Foreigners translate the subtitles of their favorite Chinese TV series

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2016-1-4 19:18:01

An avid fan of Chinese TV dramas, 37-year-old Maja from Poland always carries a 500-gigabyte portable hard drive with her - be it on a family trip or a business trip. She put all the Chinese dramas she downloaded from the Internet on the drive to watch her beloved shows wherever she goes.

However, unlike other drama enthusiasts who are content to watch their favorite dramas on the go, Maja has taken her commitment a step further; she is one of a growing number of foreigners who translate subtitles free of charge. She and some fellow Chinese drama fans created a subtitling team "Gone with the Shirt," a play on the American classic Gone with the Wind (1939), on, a video-sharing website specializing in Asian dramas.

While the Chinese audience is no stranger to domestic subtitle groups that translate foreign films and TV series into Chinese, the emergence of non-native, overseas subtitle translators of domestic dramas is fairly new.

For Maja, subbing Chinese dramas is rewarding. "The level of satisfaction [is high] when you see the episode going from zero to 80 percent thanks to your efforts and that your subtitles are good. It gives you wings. And when you receive a thank-you note [from the viewers online] for your work - it is even better."

Foreign subtitle translators are often challenged by the language barrier and cultural nuances when translating Chinese dramas. Photo: Li Hao/GT

A subbing team

A marketing specialist in Poland, Maja has been translating subtitles for about two years. She and her fellow Chinese movie enthusiasts decided to form their subtitling team while working on Cruel Romance (2015). The team's name, she said, was chosen largely because there was a certain white shirt that flew off the main lead's chest many times.

"It is a name we are using to tell people that we will rock the channel we are currently working on," she said, adding that, "As most of the team are women, some good old ogling from time to time keeps us well entertained through countless hours of segmenting and subbing."

Her team has more than 12 members, and they are not permanent. They are but one of many such subtitling teams on "We have people from all around the world in the team, some from Europe (Poland, Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, Greece, the Netherlands), and some from the US, Australia, Indonesia and Singapore," said Maja.

She said the segmenters, subbers, editors and a channel manager meet online when the channel they are interested in becomes approved and visible to others. 

The channel managers' responsibilities include opening and closing episodes for subbers, finding video sources, and steering the team, she said. Segmenters prepare the drama for the subs.

Subbers are divided into a Chinese-to-English team and an other languages team, with the former often translating first to pass on the work to the latter. 

Starting off as a segmenter on, Maja worked as an English-Polish subber, then as a segmenter and a segmenting teacher before creating her own channels and managing them.

Often praised by the viewers for their work, the team has gained a good reputation in many circles on Legend of Miyue (2015) and Song in the Clouds (2015) are two of the more known dramas the team has worked on recently.

As Chinese TV dramas get more attention from external viewers, a growing number of foreigners are translating Chinese subtitles to English and other languages free of cost. Photos: IC

Lost in translation

The most challenging part of working on Chinese dramas is finding great Chinese-to-English translators who will remain faithful to the channel and offer their best. Only dramas with a great reputation or actors and actresses with a great fan base bring in the needed subtitle translators, Maja said.

Another hassle is when people are not entirely honest about their skills. "Many subbers claim that they are fluent both in Chinese and English but then it shows that their English grammar is far from being decent, which gives our editors nightmares sometimes," she said.

Timely completion is another issue. Subtitling takes a lot of time and energy. The easier, non-technical shows can take as much as a day while more complicated ones can stretch much longer, and sometimes it all boils down to the commitment of the translator.

"As this is volunteer work and nobody is paid for it, we cannot pressure anyone to finish something within a given time," she said.

Margareth Terry, who homeschools her five children in the US, finds translating dramas a good way to learn new languages and cultures in her free time. Living in Brazil for years before moving to the US, Terry speaks both Portuguese and English. Since she doesn't speak Chinese, she has to rely on English to be able to translate.

Terry found out about the world of Chinese dramas when she watched Boss & Me (2014), or Shanshan Comes to Eat, a romance comedy featuring a kind-hearted young girl who loves to eat.

"I loved the drama so much that I asked the channel manager [of the website] for permission to translate it from English to Portuguese. From there, I never stopped watching and translating Chinese dramas," she told Metropolitan.

Like Terry, most subbers translate from English to other languages. To better translate her beloved Chinese TV series, Terry has decided to learn more about the Chinese language and culture.

Rising Chinese production

"People are migrating more and more to Chinese dramas. In the beginning, they only wanted to see Korean dramas, but now they have seen that China has great dramas, and are offering to translate more," said Terry. "People are also discovering the handsomeness of Chinese actors."

What got Terry hooked was the sense of humor and the development of the characters. "I just love how the girls are strong, but not overly so. I like the gentle nature of the male protagonists, but, at the same time, they have the determination to go after what they want," she said.

She also likes the fact that Chinese dramas don't show much sex-related storylines or scenes and she "can fill in the blanks with my imagination."

"I think the main reason Asian dramas are so successful is because they show traditional values," Terry said.

Maja agreed and pointed out that there is a growing demand for "good" Chinese dramas to be distributed around the world, especially when they are supported by great subtitles.

"Instead of saying that Chinese dramas are confusing, I would say that they are pretty interesting for Western viewers," Maja said.

"All those costume dramas are just a feast for one's eyes and the modern dramas give us a glimpse of how the whole population adjusts to the changes modern China is facing."

However, there are a few issues that might raise a few eyebrows in the West, such as how women are treated in certain dramas, and how people without parents are treated as less worthy of finding a good spouse, Maja said.

There's much room for improvement. Terry thinks that Chinese dramas could be edited better. "The way they cut the scenes is awkward, and it leaves you feeling like a piece of the story is missing. Then, when you watch a flashback scene, you wonder where that flashback came from."

Building fan communities

Terry and her friends started a Facebook page, a closed group page, to help translators. They also set up "Viki in Portuguese," a Facebook page for Portuguese-speaking drama fans that informs of upcoming dramas and the status of the translated subtitles. In less than a year, the page has amassed over 9,000 followers.

A search for Chinese dramas on reveals a number of comments where avid viewers are asking when the newly subtitled episode will be released.

"I see the complaints as a victory because people are really following the shows and our work," said Terry. 

Khoo, an accountant from Australia, who is of Chinese parentage and speaks Cantonese, watched Lan Ling Wang (2013) and was hooked.

"I remember marathoning it, watching four to five episodes a night until 3 am. I remember crying like a baby at the end," she said.

Disappointed with subtitles stopping from time to time, she started doing subtitles herself. "It took me about 30 minutes to sub a line, but I persisted because I really like that show." Khoo now volunteers two hours a day on

Khoo said subbing Chinese dramas can be rewarding and even "addictive."

"I like watching the shows I've subbed and also know other people are benefiting from it too. I think Chinese dramas have really improved over the years. I can honestly say I now prefer dramas from the Chinese mainland over Hong Kong dramas," she said. She even recommends a lot of the dramas to her friends and family.

"Chinese dramas, despite the very poor access to them, are like a window to China, both its glamorous ancient times and the modern struggles," said Maja.

Newspaper headline: The sub club

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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