If you’re from the US, chances are good that you haven’t watched many Chinese films lately. And according to research conducted in 2013, you’re not alone.
It seems that low-quality subtitles are a significant contributor to the unpopularity of Chinese movies in the US. Luckily, this is a problem that can be solved, provided we recognize the underlying issues and address them properly.
The Problem … and Its Consequences
The Beijing Normal University researched why Chinese films are not typically successful in the US. The answer was that poorly translated subtitles tend to keep US audiences from wanting to watch these foreign films.
In fact, the only Chinese movies that seem to gain any traction in the US fit into the comedy, action and kung fu categories. This is largely because such movies do not require a good understanding of the script. Instead, they rely mostly on body language to get their messages across.
Chinese dramas, romances and any other genres with more complex plots are at a disadvantage. Their messages cannot readily be shared through slapstick humor or carefully staged brawls between characters. So they simply are not seen in the US, if the studios even bother distributing them here at all.
Confusing Subtitles Can Damage a Movie’s Appeal
The problem with many subtitled movies from China is that they are not translated correctly. When someone other than a professional linguist translates a movie’s subtitles, the results tend to include grammatical errors and improper and/or confusing word choices. This might distract some audience members, causing them to miss out on parts of the movie while they try to figure out the meaning of a line that was incorrectly translated.
In many cases, seemingly small mistakes can alter the whole plot of a film, at least as far as the audience understands it. Think about your favorite movie and how inserting the wrong word every few scenes might change your interpretation of what’s going on. Depending on the word and its context, you might even be offended, or at least amused at the absurdity of the poor translation.
How to Improve the Accuracy of Subtitles
To avoid turning a drama into a comedy due to badly translated subtitles, those in charge of Chinese films need to invest in professional translators and proofreaders. You can be sure the many Oscar-nominated movies with subtitles had this advantage. Otherwise, they would not have been understood or shared among US residents, much less nominated for awards.
Of course, Chinese movies need more than a translation and proofreading by someone who is simply fluent in both English and Chinese. They need the touch of a professional who has subtitled movies for years and is aware of such considerations as how much text can fit on the screen, and how long it needs to be displayed. Timing is critical to convey suspense, surprise and tension – not to mention punchlines.
In addition, professionals understand that translating subtitles word-for-word is not always the best idea. Instead, getting the point across is preferred, which sometimes requires translators to add or remove a few words here and there. As long as the meaning is conveyed properly, the subtitles have done their job. And in the top foreign films in the US, they do.
Have you ever watched a Chinese movie with subtitles that were well done? What about one with poorly translated subtitles? Can you recommend good examples of either?