Behind the senes: How translators carry baton across finish line in race to take Chinese film and TV abroad
Published: Aug 10, 2021 04:51 PM
Photo: Courtsey of Transn

Photo: Courtsey of Transn

No longer limited to introducing Hollywood blockbusters into China, the Chinese film and television industry has been sailing overseas in recent years, with a particular boost from the Belt and Road Initiative (B&R) since 2017. 

The country has been smoothly pushing a "going-global" strategy with a string of dramas, movies and variety shows becoming big hits in Southeast Asia. Through this all, the contributions of the professional subtitle translators who act as bridges for these cultural exchanges cannot be ignored.

Sailing south

Chinese reality show Youth With You Season 2 has gained a large number of fans worldwide. To further its international appeal, in March 2020 popular South Korean idol Lisa joined the show as a mentor. 

According to media reports, the show trended on Twitter nearly 300 times while it was airing, attracting global fans from North America to Southeast Asia.

Apart from big name stars, the show is also popular thanks to a company called Transn, which provides a variety of translation services, including subtitles. 

"In recent years most of the Chinese movies and variety shows we have translated have gone to Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam. For example, our country's [suspense comedy] Detective Chinatown have become hot in Malaysia," a representative of a translation company called Transn also told the Global Times on Friday.

The Wuhan-based company, founded in 2005, has provided Chinese subtitles for foreign film and television works such as Captain Marvel, Coco, Dangal and The Lion King, covering 46 languages such as English, French, Japanese and Thai. It has also been helping Chinese productions "sail overseas" by providing subtitles for various local languages where these shows air. 

When talking about why Chinese movies and TV works have become such sudden sensations, Transn believed that the "similar cultural background" between China and countries in Southeast Asia meant people could better "understand those Chinese stories."

Yet apart from cultural resemblances, China's B&R has also made contributions when it comes to internationalizing the country's movie and TV industry.

Since 2017, the B&R has required films and TV dramas to establish an international vision in order to raise cultural exchanges to a global level, including studying other countries' cultures such as education and customs, conducting film-related academic discussions and exporting domestic movies and TV dramas.

"Translation companies are playing an important role in subtitle production," said Jiang Zheng, CEO of BESTEASY.

The company, funded in 2004, has provided subtitles for foreign films including Guardians of the Galaxy and Tenet, and produced subtitles in 48 languages in 2020 alone.

"Production companies or issuers will come to us [when they finish a movie and need overseas distribution] to make foreign subtitles," said Jiang, adding that translation companies perform as "the last 'person' to receive the baton from them during a relay race of the film and television exchanges."

"A large number of our domestic works are exported to countries within the B&R, and our neighboring countries and regions, such as South Korea, Japan and Indonesia."

Breaking cultural barriers

In addition to shows and movies, the traditional Chinese costume dramas have also shown their appeal in Southeast Asia, as observers say the traditional Chinese culture is influential in those areas.

However, film and television communication researchers believe that it is necessary to "jump over the language barrier if the domestic movies and dramas want to go global."

Statistics show that 70 percent of overseas participants think that subtitles for Chinese movies are "quite hard to understand," according to media reports, making proper translation a priority for Chinese culture to go abroad.

The subtitle translation industry is transiting their working mode from simply translating the text to comprehensive cultural communication, where a range of works are included in translation, such as rewriting texts and dubbing, to ensure consistency.

Yet cultural gaps and elements such as history, folklore or even religion make the work very difficult.

"We've been trying to make a balance between keeping our own culture in the subtitles and making them as local as possible in the target language. That's important in translation and that's what we do," representative of Transn told the Global Times.