Guardians of grammar

Translation blamed for flummoxing film audiences

Cast member Zoe Saldana poses during a photocall for the film "Blood Ties" at the 66th Cannes Film Festival

Galaxy-saving girl: Zoe Saldana

Shortly after he left office, American President Jimmy Carter gave a speech to a college in Japan. Trying a joke during the opening anecdote, he was pleasantly surprised to hear uproarious laughter. When he later asked why it had been rewarded with such a positive response, the Japanese interpreter responded: “I told the audience, ‘President Carter told a funny story; everyone must laugh.’ ”

If only translating the Hollywood blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy would lead to such a straightforward outcome. That’s because critics say that the Chinese subtitles for the film – which was released two weeks ago – were so poorly done that audiences have been tearing their hair out. In fact, Disney-Marvel, the studio behind Guardians, is now worried that the bad translation could cost it at the box office.

For those who haven’t seen it, Guardians tells the story of Peter Quill (played by Chris Pratt), who is joined by green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a wisecracking raccoon called Rocket, a humanoid tree called Groot and the warrior Drax. The five misfits come together to… well, guard the galaxy. The film was a surprise success in the US, collecting $300 million in ticket sales.

In China the audience response has been a tad more lukewarm. The film took $68.2 million in its first two weeks – not a disaster, but falling well short of superhero blockbusters like Captain America: the Winter Soldier and X-men: Days of Future Past. An unfamiliar cast has been blamed – Pratt and Saldana are hardly household names in China – but most critics say that the subpar subtitles are the main reason.

“They say the film is supposed to be funny but after watching it I still haven’t figured out what’s so funny about it,” one netizen complained on weibo.

“I regret not working harder on my English because I didn’t understand anything about the film,” another lamented.

Critics say that part of Guardians’ charm is that many of its punchlines rely on cultural references and wordplay in English that even the best translators might find difficult to handle.

“That’s in contrast to shiny computer-generated explosions, which are easily understood by anyone anywhere,” says Slate, an American online magazine.

For example, each time that a character insultingly labels Rocket as a “rodent” or “weasel”, the China version translates it as “small raccoon” which has a more endearing meaning in Chinese.

In another scene, the assassin Gamora says, “Your ship is filthy,” to which Quill responds: “She has no idea”. The translated version opts for: “Your ship stinks” and “No culture is terrible”.

Aliens in the film call Earth “Terra,” or Latin for Earth. But it becomes ‘blue planet’ in the Chinese version.

One weibo user who has earned a reputation for uploading and subtitling video clips on social media reckons he has spotted at least 80 translation mistakes in the Chinese subtitles.

“Aside from a lot of mistranslations, the subtitles failed to show the original feel of the film, such as jokes, puns and homophones. We cannot help but doubt the professionalism of the translator,” the microblogger says.

Fans of the original comic accuse the translator Jia Xiuyan of ruining its film version. “Did she [Jia] ever consult with the director and the producers? How much does she really understand the comic book? Who would dare to make such arbitrary changes to the names and character background? And besides, even if your English is not good, just search for Terra on the internet and you will find pictures of nothing but the Earth,” one fan lambasted.

“A good translator should stay as true to the film as possible. Randomly changing words will have a direct impact on audience experience. In many ways, it completely destroys the integrity of the film,” Nanchang Daily concurred.

It isn’t the first time Jia has got into trouble for poor translation. She also produced the subtitles for Pacific Rim, another Hollywood export, in which she mistook “softer” for “sort of,” “pollution” for “population,” and changed an “elbow rocket” into a “pegasus meteor fist” (yes, WiC doesn’t have a clue, either).

After the controversy over Guardians, Jia seemed contrite, telling Tencent Entertainment: “I believe there are experts on the internet that are much more qualified than me. I just happen to stumble upon this opportunity and I’m not claiming to be smarter than anyone. I also admit there are inadequacies in my translation work.”

Industry figures have been calling for studios to invest more in hiring better translators. “The quality of subtitles absolutely affects how a movie is received, especially if you’re taking it to an international film festival,” Kenneth Ip Kin-hang, chair of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts’ School of Film and Television, told the South China Morning Post. “Even now, to some distributors or people in the film industry, subtitles aren’t very important – it’s just something that has to be done. Subtitles have never received the attention they deserve.”

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