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Found in translation

Updated: 2014-01-09 16:22



A small army of amateur translators are putting Mandarin subtitles on English-language television usually ignored by Chinese viewers. But what started as a bit of fun is having a far bigger impact than they could ever have imagined. Liu Wei reports.

Web editor Li Wending, 30, inadvertently found himself in the middle of a major international news story in October. He had shared on social media a clip from the US talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live, in which Kimmel led several children in a discussion about international politics. When asked how to tackle the US' $1.3 trillion debt to China, a boy said: "Kill everyone in China." Kimmel later asked him again about whether to allow Chinese to live. Li released the video with Chinese subtitles he had written himself, on weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter.

More than 300 netizens reposted the clip, including the official account of Sina, China's largest news portal. Tens of thousands more reposted the Sina version.

Chinese netizens condemned the US comedian and ABC, the TV network that broadcasts the show. In the United States, Chinese-American organizations initiated a nationwide protest.

Both ABC and Kimmel apologized for the program at the end of October, which surprised Li.

"Personally I did not believe the joke was meant to hurt Chinese people's feelings," he says in a telephone interview. "I would rather think the controversy results from the lack of understanding between the two countries. Many Chinese do not know about the nature of late-night talk shows, while the Americans did not realize Chinese could be very sensitive about some subjects."

Li has been presenting netizens with elements of Western culture rarely portrayed in Chinese media for almost a year.

"But it is not education or preaching. It is, first of all, for fun," he says. "I cannot imagine a dull person doing this."

Many young Chinese netizens are used to watching TV dramas from the US and the United Kingdom on the Internet, and some have begun to seek out more diverse English-language content on weibo, such as talk shows, stand-up comedies, sketch comedies and debates in the English parliament.

Li is not alone in translating and sharing this sort of content on weibo.

Guan Xin is a senior member of the community, boasting 100,000 followers. The 30-year-old English teacher in Northeast China started sharing English-language content when he translated footage of question time in the UK parliament to use as teaching materials, and was startled when it was shared 20,000 times on weibo.

"When someone commented 'I never knew things worked like this in that country', I was very pleased," he says.

Some clips of the UK parliament he shared on weibo attracted more hits than the same clips posted on YouTube.

In 2012, he translated and shared many clips about the US presidential election, and had a rapid rise in the number of followers.

He attributed the popularity to a growing need among Chinese young people to learn about the outside world.

"Young people are no longer satisfied with only what they've been told," he says. "They would rather look at more sides to draw a fuller picture."

Selection of this content takes some skill. According to Michael Gu, another hobby translator who has 1 million followers on weibo, content that is "politically incorrect" is risky.

"Widely known taboos we will usually avoid, for example, anything teasing Chinese people or leaders," he says. "And personally I do not like sharing things too sexual or racist."

Gu mainly shares talk shows and short skits about US politics. During the 2012 election, he translated some US politicians' names into funny Chinese ones, which sound similar but had humorous meanings.

For example, he translated Mitt Romney as Mi Rongni, literally mashed rice and lotus seeds, two kinds of common stuffing in Chinese mooncakes. He was even told by some netizens that they had become so familiar with his translation that they found the official translated names on the television news unrecognizable.

The cultural differences can work as punch lines if smartly handled, but they also cause the most headaches for these volunteers.

Jin Bo, a university teacher in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, once shared a video about a Chinese school hit by fire. In the video a student tried to escape but failed and died. One of the sentences in the show included the phrase, "Chinese fire drill", which refers to confusion and chaos. He wanted to explain the slang, but it was impossible to include the long explanation in the subtitle, so he had to write an independent tweet to explain it.

"Something will be lost in translation-that's for sure," he says. "Behind the short clips is a vast amount of information about culture, history, news and traditions of the English-speaking countries. You need to update your knowledge all the time."

Most of the translators were keen English-language students in school, and are now maintaining their passion by reading widely.

Jin enjoys the Huffington Post, Fox News and tabloids from the UK, while Guan is a regular viewer of NBC, CNN and Fox, because "you can't only watch news from liberal media". He also listens to radio programs on the way to work and subscribes to the Economist and Time magazine's electronic editions.

The most popular clips are ones about China. A recent example is Jimmy Kimmel's segment on a building in construction in Beijing, whose exterior resembles the male sexual organ.

Some of their weibo content has even set the agenda for Chinese media. Kimmel's video about the building was so popular on the Internet that the architect had to explain his design in newspapers.

In 2012, Gu shared a clip of the US talk show host Conan O'Brien complaining that Chinese comedian Da Peng copied the opening sequences of his show. The news was soon disseminated on newspapers and television programs in China. Da Peng apologized to O'Brien.

Li Wending hopes he can one day turn his hobby into a real job. He was thrilled to learn that Sohu.com has bought the official rights to release Saturday Night Live, the popular US variety show. The website is also cooperating with some volunteer translators.

Guan says sharing English-language content is more than just a bit of fun.

"The fact we can share the content on the Internet and it is popular already shows some progress," he says. "Also, I find the viewers of our weibo are smart and full of curiosity. Most of them are well educated and would like to see the world from an objective and balanced perspective."

Contact the writer at liuw@chinadaily.com.cn.

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