Translation misery

Updated: 2013-03-16 08:04

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

Translation misery

Translation misery

Good translation for movies makes you forget the actors on screen are speaking a language you do not understand; bad translation, such as the one for Les Miserables, makes you wish you had mastered that foreign language.

The movie version of Les Miserables has caught many in China by surprise, and part of the reason is in its Chinese translation. As a sung-through musical, it did not get the usual treatment of dubbing, which, in retrospect, would have been an interesting experiment.

Anyway, the 2-hour 38-minute film bored some to the exit, while moving many more to tears. Of those who were touched by the fate of Fantine or felt uplifted by the values of Valjean, quite a few were disgusted at the level of translation. It doesn't take an expert to know that the Chinese subtitles are way below par.

For one thing, there are dozens of mistakes. The first jumped out at you in the opening scene when Javert orders Valjean to "retrieve the flag". It was turned into "lower the flag" in Chinese. Well, the flag was already lying on the floor, for God's sake.

Granted, you cannot render every English word literally into Chinese. But this translator made strange choices. When literal translation is good enough, he would extrapolate. Fantine's singing of her encounter with a young man who slept with her and then deserted her is couched in tender imagery, but the Chinese rendition opted for the blunt and brutal, adding details that are not in the original lyrics. Paradoxically, the word "Lucifer" in Javert's song was given a transliteration, which means a viewer has to have taken several courses in both English language and religion to know that line.

On top of it, the translator seemed to be oblivious of the fact that both Victor Hugo's literary classic and the 1958 French film have gained wide popularity in China and most of the proper nouns in the story have generally accepted Chinese equivalents already. For example, Inspector Javert has always been "Police chief Shawei", and now it suddenly became "Investigator Jiaweier".

I have no idea who was responsible for hiring the translator, who, by the way, is not even mentioned in the superimposed Chinese credits. Could it be Universal Pictures' Chinese office, or the Chinese distributor of the movie? Whoever it is did not conduct due diligence. As it turns out, there are musical aficionados who had been vying with each other in coming up with singable lyrics, which are much more difficult to pull off than a simple conversion with no regard to syllables and tones. Any of the versions available on is better than the one used for the theatrical release. All one needs to do is license it, and hopefully have someone double-checking with the movie lyrics.

I strongly suspect the hired translator is an employee of a translating service. These people are supposed to be professionals, yet time and again they have proven to be far less competent than amateurs who pour their hearts - and lots of time - into it.

Translation firms generally deal with business or legal documents, but movie dialogue (let alone lyrics) is tantamount to literary work. It requires people who know the subjects inside and out and have the ability to reproduce it in another language.

So, who are the ones that fit this description? There are two groups as I see it: One is academics and scholars who study the subjects for a living. A few years ago, I was invited to a Kunqu Opera performance of The Peony Pavilion. The English title projection made some foreigners laugh at the wrong moments. I inquired with the production company, who revealed it was done by a translation service. I said it was awful. They knew it because they had observed the reaction of non-Chinese in the audience. They asked me whether I could help "improve" upon it. I said no. There is a professor who devoted his whole life translating this theater classic into English - in its 20-hour entirety, and all they need is to use the lines in their abridged version, with his permission of course.

Say, if you are given the task of translating a filmization of a Shakespeare play, compare the existing Chinese versions and pick the one best suited for the occasion. There is little chance you can better what the old professors have done - unless the movie is set in a contemporary high school and you fancy up-to-the-minute slang.

The other group is skewed toward the young. They are mostly college students who volunteer to translate foreign television shows and movies into Chinese. True, they operate in a legal grey area because they are not authorized by the copyright owners. But they do not make any money out of it, either. They are driven by a passion to share what's hot in the outside world.

Called "caption groups", they came into being when Prison Break, the American drama series, made its debut, and have now become a driving force in spreading mostly Western entertainment in the Middle Kingdom. There is no way Chinese audiences could have managed to circumvent the movie import quota and access huge collections of video material without their unique input.

Caption groups work under time constraints. They race with each other to upload the fastest and highest-quality Chinese rendition. They work in groups of four or five. Ironically, very few of them are English-language majors. If they have a medical show, such as Grey's Anatomy or House, they would have at least one medical student in their group. As members of a group can be far-flung geographically, local expertise is often involved. When I see certain abbreviated terms rendered correctly, I know the translators - or one of them - must be based in North America. No textbook or dictionary alone would have provided that piece of information.

One added feature that distinguishes caption groups from regular translators is their use of explanatory notes. When an allusion is made in the dialogue, they would give a regular translation and then add a brief explanation in a pair of parentheses. Many lines would sound drab to a Chinese audience, but a strategic jab at its connotation would awaken Chinese viewers to its ingenuity.

Of course, caption groups make errors, too. And they can be humorously honest and put down a line such as, "I truly don't know what this line means".

These amateur groups actually match the old professors on two counts: They make it a passion and they are either experts in the field or get expert help. According to Kaiser Kuo of Sinica podcast fame, the Chinese subtitle of the 13-episode House of Cards somehow captures the essence and style of the original. (Could one of the anonymous translators be working as an intern on Capitol Hill?)

It is reported that caption group members, though working for free, end up with one intangible benefit after all. When they graduate and seek jobs, their experience as such volunteer translators often give them a competitive edge. Potential employers tend to value their devotion to what they do as well as their language skill.

However, idealism is short-lived. Once they are employed and married, these members drop out of the groups. As a matter of fact, even paid translators are paid very little. Most translators of literature have to get day jobs to support themselves. With a fraction of the necessary knowledge, one could get much higher pay in a multinational corporation. Translators are demanded a lot and compensated very little, leaving only those whose zeal overrides their financial concerns. That is why translation as an art is doomed, and the Chinese subtitle of Les Mis is a testament to its decay.

Contact the writer at

(China Daily 03/16/2013 page11)