Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Recent reading: Chinese fan translations

I find this particularly interesting because I know there are also Chinese media fans who translate fan fiction.

Bingchun Meng, Underdetermined Globalization: Media Consumption via P2P Networks, 6 International Journal of Communication 467 (2012), available at

From the abstract: “This study analyzes the Chinese online volunteer community of Zimuzu—Internet-based groups that translate foreign media content into Chinese subtitles—to explore the cultural significance of creative media consumption via P2P networks.”  There’s a bunch of great stuff in here, including the differences Meng identifies between fansubbing and Zimuzu.  Because Chinese “formal media channels are heavily regulated but copyright enforcement is rather lax, P2P file sharing opens up a third communication space between the market and the state.”  But it’s not independent of market or state (as fansubs aren’t either, but in perhaps less salient ways), and so Meng doesn’t characterize Zimuzu participants as fans.  The process can be as fast as 6 hours from US broadcast.  Zimuzu members on the US East Coast send the recorded closed caption along, allowing direct translation from a text file instead of requiring members to rely on the audio.  Five or six members get 100-120 lines each, and copy editors then put together the different pieces to create a consistent, audience-friendly subtitle file.  Talk about just-in-time production!

The commerciality/noncommerciality divide is salient and contested in these groups as well:

Zimuzu members have different views  about involvement with commercial activities. Some consider advertising and online retailing on their group forums to be reasonable, as it brings in income needed to sustain Zimuzu production and pay for server capacity to store digital content. “As long as we are doing volunteer work, we can still call ourselves Zimuzu rather than a translation company. We believe in sharing, we are running some advertisements just so we can keep sharing our subtitles,” said LL, a long-term member of the YYeTS group (personal communication, April 28, 2009). Some other groups, such as TFL and YDY, are steadfastly against any form of collaboration with commercial companies. A senior member of YDY said they were fortunate enough to enjoy the ongoing sponsorship of a few founding members who either rented servers or obtained idle server space for free through their personal connections. Almost all of the YDY members interviewed were proud of being able to “stay clean” from involvement in for-profit activities.  

Zimuzu are more responsive to audience demands than official networks.  They will even publish lists of upcoming shows and prioritize the ones that are in demand.  Given the speed of the initial translation, sometimes members will go back and compile a “collector’s edition” of popular shows, revising the subtitles based on feedback.  Translation is perhaps always political, but very obviously so here; Desperate Housewives was so heavily edited in the official version, including censorship of gay characters, that it was a flop, whereas it was a very popular show among file-sharers.  And there are various ways to translate for a Chinese audience:

. . . Although the Zimuzu community perceives the state media as the common “other” from which it wants to distance itself, translation styles within the community differ. There is a lot of time devoted to discussing whether it is more important to be accurate or colloquial, whether to stay faithful to the original text or adapt it for China’s context. The choice of translation style is not just a technical issue; it is related to inserting an individual voice when communicating to an imagined audience.  For example, several participants referred to deliberate changes made to original scripts and explanations added to subtitles in deference to the Chinese audience.  

In some cases, Western cultural references are replaced with Chinese ones. In the show White Collar, a character says, “You could pick them up for a few dollars on eBay”, and in the Chinese version produced by YYeTS, “eBay” becomes “Taobao,” the most popular online shopping site in China. The expression “I swear to God” is often translated  “I swear to Chairman Mao” as an expression of sincerity and honesty used during Maoist China.  The  names of foreign celebrities are often replaced by contemporary Chinese counterparts.... [I]n one episode of Criminal Minds, when a homeless person cursed someone for writing in blood on a wall near a street corner that he called “home,” a translator from 1000FR added to the original script: “Son of a bitch . . . who wrote that on my wall?”  a comment in parentheses (“You should be grateful it’s not the word ‘demolish’”). This parenthetical line doubtless struck a chord with Chinese audiences due to its reference to a huge social problem brought about by urbanization. It is common in Chinese cities to see red signs bearing the word demolish on old buildings or temporary housing built by urban poor or migrant workers. The municipal government orders these demolitions to allow it to seize the area for profitable commercial developments. There have been  quite a few high-profile confrontations with residents refusing to leave their homes, leading to bloodshed and even death. 

But this isn’t an unconstrained translation environment; it depends on the authorities’ continued lack of interest in enforcing foreign copyrights, which will most likely be continued if it appears apolitical/bread and circuses:

To avoid provoking the censors, Zimuzu exert a degree of self-censorship. Sexually explicit content and dialogue are often replaced, and the groups try to stay within the boundaries of what they perceive to be political correctness by emphasizing the apolitical entertainment nature of the content they translate.… [R]esistance is not equivalent to subversion.

Thus, Meng concludes, Zimuzu promotes consumerism in a way that doesn’t threaten the state or “construct new political subjects” in the way that some theorists suggest is possible.

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