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Lost in Translation

By Zhang Zihan Source:Global Times Published: 2013-6-17 18:43:01

Jackie Chan may be popular with audiences worldwide, 
but other Chinese filmmakers struggle to match his appeal. Photo: CFP

Jackie Chan may be popular with audiences worldwide, but other Chinese filmmakers struggle to match his appeal. Photo: CFP


What keeps you from watching Chinese films? Low production values? Confusing plots? Or is it the laughable English translation?

Researchers from Beijing Normal University (BNU) announced earlier this month in a white paper that poorly translated subtitles are a serious barrier to Chinese films achieving success overseas.

Though China has become a major movie market in recent years, the

popularity of Chinese-made films abroad continues to disappoint. Last year, more than half of the domestic box office - 17 billion yuan ($2.77 billion) - was generated by imported blockbusters. Meanwhile, only 75 films were sold to overseas markets, for a total income of only 1 billion yuan ($174 million), dropping 50 percent from the year before, according to Silver Book: 2012 Chinese Film International Communication Research Annual Report, edited by BNU and the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture (AICCC).

In a survey of 1,117 interviewees from 107 countries, 29.9 percent of respondents regard "poor subtitling" as one of the three major areas that Chinese films need to improve in.

Chinese filmmakers are still struggling to convey Chinese values in Western languages, said Huang Huilin, dean of AICCC, at the press conference launching the white paper.

Xiao Wei, an AICCC researcher who participated in the editing of the white paper, talked to Metropolitan about translation difficulties. "Sometimes you simply cannot find an equivalent word in English," said Xiao. "Take, for example, zhanpiao [standing-room-only tickets, the cheapest available on many Chinese trains]. If we simply translate it word for word as 'standing ticket,' many Westerners probably would not understand, because in developed Western countries they have no such tickets."

"Many Chinese filmmakers hire random interpretation companies or individuals to translate the dialogue. Some have no idea about the background of the story, while others don't understand the cultural context of the target audiences," said Xiao.

Some Chinese films do have strong global appeal. Action, kung fu and comedy films were the most popular types of Chinese films among overseas audiences, according to Huang. When foreign audiences were asked to select one word to describe Chinese film,

Jackie Chan was their first choice,

followed by Jet Li and Bruce Lee.

"Action, kung fu and comedy films contain more body language than

spoken language, which makes them easier to understand," said Huang.

The white paper recommended that Chinese filmmakers hire translators from target audience countries. "Foreign interpreters should try to localize the language in the film to align with the audiences' knowledge and habits. Also, there is no need to translate the original text word for word. Complicated references can simply be omitted to ensure the story goes on smoothly," the white paper stated.

Chen Shaofeng, deputy dean of the Institute for Cultural Industries at Peking University, holds a different opinion. "If a film is good enough and has commercial potential, it will naturally attract foreign film distributors who will hire qualified translators, and maybe even invite superstars to dub the voices, just like when Hollywood blockbusters were introduced into China," said Chen.

"However, most Chinese filmmakers are still making films for the domestic market. They lack a global perspective. And of course, there is still a quality gap between them and their foreign competitKJors. If this situation remains unchanged, these films can hardly achieve overseas success regardless of how they're translated," said Chen.

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