Working as a translator for the former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao wasn’t the easiest of tasks. That’s because Wen was keen on dropping ancient (and sometimes little-known) bits of Chinese poetry and literature into his speeches.
At the National People’s Congress in 2010, Wen quoted the Li Sao poem, which dates all the way back to the Warring States period.
Zhang Lu, his translator at the time, was unfazed, quickly converting the phrase into English, and changing a few words without altering the overarching meaning.
“This is what an expert looks like. One must have a deep understanding of China’s classical texts to be able to translate so flawlessly. Without understanding them, how can you translate them? Truly a master,” one appreciative netizen gushed.
Recently, Zhang came to Hong Kong’s Chinese University to share her experiences and discuss what it takes to be a professional interpreter to some of China’s top leaders. Hundreds of students flocked to the event. But Zhang’s status as China’s most famed translator may now have been eclipsed by a character on Hunan Satellite TV, who features in a new drama called Translator. First screened in April, the drama has accumulated well over 8 billion views on Hunan TV’s official website and the online video site LeTV.
The story follows aspiring Chinese-French interpreter Qiao Fei – played by actress Yang Mi. There is the obligatory romance (with her mentor Huang Xuan, who is also a professional translator) and the profession gets the glamour treatment with fashion and trips to Paris to the fore (excellence in Albanian might have made it a harder series to script, WiC suspects).
Reviews on Douban, the TV and film review site, have been mixed. Many complain that the protagonists spend too little time doing any real work. Instead, they are dealing with “incurable illness, car accidents and courtship – all the elements that make for a great prime-time soap opera,” says Zhou Kou Evening News.
However, Tencent Entertainment says the series counts as a success because it is inspiring high school students to explore language study. “I didn’t know anything about simultaneous interpretation and consecutive interpretation until watching the show. For those who are not familiar with the profession, it is a very educating series,” one netizen wrote.
The popularity of the drama cements Yang’s status as one of the most sought-after actresses in the business. With more than 62 million followers on Sina Weibo, Yang is best known for her role in the hugely successful time travel series Palace. She then shifted focus to film and Translator marks her first TV series since 2014.
Unsurprisingly, professional translators aren’t too impressed with Yang’s character in the series, however. One said that the producers show very little knowledge about how translators actually work. For instance, the characters in the series seemingly translate without notes, but experts say it’s unthinkable for interpreters not to jot down notes when they are working.
Others picked out Yang’s outfits and hairstyle, saying that they are inappropriate for diplomatic events.
“Translator is a TV series not a documentary,” counters Gao Chen, one of the producers of the show. He told Zhou Kou Evening News that a second season is already in the works. This time round, the interpreters will be translating the Korean language.
While the strong ratings for Translator are a win for Hunan Satellite TV, the network won’t be in a celebratory mood. Early this week, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) announced that programmes which licence overseas formats (think singing show The Voice) can’t be shown on satellite channels without prior approval from the regulators. Under the new rules, which start in July, each satellite TV station will be allowed to broadcast two such programmes during prime time (between 7:30pm and 10:30pm) every year.
That’s bad news for Hunan TV which has succeeded in localising foreign formats – particularly those from South Korea such as Dad, Where Are We Going and I’m a Singer.
SAPPRFT says that the Chinese TV industry needs to wean itself off foreign imports. “Only self-innovated TV programmes with Chinese cultural inheritance and characteristics can better carry the Chinese Dream themes, the socialist core values, as well as patriotism and Chinese fine traditions,” the directive states.
Earlier in the week Tian Jin, deputy director at SAPPRFT, had issued a warning to TV bosses in a commentary in the People’s Daily.
“[Media organisations] should resolutely overcome a tendency to ignore disciplines and rules,” it said. “[They] should not provide any ways for promoting wrongful ideas and voices.”
“Programmes that are hyping trending social hot topics, ridiculing state policies, disseminating wrongful views, advocating extreme views, and sparking conflicts will be severely punished.”
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