Fast-paced lives of film subtitlers

Logos of subtitle groups.
In August, the weekly magazine YWeekend was among the few media outlets that didn't pan the second Garfield movie. The paper's always been giddy about online culture, and it was quite excited to discover that the dubbing in Garfield 2 had made liberal use of contemporary online slang.

Last week, the paper returned to the subject of the Internet's role in movie translation. The first half of the article revisits last August's report on net-slang in the movies with updates for some recent films like Night at the Museum. Here's a list of techniques to give your translations that cutting-edge feel:

Five strategies for mastering popular translation

  1. Be familiar with the Internet; spend time in forums; understand the newest terminology.
  2. Never, never trust the dictionary you have - even if it is updated every year, it can't keep up. Learn how to use search engines; when you run across words you don't know, then enter "new words, slang, or net-speak" in the search bar and you'll definitely find the newest version.
  3. When you have time, go out and chat with people. Try to speak normal language every day.
  4. Try to read newspapers and magazines and note how the headlines change.
  5. Watch more movies and skits - they contain countless examples of popular terms.

The second half of the feature looks into the growing phenomenon of online translation teams producing subtitles for just-released foreign films and TV shows in record time. Some excerpts:

The fast-draw translation of language geniuses

by Chen Qimei

Eight years of study; eight hours to translate a US series

Xiao San, translator for Into the West, was for 8 years a fanatic student of the history of the American west, and from middle school he has devoured English-language history books. In 2004, when an American friend of his told him that Into the West was about to air, he decided that he had to translate it. At the time, no Chinese subtitle group was aware of the miniseries.

One night in 2004, right after American TV had broadcast the latest two episodes of Into the West, he got his hands on them and spent 8 hours translating, neither eating nor sleeping. Usually, he takes only half the time to translate two episodes of 24. His familiarity with history meant that he was more of a stickler for detail.

Because he is intimately acquainted with that period of history, when he watched one episode he basically knew what the next episode would show. So when translating, he'd frequently "have an epiphany, and suddenly understand what a sentence meant." Xiao San's translations are basically error-free and his language is well-crafted, establishing his position in the translation group.

Xiao San has run with the translation group for three years; he still feels that the translations from "Shanghai Dubbing" are at the peak, but he is confident in himself: "Compared to us folk-translators, Shanghai's translations are concise and invisible - sometimes they're paraphrases, whereas we'll translate American jokes into jokes that Chinese people will understand." To his mind, perfection is this: a person in a movie does not believe the words of someone else, so he makes reference to a famous lie; this was translated into "That's more of a fake than the Xi'an BMW lottery ticket!"

Translation is a sacred feeling

Xiao re was one of the interpreters of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. He's a die-hard fan of that movie. His translation skills have been jokingly described as "freakish" by members of his group.

He doesn't remember phrases that he's satisfied with, but two mistakes he always carries with him: "Once, I translated 'Captain Apollo' as '[Ship] Captain Apollo', but it really should be translated as [Rank] Captain Apollo'; another time, because I wasn't familiar with The Bible, I translated Cain as 凯恩, but it really should be 该隐."*

Most netizens won't look to carefully at the swiftly-passing subtitles, but some people will make big posts correcting mistakes on the translation group forums....

To guarantee quality, re will leave blank the words that he has not come up with, and then he plays the video together with the subtitles, watching it like an audience member to find out the meaning of the blank spots. Finally, he will turn off the sound and watch it again, only looking at the subtitles, as a final copy-edit. This work will take around five hours.

Xiao re cleverly avoids risk: he only takes shows to translate that he likes and has an interest in. "The lead translator of an episode must first like that show before he can completely rise to his potential." However, translating with the "heart" is not necessarily the best option; Xiao re must suppress both his affection for certain characters to avoid making them shine too much and his hatred for other characters so that he is lenient with them. A translator once did the following: when a character made a brazen remark, the translator couldn't help adding "What kind of person is this?" in parenthesis as an aside. Their personal predilections can become hidden footnotes to popular culture.

When he translated Battlestar Galactica, he felt immersed in a holy state of mind: "My own feelings were in utter harmony with the people speaking. I really hoped that I what I translated would do justice to their magnificent words. So in my mind I had the notion that I really, really had to do a good job translating....if you fall in love with a show, that's what you'll do."

Five mistakes and you're out!

How do translators work? How do they divide up the workload? And how do they ensure quality? We interviewed LL, who is in charge of a subtitling group. His work situation brings us closer to the translators hard at work in the tide of "spiritual civilization."

After dinner, LL logs in as usual to the subtitling forum and inquired about the state of progress on 24. Then he exchanges a few words about the newest movies out with other subtitling bosses in his QQ group. Finally he takes out the newest episode of Prison Break as translated by group members. Looking through it, he discovers a number of mistakes..."shoddy, embarrassing! I want it fixed immediately!"

The reporter asked him, "Will they fix it?" He said, "If they don't obey, they're out!" As boss of the subtitle group, LL is ruthless in protection of its reputation: "One episode is divided among four or five members, so each person has just a bit more than ten minutes to do. If they have more than 5 mistakes, then their translation powers are stripped. We want to be like those professional teams who translate with no typos and no grammatical errors."

Making the subtitles as good as the program

Discriminating viewers will choose a subtitle group that they like, just like choosing a desirable restaurant at which to eat Kung Pao Chicken. Competition among subtitle groups is intense, and there is endless conflict between quality and speed.

For a series that airs at 10am in the US, the subtitle group will translate subtitles by 2pm. "Any faster isn't possible," said LL, "unless the American script-writer sent us the script directly." In the first draft of subtitles is sent out to make time, so mistakes are unavoidable. They'll issue a "polished translation" at 10pm to make clarifications and corrections. This is the way many subtitle groups work: endlessly improving the subtitles and issuing newer drafts.

Talent pools awaiting orders

Before 300 had been out long in the US, LL's group assigned crack translators to interpret: two foreign students in Australia, two in New Zealand, and four overseas Chinese online correspondents in the US and Canada accepted the mission. The subtitles came out two weeks later.

"There are many people translating popular pictures together," but the translation itself is strictly voluntary. The realities of work, school, and travel are reasons that people withdraw from translation groups. The nucleus of the group is fixed, but on many occasions they have to recruit temporary translators; any time they cannot find enough suitable translators, their translation speed will be exceeded by another subtitle group. To avoid that eventuality, LL set up a special "talent pool." A recruitment notice posted on the forum is always in effect, and anyone who wants to translate may leave their contact info. When a new show needs translators, LL will fire off a message to those candidates.

Note: Typical Chinese usage follows the Protestant transliteration; Catholic translations use 加音 for Cain.

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There are currently 5 Comments for Fast-paced lives of film subtitlers.

Comments on Fast-paced lives of film subtitlers

These guys sound sweet, but this justification is a bit sad: "Discriminating viewers will choose a subtitle group that they like, just like choosing a desirable restaurant at which to eat Kung Pao Chicken."
I don't think they do, boys (and I know you're boys). We're translators because we're sad, nerdy people. No-one is ever going to appreciate what we do. Live with it - revel in it!

i wonder if american tv or movie companies take legal actions against china for infringement of IP, will those translators be sued as well?

Thanks for letting me know another world.

Phil, actually I think people do choose. I remember back when I was on a better net connection and I would discriminate between American groups who competed to put out better quality copies of TV shows with less commercials in a shorter time. People do appreciate quality.

Interesting stuff. I wish the English fansubbing scene was as organized as this -- there's some pretty obsessive groups specializing in anime fansubs, but subtitling foreign-language movies is mostly an ad hoc job done by individuals, not dedicated groups.

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