I remember when I first moved to China, I used animated films to practice Chinese quite a bit. I quickly discovered that Disney did an especially good jobs with translating (my favorite was the Chinese version of The Emperor’s New Groove). But I also started noticing something strange about a lot of these animated films’ Chinese titles… the word 总动员 appeared, somewhat inexplicably, way too often.
What is 总动员?
It was almost like a formula. In one word, what’s the movie about? That’s the main theme. Then just apply this formula:
[main theme] + 总动员
What was going on? I asked a number of native speakers abut this phenomenon, and none of them had paid the issue much notice. One bit of helpful information they did give, however, was that the word 总动员, in mainland China, is tied in the minds of many to some popular variety shows that came out around the year 2000. Specifically, they were 欢乐总动员 (“Joyous Zongdongyuan“) and 全家总动员 (“Whole Family Zongdongyuan“). Both were loud, fun, programs with lots of active people.
Pleco‘s dictionaries give the following definitions for 总动员:
- General/total mobilization
- General (or total) mobilization
- general mobilization (for war etc)
OK, obviously those aren’t the meanings they’re shooting for in the titles of cartoon movies.
Native speakers seems to have trouble giving an exact definition of this use of 总动员, but the feeling is clear: exciting, happy, lively, 热闹, with lots of people.
The Rise of 总动员
Not appearing in dictionaries did not stop this word from popping up in animated feature titles all over the place, starting shortly before 2000. Many were Disney films, but not all:
- Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3 (1995, 1999, 2010) 玩具总动员: “Toy Zongdongyuan“
- Joe’s Apartment (1996) 蟑螂总动员: “Cockroach Zongdongyuan“
- Finding Nemo (2003) 海底总动员: “Bottom of the Sea Zongdongyuan“
- Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) 巨星总动员: “Megastar Zongdongyuan“
- The Incredibles (2004) 超人总动员: “Superman Zongdongyuan“
- Cars, Cars 2 (2006, 2011) 赛车总动员: “Race Car Zongdongyuan“
- Ratatouille (2007) 美食总动员: “Gourmet Zongdongyuan“
- Bee Movie (2007) 蜜蜂总动员: “Bee Zongdongyuan“
- WALL·E (2008) 机器人总动员: “Robot Zongdongyuan“
- Planes (2013) 飞机总动员: “Airplane Zongdongyuan“
- Free Birds (2013) 火鸡总动员: “Turkey Zongdongyuan“
- Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants (2014) 昆虫总动员: “Ant Zongdongyuan“
This is not a complete list; rather, it’s an attempt to try to capture some of the biggest titles and the range that “zongdongyuan” covers.
OK, some of these seem to work OK… Specifically, Cars seems to deserve the treatment. I can’t help but feel that “Gourmet Zongdongyuan” (Ratatouille) could have been a much better title, though, as could have “Robot Zongdongyuan” (WALL·E).
To be fair, most of these movies actually do have multiple titles, and a casual check seems to indicate that the translators over in Taiwan are putting a bit more thought into the translations of animated feature film titles. Still, I’ve been seeing these zongdongyuan translations for years, and it especially stands out for Disney films, which tend to have excellent translations for the actual movies themselves, despite the total cop-out titles.
The Fall of 总动员
I was thinking the linguistics nerds like me were the only ones that gave this kind of issue any consideration, but fortunately at least some Chinese movie fans are also getting fed up:
A rough translation:
I’m so annoyed by the Chinese translations of animated films. It’s just this zongdongyuan, that zongdongyuan… screw zongdongyuan! Can’t you have just a bit of skill? If you don’t know how to translate, directly using the English title is better than this. You’ve all got culture, but now why so crude? In recent years all movies have been zongdongyuan-ized: cars, toys, bottom of the sea, gourmet food, robots… Do you even know what a zongdongyuan is? Bloody hell! When I see a shoddy translation like this it sets me off. How can such a good move have such a lame translation? I’m so pissed off! I get mad just thinking about it…
Anyway, the good news (for us translation purists) is that in recent years zongdongyuan seems to have worn out its welcome, and quite a few animated movies (including Disney/Pixar films) that almost certainly would have gotten zongdongyuan-ized 5 or 10 years ago did not: Brave, Tangled, A Bug’s Life, Madagascar, Rio, Up, Happy Feet (not 企鹅总动员!), Turbo, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Despicable Me, The Croods (疯狂原始人, “crazy primitive men” rather than 原始人总动员!)… all escaped zongdongyuan-ization. (Whether or not those films’ titles have good Chinese translations, though, is another question… but at least they’re not quite so lazy.)
So did anyone else notice this lazy translation trend, or was it just me?