Some 30 years ago, Chinese moviegoers began enjoying foreign films, for most the only bridge to the world outside. Today foreign films are screened regularly and are widely available yet no one would appreciate them, were it not for the work of a dedicated band of translators and actors who dub the films. But nowadays film dubbing has a shrinking market thanks to subtitles.

Cao Lei is a renowned voice actress and former director of the Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio (SFDS). The 72-year-old veteran knows well the difficulties and the triumphs of dubbing, but is especially aware that before the dubbing the translators have to get the script right.

“Without a good translation of the screenplay, no matter how good the voice actors are, they cannot perform well. People remember some of the good voice actors, but they never think of the work of the translators. As a voice actor I know that without good translations, audiences wouldn’t remember any actor,” Cao said.

Lu Yaorong is a 27-year-old translator with SFDS, the studio which has brought some classic films to Chinese audiences including Jane Eyre, Waterloo Bridge and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “In the past it could take two or three months to complete a translation but nowadays a translator is required to finish a film in about seven days,” she said.

The demand for quality film translations is increasing in China. Groups of enthusiasts translate new releases on the Internet so that Chinese people can enjoy the latest films through their subtitles. But translators have big tasks in front of them for every film. Especially when they have to adapt new expressions or catchphrases.

Street language

Former SFDS director Cao Lei explained: “The art of translating films is to be able to reproduce the style of the original movie, the meaning of the script and the characters of the people, letting audiences enjoy the original movie as far as possible. It is not that vernacular expressions are forbidden. If the original film uses a lot of street language, we have to use as much in our translations.”

Translations for films like Toy Story 3, Kung Fu Panda 2 and Madagascar 3 used Chinese colloquial phrases like naocan (idiot) and fuyun (trivial matters), to the enjoyment of local audiences.

When the Chinese-dubbed version of Man In Black 3 was screened it created a mild furor. The translation was completed by a Beijing dubbing studio and was then praised by a Fudan University professor but a stack of netizens went on to complain that the Putonghua catchphrases the translation employed were adopted just as a meaningless populist move. Others said that hearing well-known Chinese expressions coming from the mouths of foreigners was absurd – neither fish nor fowl.

Translator Lu Yaorong said there were difficulties in using trendy Chinese expressions for Western film characters. “Whenever I use popular expressions I make sure I limit the number I use. And I have to consider whether the use of these expressions might distract the audience from the film. The idea is to make the audience laugh but not divert them from the essence of the film. We shouldn’t have people thinking that a phrase was too weird for a situation or find that an expression distracts them from the plot,” Lu said.

Another translator, Xu Siyue, said that not all films were suitable for modern expressions. “Movies like The King’s Speech don’t need these sorts of catchphrases and even the online subtitle translators avoid them.” Translators also eschew using modern expressions in historical and costume dramas.

“The movies that use these expressions most are animated feature films. The language in these films is easy to understand and flexible. The expressions used have to be readily grasped and fit the scenes. We don’t use any of these modern expressions without thinking about the English meaning. When we used naocan the original English script used ‘idiot.’ But if we used the Chinese word baichi, it sounded too plain. At that time, naocan was becoming a popular term, so we used it,” Lu Yaorong said.

“We are cautious with the use of these expressions. After all our dubbing has been completed, the director, the voice actors, sound engineers and translators watch the movie together to see if these expressions are distracting. If anyone of us cannot understand a phrase, we drop it,” she said.

More freedom

The translators who produce subtitles for online movies have more freedom. “Some of these translators are skilled. I think at least 80 percent or 90 percent of their translations are precise even though they do not have the original scripts of the films they are working on and they often just work from the dialogue,” Lu Yaorong said.

The dubbing studio translators work from the original scripts with additional notes. “Foreign moviemakers are very serious and dedicated. To help us better understand their movies, they give us notes and explanations for almost every line, explaining the context. Sometimes the characters don’t mean what they literally say. So we can do the job more accurately than the online translators, who sometimes don’t understand the meaning behind the lines because they do not have a complete script,” Lu said.

Cao thinks the modern translations are often not as good as translations in earlier days. On one film she worked on, the city of San Francisco was mentioned. The usual translation on the Chinese mainland was jiujinshan or “old gold mountain.” “But in that movie the acclaimed translator and dubbing director Chen Xuyi used sanfanshi which is usually the way the city is referred to in Hong Kong and Taiwan. He explained that the name jiujinshan came into use after sanfanshi when the era of the Westward Expansion in the US in the 19th century was already over. But that movie was a story about the west when it was being developed and the name jiujinshan hadn’t been created. Most of those Chinese in San Francisco in those days came from Guangdong Province and translated the name as sanfanshi,” Cao explained.

Another problem for translators is translating English language obscenities, though translator Lu Yaorong said this is not a big problem with the major blockbuster films they work on. “Most of the officially-imported movies do not have many dirty words. And usually the real blockbusters don’t contain a lot of bad language. Overseas movie producers pay a lot of attention to this. If there are some really obscene words, we ignore them. The biggest difficulty in translating is translating ambiguity.”

In one US film a father and a young daughter go to see a show starring the girl’s uncle. Before the show the father tells the uncle to break a leg, a traditional way to wish a performer good luck. The little girl doesn’t understand and asks her father why he wants his brother to break a leg. The father explains that it is a way of wishing him good luck but the girl forgets and goes on to tell her uncle to “break an arm.” Translating this into Chinese without losing the humour was the problem. After two days the translator Chen Xuyi had a brain wave and translated “break a leg” into louyishou, a Chinese expression which says “show your hand” but means to display your talents. So his little girl now said not louyishou but louyijiao -which means to show your foot.

Different strokes

There are different approaches to translating films with English soundtracks and Chinese subtitles and films where the soundtracks have been dubbed into Chinese.

“We base our translations very much on the English original but we have to be careful not to use too many words per frame. If there are too many characters the audience will have to read for too long and will be distracted from the plot and atmosphere of the movie,” said Lu Yaorong. “Online movies with Chinese subtitles can offer more information and background in the subtitles. There is no limit on the number of characters they can use in a frame.”

The big screen movie translators have to limit their translations to 15 characters per frame, the accepted limit for a person to be able to read and follow the action of the film as well. Big screen translators cannot put extra information or explanations into brackets like the online translators can. They have to be very precise with the language they choose.

Translating for dubbing is another style entirely. Xu Siyue translated the Chinese-dubbed version of The King’s Speech. “I think our work is more like team work with all the other people involved – the director, actors and actresses, though we translators usually finish each movie by ourselves to ensure the continuity of the language and style.”

“Translators have to take into consideration the lip movements when they translate scripts for dubbing actors. We try to select words that match the lip movements and the length of the sentences,” said Lu Yaorong.

Nowadays most moviegoers are young people who can understand some English and movies with English soundtracks and subtitles are becoming more popular. The professional movie translators are facing a crisis as online translators spread and multiply.

Movies nowadays are not simple affairs. Lu Yaorong said the 3-D and IMAX versions offer audiences a new experience. “If moviegoers watch a movie in a cinema, they must enjoy it more than they would by watching it at home. If you have to read subtitles, this is a distraction.”

Easy to enjoy

“The dialogue in today’s films is very sophisticated. Every sentence and every word have been carefully crafted. A good translation makes it easier for an audience to really understand the film. The advantage of a dubbed version is that you don’t have to think hard to know what they are talking about. The Chinese dialogue has explained everything adequately. You can focus on the screen and the action. It is easier to really enjoy a movie,” said Lu Yaorong.

“Though many people think it is weird to see foreigners speaking Chinese, some of the translations and dubbing are as good as the original films. I think that maybe in the future the demand for dubbed films will be stronger than ever,” she said.

Veteran Cao Lei said the future of film dubbing was unpredictable. “The decreasing number of dubbed movies is a result of more imported films, most of which come from the US so people think all films are in English. If we see more movies from other countries, there will be a need for dubbing. Too many of the films imported at present are so shallow that they really don’t need careful translations – just give them a rough translation and an audience will understand what is going on.”