Film translation deserves consideration as an art form. Gao Yiyang reports on the wordsmiths and the difficulties they face getting things perfect for the big screen.
For super celebs Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks, learning Chinese ranks low on their list of priorities. But in local cinemas, Hollywood's A-list stars all speak fluent Chinese.
What's their secret?
All scripts are translated into Chinese and dubbed using Chinese actors.
"Film and TV translation is completely different from other kinds of translations," says Qian Shaochang, 72, a translator and professor at the Shanghai International Studies University. "It's much more demanding. It has to make sense. Due to the speciality of drama lines, translation work requires unique techniques, cultural sensitivity and an accurate understanding of the meaning of each word."
Translation and dubbing for a 90-minute film, for instance, usually takes approximately one week and costs between 60,000 yuan (US$7,229) and 70,000 yuan.
Qian, who has been translating scripts for nearly 20 years, notes that all script lines in Chinese need to be as close as possible to the original, and the lengths of sentences almost identical to its English counterpart. Each sentence must match the original's syllables, therefore helping to synchronize lip movements of the Chinese dubbed version and help the film look as natural as possible.
Zou Ling, 68, who has been working in the translation department for Shanghai TV since 1984, insists that it's even more complicated than merely matching lip movements.
"Besides lip movements, characters' gestures and the tempo of the line also needs to match," she says. "Sometimes the structure of one sentence may be right in English and inverted in Chinese, then we have to restructure the Chinese sentence to make it understandable to our audience. All lines translated should be pure Chinese, but still contain foreign sentiment." Not an easy assignment. Given that dubbing and translation are not precise sciences, a fair amount of rule breaking does occur. It all depends on the situation really. Various problems can be encountered during the process -- whether you are a seasoned veteran or a first-timer.
Qian cites one episode of the 1980s sitcom Growing Pains, when Mike Seaver is applying for a teaching position at Dewey High School. The headmaster poses the question: "Who knows martial arts?" One of the applicants replies: "I only know Marshall Schwartz."
Martial arts and Marshall Schwartz have similar sounds and is a simple play on words for a quick laugh. But in Chinese they are completely different. If Qian translated the dialogue literally, the joke is lost, leaving viewers confused. Therefore, he takes a creative license to keep the idea of the original line.
After several tries, "martial arts" becomes "wushu" with "Marshal Schwartz" also turning into "wushu," but with a different tone that means wizardry. The play on words is preserved and the comedic effect retained.
Despite the best efforts of translators, not everything will come out just right. Zou recalls a difficult experience. She remembers being asked to translate a character's name Testmaker -- an inventor. The name implies the character's identity. But for Zou, it presents a problem. "If I translated it literally, it wouldn't sound like a foreigner's name," she says.
"If I transliterated it, the implication wouldn't remain in Chinese."
She ultimately had to make a choice between two evils. She picked the latter.
"Translation causes something of the original to be lost, more or less," she says. "Sometimes we have no solutions. But if a perfect answer presents itself, that is the greatest joy."
As pioneers in the translation field, both Qian and Zou have experienced pleasure and sadness of the business for more than two decades. Still, film translation in China dates back to the 1940s -- prior to the founding of the People's Republic of China.
After the founding of New China, Changchun Film Studio in Jilin Province was the first company translating foreign films. Shortly after, Shanghai opened it's first translation company -- the Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio -- in 1957. Since 1980s, foreign films and television series started appearing on domestic TV screens more often.
The span of 1988 to 1995 is considered the golden period for local imported film and TV translation. The Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio was translating about 70 to 80 imported films and TV series at this time. Meanwhile, Qian's works -- Falcon Crest, Hotel, Roots, Dynasty and Growing Pains, all TV series -- have also proved popular with Chinese viewers.
Business has declined sharply in recent years, however. Only 17 films were translated by the local film dubbing studio in 2002 -- about 75 percent fewer than during the golden era.
Policy is one reason for the decrease. Local TV stations no longer have the right to import foreign TV series. China Central TV monopolizes all imported TV shows while the Beijing-based China Film Group Corp controls foreign films.
"That's bad," Qian says. "Currently few good films are imported. Audiences, of course, aren't so interested in mediocre movies."
Zou echoes Qian's sentiments. "The golden time has disappeared and may not return," she sighs.
"With fewer films, only a small number of translators are needed. Film distributors just want experienced people. It's hard to develop new talent now."
Pirated DVDs are also to blame. With foreign films available within days of its overseas release date, many young people prefer watching the cheaper disks than heading to the cinema.
Zhang Yu, 21, a movie buff, says she prefers original sound plus subtitles. "Sometimes translation changes the meaning," she says.
"Though Chinese dubbing is easier and more comfortable to understand, only the original sound can bring the best feeling and emotions of the situation."
Even though, Qiao Zhen, 61, one of China's most renowned dubbers and also the director of the Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio, firmly believes the translation and dubbing industry in China still enjoys great potential and vitality.
"Most Chinese don't understand English or other foreign languages," he says. "Subtitles help a bit. But sometimes they may distract the audience's attention and even block part of the screen."
No matter what happens, one thing is guaranteed, international stars will "speak" Chinese for years to come.
(Eastday.com June 26, 2003)