post with a handle before you pop off, maybe then you will gain some respect for your trolling.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I must follow up. Your words anon re: Pi "one of the independent company's few theatrical hits"


3.2 mill... not a theatrical hit at all.

Here is the top 50 for that year.


Thr friggin Mysteries of Egypt Imax film at #50 grossed 40.5 million, a mere 37 million more than Pi. Yeah, big hit and theatrical success.

Your ducks are anywhere but in a row.

Mark said...


Thanks for getting my back, Hopfrog.

It's obvious Anonymous has been looking for something to pounce on me about. Who knows what the motivations behind such a ridiculous comment were...

I've seen "Stand By Me" at least a dozen times going back to when I was eight years old. I understand its place in American society. Leech on the balls. Train running the kids down on the bridge. Lard-ass sequence. People of my generation and older are surely familiar with these things.

Are younger people? Is the movie still iconic for eight year olds now? I figured that a large amount of its popularity was due to connection that people in the 80s had with the 50s. Lord knows it was a flashback of sorts for my dad who grew up in a small time at the exact same time as those kids. Am sure that's why we bought the VHS of it for my brother and me.

Here are its Amazon.com sales rankings:

Amazon.com Sales Rank: #2,361 in Movies & TV

Popular in these categories:
#1 in Movies & TV > Mystery & Suspense > Blackmail, Murder & Mayhem > Kidnapping & Missing Persons
#6 in Movies & TV > Comedy > Comedy Stars > John Cusack
#7 in Movies & TV > Comedy > Comedy Directors > Rob Reiner

No doubt it's got staying power. But, again, it's not that popular.

And on Pi... seriously, get a grip, Anonymous. 8 or 9 people out of 10 back home aren't going to know that one. I love the movie. Think it's Aronofsky's best. But it's definitely an under-the-radar one for mainstream American society.

The other movies you mentioned. Sure. They're more obscure than Pi.

My point with mentioning these two movies is that the subtitled titles go much deeper than the latest Hollywood hits.

Again, thanks, Hopfrog. I'm not sure why this post got under Anonymous' skin sooooooooo much. He's obviously got serious issues with me and/or this blog. So for him, I'm glad that he got what's been on his mind off his chest.

Anonymous said...

Yeah its just weird. I mean I can understand someone coming on here and going into a big rant about how the subtitle groups are encouraging copyright piracy or a whole host of other things, but this guy was gonna attack you because you didn't think a couple of lesser known American movies were all that popular. Its ridiculous. I was like, is that MS guy still bitter and lurking? haha

The guy clearly knows his movies but please, your analogy of why Stand by Me was popular in its time is dead on. I loved that movie, but again, it doesn't play a very big role in Americana, and judging by Amazon sales figures, not even a big role in Rob Reiner's career.

I think trolls somewhere deep down know they are just trolling and thats why 9 times out of 10, its anonymous.

Anonymous said...

"I think trolls somewhere deep down know they are just trolling and thats why 9 times out of 10, its anonymous." Or maybe it's because there's such a thing as freedom of speech, you know, like in Las Vegas, Nevada, U. S. of A.

I'm with anon. If Mark can't, "keep his ducks in a row," then he might want to put something in his profile that he's not too thorough with his actual research. Stand By Me is definitely a popular film. He called Mark out and was right on that point. Mark can back peddle and hide behind your aprons like a a naughty child seeking refuge behind his mommy, Hopfrog, but Mark dropped the ball on that. As for PI, the film is huge on college campuses now. Thanks to Requiem For a Dream and The Wrestler, it's found a new audience. You might not fraternize with young Americans, but I do. Both films are incredibly popular. "Cult," might be more apt, but that means they are known. Perhaps Mark should stick to analogies that are relevant and verifiable, rather than toss them out there willy-nilly? That's Fox News semantics. Man up and write something credible. You've only proven anon to be correct. I'm sure I'll also be labeled a, "troll," because I practice my right to not tell you who I am, but does the notion of who I am matter so much as the points the reader brought up? You're behaving like Zhongnanhai with such identity paranoia. Stick to the debate.

Anonymous said...

Hopfrog, you are gaging "box office hit," by how much money it made compared to other films that year. If you ahd a clue about the movie business you'd take a look at how much PI cost to make, how much it cost to purchase distribution rights, and how much the promotion behind it cost, versus its overall box office take, and total that up: it was a hit. "Hit" is not exclusively something a pedantic, armchair monkey suckling the tit of the popular zeitgeist claims it is. It's pretty clear you don't work in the film industry. PI cost a cup of coffee to make and aquire and it made its money back in a big way. Director Aranofsky's career proves this out. Thanks!

Mark said...

The thing that amazes me about this criticism from Team Anonymous is that I never said that Pi and Stand by Me aren't popular. I said they aren't that popular.

Is that an incorrect statement?

I already posted Stand By Me's Amazon.com's ranking: #2,361. Well, Pi's is #4,517 in Movies & TV.

Sure, a generation of people have enjoyed the Stephen King novella-based movie, Stand by Me. But for Christ's sakes, look at the other Rob Reiner products that it is behind at Amazon:

1. The American President
2. The Princess Bride (20th Anniversary)
3. The Bucket List
4. The Princess Bride (Blu Ray)
5. This is Spinal Tap
6. All in the Family (1st season)
7. When Harry Met Sally
8. Bullets Over Broadway
9. Stand By Me

So I'm right. Stand By Me is not that popular.

And on Darren Aronofsky's Pi, sure, it is a cult classic. It's just that that cult does not include 90% of the people in America.

Anonymouses are missing the point of this post - that the translation of American movies and TV runs deep. I don't know how or why you can say that the Chinese translations of Stand By Me or Pi prove me wrong on this. They don't! Period!

Anonymous said...

Geesh... the point you were trying to make anon was about popularity not about profit margin.

You attacked Mark for his claim that the movies were not all that popular. You then go on to talk about Pi being a "theatrical hit" in the context of popularity. The numbers prove you wrong, so you now want to change your argument, but in the process you seemed to have forgotten about the point you were trying to make in the first place. Lol, I hope your head doesn't explode from all this.

Softel Group said...

Interesting to see that it is in fact illegal to do it, seeing as they are in fact broadening the popularity of some good shows (I'm from the UK and Prison Break is loved by me and many others over here!). It is of course to do with the broadcasting rights, but I'm also interested to hear how nothing is being done about it. Maybe they're turning a blind eye to it?