The Three Stooges in China
The voice of Curly, dubbing and pirate film translation

By David Moser

I’m at a teahouse in a quiet Beijing city park, and sitting across from me is the voice of Curly for the Mandarin-dubbed version of The Three Stooges on Chinese TV. His name is Cui Song, a teacher in the foreign languages department of the Central University of Radio and Television. A soft-spoken academic, he seems to inhabit a completely different dimension from the slapstick world of Moe, Larry, and Curly.

“Can you do the laugh?” I ask him. “You know, that laugh?” He nods. He knows what I’m talking about.

Nyuk nyuk nyuk!” he suddenly erupts, in an imitation of Curly so compelling that I’m suddenly transported from Beijing to my family’s living room floor in Eureka, Kansas, circa 1959, a bowl of popcorn at my side and the black-and-white TV tuned to the Saturday afternoon Three Stooges broadcast. I nearly spill my tea in the shock of recognition. Cui Song is proud of his craft.

“I’m the only one who could do that laugh,” he says, happy to be in the presence of an American who can verify the accuracy of his rendition. Cui Song studied Curly’s vocal mannerisms carefully in order to dub the role.

“You see, each syllable starts from almost nothing and then gets louder,” he explains. “This soft-to-loud quality is very characteristic of Curly’s speech. Moe is entirely different, and speaks in a clipped, bossy manner. He’s easier to imitate.”

Being fluent in Chinese, it is a surreal experience for me to watch these classic Stooges episodes dubbed into Mandarin. The familiar threesome insult each other with lines like “You stupid egg!” and “Has water entered your brain?” and “What a silly melon you are!” as they bop each other on the head. And, in a house-painting scene when Moe says to Larry “Gimme the brush, Ein-steen!”, the mispronunciation of “Einstein” is lost in the flat translation of the Mandarin dub, thus missing the mild irony of Moe’s error. But thanks to Cui Song, at least Curly’s laugh is eerily authentic.

If one looks at the plethora of cretinous slapstick Hong Kong comedy films the fill the airwaves in China, it would seem that the Three Stooges fit rather seamlessly into the Far East meme space. But there are occasional problems. One Beijing TV director said during a programming meeting, “I’m not sure this show is right for children. The Three Stooges are quite violent, and are always hitting each other. Doesn’t this promote the notion of using violence in conflict resolution?” And a TV anchor remarked to me as we watched the show on studio monitor, “See? A steady diet of this kind of stuff, and the Americans end up with a president who attacks Iraq for no reason at all.” Quite so.

The Three Stooges is just a drop in a veritable flood of Western TV drek that pours in each year. The floodgates opened in the late 1980s, when the classic My Favorite Martian, translated as Huoxing shushu Mading, “Martian Uncle Martin”, appeared on Chinese TV. (I still remember vividly that the episodes were inexplicably missing the laugh track, which gave them an interesting theater-of-the-absurd quality.) Other early imports were Man from Atlantis and Hunter, which developed a kind of cult status in China. After that, all hell broke loose, and cultural non-sequiturs like Get Smart and Charlie’s Angels were being sandwiched between Peking Opera, kung-fu epics, and news footage of Deng Xiaoping.

Cui Song is kept busy putting a Chinese voice to all this influx of American entertainment. In addition to Curly, Cui Song has been the voice of Dr. John Carter in ER, Tony Almeida in 24 Hrs., Norman McLean’s father in A River Runs Through It, and has dubbed numerous roles in movies like Married to the Mob, and animated films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Given that each week on Chinese TV and in Chinese movie theaters there are dozens of foreign movies, TV series, and documentaries to be aired, Cui Song and his fellow dubbers are never out of work.

However, Cui’s voice is in demand only for the relatively few movies and TV shows that bother to deal with cumbersome copyrights and legal distribution rights. More than 90% of the DVDs on the market are bootleg, and these for these products, which are dirt cheap and easily copied, dubbing is a prohibitively slow and expensive way of providing a translation. For such pirated films, subtitles are the only way to go.

The bootleg DVD market in China is white hot. Beijing movie fans eagerly await the release of the newest Hollywood blockbuster, and as with other countries, the curiosity factor is extremely important in the first few weeks. Bootleggers must get their product onto the market within a week after the film’s world release, before the publicity blitz subsides and the novelty fades. This means the whole thing, from digital mastering to packaging has to be done almost overnight. When Spiderman 2 was released in American theaters, I could buy a bootleg DVD of the film three days later in Beijing. How do the pirates get such films on the market so fast?

The first step is to illegally record it. Believe it or not, this is done by merely sneaking a video camcorder into an American movie theater and filming the whole movie as it is projected onto the screen. This means not only that the image quality of the first bootleg version is execrable, but in addition, sounds of audience members sneezing and munching popcorn can be heard, and occasionally a human silhouette will cross the screen as a patron gets up to use the bathroom.

The next step is to digitize the information and send it via Internet to various processing sites in China and elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands of copies are mass produced using substandard equipment (usually one out of ten of these first-run bootlegs turn out to be unplayable when you get the disk home), and splashy packaging is hurriedly typeset and printed, resulting in some quite dada-esque DVD box covers. Images are pieced together from publicity photos and graphics from the movie, and English text is added willy-nilly, either copied, in garbled form, from the cover of some other VCD entirely, or randomly downloaded from the Internet. I once ran across a DVD of some soft-core European porno movie, which, according to the cover blurb, seemed to star Noam Chomsky.

And of course, Mandarin subtitles must be added, or the product is unsellable. The problem is that competent translation takes time, which is something these underground entrepreneurs do not have. The solution is to hire someone with at least minimal English comprehension to watch the movie and quickly add Chinese subtitles. Of course, most such fly-by-night translators have neither the linguistic skills nor the cultural background to understand ordinary rapidfire colloquial English, much less the slangy, postmodernist meme soup in the dialogue for a film like Kill Bill. Thus what ends up in the subtitles is a lot of wild guesses, straining inferences, and outright confabulations, all in order to come up with something approximating a translation. For the unsuspecting Chinese viewer, watching these hastily produced subtitles can be confusing and surreal. Understandably, the listening comprehension of the translators tends to falter when the topic turns to sex, as can be seen from these examples from a bootleg DVD boxset of Queer as Folk:

Original English: “Linda Luttsky? She became a lap dancer in Scranton.” Chinese subtitles: “Luttsky? She became a laboratory dancer in Scranton.”

Original English: “To the neighbors we’re just the fags next door.”
Chinese subtitles: “The neighbors think there is a fax machine next door.”

Original English: “It might just be easier to be with someone who’s [HIV] positive.”
Chinese subtitles: “I think it’s easier to be someone with a positive attitude.”

And this nice example from a bootleg of Sex and the City:

Original English: “She gives hand jobs for a living.” Chinese subtitles: “She is a manual laborer.”

No wonder Chinese people always ask me, after watching an American DVD, “What in the world are you foreigners thinking?”

My friend Cui Song is nostalgic about the days, when dubbing was considered high art, and dubbers were often famous stars in their own right. “Their voices were instantly recognizable,” he says, “and we all knew their names. The artists who dubbed classic films like The Sound of Music and Roman Holiday were like movie stars themselves. They were my heroes.” I can attest to Cui’s memories. When I was in China in 1992, the Peking University intelligentsia would rush back to their dorms after their mess hall dinner to catch the regular 6:00 broadcast of the newly-imported Mickey Mouse cartoons, and would rave about the dubber who had miraculously transmogrified Donald Duck’s adenoidal voice into Mandarin.

Though its heyday is passed, dubbing is still admired as an art form in China, and there are even several websites devoted to the topic, among them
China Dubbing Net (zhongguo peiyin wang) and Hansheng Dubbing Forum (hansheng peiyin luntan), where dubbing fans can read interviews with the stars and chat about their favorite dubbed movies.

As English increasingly becomes the universal language, dubbing becomes somewhat less important. There are currently 300 million English learners in China, and as the 2008 Beijing Olympic games approach, the Chinese government is putting greater emphasis on the study of English. Thus it is quite possible that someday in the distant future, the sublime subtlety of The Three Stooges can be directly appreciated and savored by the Chinese people, without the help of dubbing artists like Cui Song.

Nyuk nyuk nyuk.

The author is a program consultant and host at China Central Television in Beijing.
Copyright 2004, David Moser

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There are currently 1 Comments for The Three Stooges in China.

Comments on The Three Stooges in China


I moved to ShangHai last year, and I've been going crazy trying to find somewhere to buy a complete set of stooges dubbed in Mandarin, but I can only find 3 stooges at work. Do you know of a website selling more episodes?



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