Closer Subtitle Surrealism
23 Mar 2005
Everyone knows that in China piracy of American movies runs rampant. The USA acts all angry, and every now and then Beijing makes an attempt to do something about it in order to placate the WTO. Nothing new. I really couldn’t care less about Hollywood’s lost revenues. China’s pirated DVDs do affect my life in other less expected ways, however.
New American releases are obtained as early as possible and mass-produced in China quickly and cheaply. The earlier an eagerly awaited Hollywood title hits the streets in DVD form, the quicker it will be snatched up by movie fans. It should come as no surprise, then, that the quality of translation of the Chinese subtitles for these DVDs can be less than reliable. I’d say that the translations for Chinese subtitles on DVDs fit into three categories:
- Professional. These are usually obtained from an official source and are quite trustworthy. The Chinese is often natural and idiomatic.
- Hit and Miss. Whoever did the translation could understand a lot of the English dialogue and translate it with a degree of accuracy, but there are clearly some mistakes. Sometimes you can even tell what English word or phrase the translator thought he heard, based on the Chinese. This category can cause some confusion for Chinese viewers, but it’s usually good enough overall to tell the story.
- WTF?! For some movies (often the earliest, fuzzy camcorder pirated editions) the “translator” clearly did nothing more than guess at what the people are saying based on visual clues. This can be pretty hilarious if you can understand the original dialogue as well as the Chinese, but it must be very frustrating for the average viewer relying on the Chinese subtitles.
OK, so this whole situation is kind of funny… except for the fact that it can ruin my movie experiences. Why? Because if I’m watching an American movie with my girlfriend, she reads the subtitles. Conscientious boyfriend that I am, I can’t help but do periodic translation checks to ensure that my girlfriend is getting a decent idea of what’s going on. The more mistakes I notice, the more I pay attention to the subtitles so that I can clue her in on important dialogue. Often, before long I’m finding myself explaining the movie in Chinese instead of enjoying it. I guess I can live with that, though, since the movies cost $1 each.
But back to the absurdity of the whole thing. Can you imagine it? A Hollywood movie. The original dialogue has been chucked out the window, save for a few sturdy globs here and there. The rest of the dialogue has just been… made up. Fabricated. By some Chinese guy who’s undoubtedly poorly paid and under a lot of pressure to get the subtitles done now. And I don’t think I have to say that he’s unlikely to have a strong education in Western culture. That’s OK, he can still do subtitles for Western movies with themes ranging from terrorism to Catholic traditions to abnormal psychology. No problem.
The scary thing is that if he’s any good, some Chinese viewers might not realize they’ve been swindled. They may have gotten an alternate version of the story — which shared the same visuals as the original — that was convincing enough that they think they understood it as it was meant to be understood. “I thought the reviews said something about brilliant social commentary,” they reflect for just a few moments after finishing the movie. “Those silly Americans….”
Well, I can do more than just make suppositions, in this case. I actually transcribed a scene from a Chinese DVD copy of the Oscar-nominated film Closer. I transcribed the original English dialogue, but I also translated the Chinese subtitles into English for comparison.
Dan’s lines are in a rich blue. Alice’s lines are in a dark pink. Since the Chinese subtitles are only a shadow of their English counterparts, Dan’s lines translated from Chinese are in a lighter blue under the original, and Alice’s lines translated from Chinese are in a lighter pink under the original. I have added a 汉 at the beginning of the translated-from-Chinese lines just to keep it as clear as possible. You’ll find that it can be a little difficult keeping the parallel (occasionally intersecting) dialogues in your head at once.
(On the bus.)
A: How did you end up writing obituaries?
汉A: What kinds of things do you like?
D: Well, I had dreams of being a writer…
汉D: I like drinking beer.
D: But I had no voice — what am I saying??
汉D: But I don’t drink often. Also…
D: …I had no talent. So I ended up in obituaries, which is…
汉D: I love singing. I can sing many songs.
D: …the Siberia of journalism.
汉D: …including German folk songs.
A: Tell me what you do. I wanna imagine you in Siberia.
汉A: I hope I’ll have a chance to hear you sing.
D: Well… we call it “the obits page.”
汉D: Well… we don’t often sing.
D: There’s three of us. Me, Graham, and Harry.
汉D: Because everyone is really busy.
D: When I get to work, without fail — are you sure you wanna know?
汉D: Especially when I’m working. Extremely busy.
D: Well, if someone important died, we go to the “deep freeze.”
汉D: If someone died, we would sing the funeral hymn.
D: Which is, um, a computer file with all the obituaries, and we find that person’s life.
汉D: Although I rarely sing, singing is something I can’t do without in my life.
A: People’s obituaries are written while they’re still alive?
汉A: Do people like your singing?
D: Some people’s. Then Harry — he’s the editor — he decides who we’re going to lead with…
汉D: Some people. Sometimes we get invitations [to sing].
D: We make calls, we check facts…
汉D: Some are favors, some paid…
D: At six we stand around at the computer and look at the next day’s page…
汉D: We’re all happy to do it; the money doesn’t matter. It’s great.
D: …make final changes, add a few euphemisms for our own amusement…
汉D: It’s a kind of addiction. But it’s not like alcoholism.
A: Such as?
D: “He was a convivial fellow.” …meaning he was an alcoholic.
汉D: I have a really strange friend. A homosexual.
D: “He valued his privacy.” …gay. “Enjoyed his privacy” …raging queen.
汉D: But he’s content with his lot in life.
A: What would my euphemism be?
汉A: Guess what kind of person I am.
D: “She was disarming.”
汉D: You’re a cute girl.
A: That’s not a euphemism.
汉A: I’m not cute at all.
D: Yes it is.
汉D: Yes, you are.
(Some time passes…)
D: What were you doing in New York?
汉D: What were you doing in New York?
A: You know.
汉A: You know.
D: Well, no, I don’t… What, were you… studying?
汉D: No, I don’t know. Are you… studying?
A: Look at your little eyes.
汉A: Your eyes are so pretty.
D: I can’t see my little eyes.
汉D: Your eyes are even prettier.
Impressive, no? For my own amusement, I have graphed the two dialogues below:
I should note that the whole movie was not this bad. This is a particularly WTF scene subtitle-wise. The subtitles of my copy of Closer are probably halfway between the WTF and Hit and Miss categories overall. Love stories are not so hard to figure out, but a relatively inconsequential bus ride with few context clues just unleashes the imagination of the “translator,” it would seem.
This example, I’m afraid, is by no means unrepresentative of the subtitle work provided by the hard-working DVD pirates. What are the ramifications of this? Well, it means every time I talk to a Chinese person about a movie we’ve seen separately, I feel a gap. Sure, we watched the same movie, but we may very well have experienced a somewhat different story. Exaggeration? Perhaps. But then again, maybe every scene of that movie was translated similarly to the scene above. You just don’t know. Furthermore, until this situation changes, the average Chinese citizen’s efforts at foreign film appreciation have been thoroughly sabotaged.