Translations Failing Chinese Movie Success in the West

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Have you ever watched a Chinese film? No? Not surprising. New research has shown that poor translations might be the reason you’ve never watched one. The lack of fluent translators helping with subtitles is holding back the Chinese movie industry going global.

According to the Global Times, a white paper issued by the Beijing Normal University revealed that bad subtitles are one of the main reasons Chinese films are not very popular in the west. Even though China has emerged as a big movie market, films made in the country are not very successful, not even in Chinese cinemas. In 2012, more than half of China’s box office (17 billion yuan or 2.77 billion GBP) was generated by blockbusters form abroad. In addition, only 75 films were sold to foreign markets, which only yielded 1 billion yuan or 174 milion GBP.

The research consisted of a survey that was held amongst 1,117 people from 107 countries. 29.9 per cent of the participants believed that subtitling was one of the three major fields on which Chinese films should improve. Huang Huilin, the dean of AICCC, said Chinese filmmakers still have difficulties with conveying Chinese values to the Western public. One of the researchers, Xiao Wei, said to Metropolitan: Sometimes you simply cannot find an equivalent word in English. 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.”

example of poorly translated chinese film english subtitle

There are Chinese films, however, that are received with open arms by the rest of the world. These films are often Chinese action, kung fu or comedy-based films: when the respondents of the survey were asked to describe Chinese film in one word, most of them answered Jackie Chan. Jet Li and Bruce Lee were also mentioned. Huang: “Action, kung fu and comedy films contain more body language than spoken language, which makes them easier to understand.”

The white paper advised Chinese filmmakers to hire translators from the country in which they speak the language they wish to have the subtitles in. It stated: “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.” Chen Shaofeng, the deputy dean of Peking University’s Institute for Cultural Industries, does not agree. He believes that “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.”

“However,” Chen continued, “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 competitors. If this situation remains unchanged, these films can hardly achieve overseas success regardless of how they’re translated.”

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