Fansubbing in China

Fansubbing is the process by which fans translate and subtitle various types of audiovisual material into a language other than that of the original. This activity has evolved into a truly global phenomenon, reflecting the rapid development of economic and cultural globalization, including the widespread availability of affordable and readily accessible computer technology.

The movie industry in China is not yet fully open to the global market. Based on the US-China Bilateral World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement in 1999, China agrees to import 40 foreign films each year — the majority of which may not necessarily be the latest blockbusters. These movies are carefully selected, professionally dubbed and strictly reviewed by censors for cinemas. As a result, many of the latest world movies and TV programs are subtitled by amateur enthusiasts, often in a matter of hours after being shown in other countries, and have slipped through the censorship system on various Chinese websites or forums where they are available for free downloading. Although translated and subtitled by unprofessional translators, these fansubbed audiovisual materials are often preferred by Chinese audiences for their unique features, particularly the slangy style and the playful interpolation of the source text. Notwithstanding legal and ethical issues, fansubbers are in effect working for free, which differentiates them from commercial translation practice, where they may be seen as “cultural transmitters” for introducing the latest foreign culture to the general public in China. These vast online communities have racked up several million daily hits demonstrating that fansubbing, as a form of unprofessional translation, has not only challenged official audiovisual translation conventions in China but also has a profound cultural impact on Chinese society.


Who, what and how

The first and most obvious question to ask is who actually fansubs. At first blush, the answer may seem an obvious one, as the term fansubbing is self-explanatory. However, on closer inspection such a question raises more demographic questions than it answers. 

Many American TV dramas such as Friends and Prison Break have not been officially imported into China but have gained massive popularity among the Chinese audience on the internet, and have even drawn the attention of the Chinese media. The majority of fansubbers appear to be undergraduate students, and there is also a large proportion of postgraduate students. They are from many different universities in China and around the world, and study all kinds of subjects. Additionally, Shujing Dong noted that some of the fansubbers are office workers familiar with foreign languages and cultures. However, this does not exclude people who are working in other fields. For example, Ding Chengtai, who is famous for translating 24 Hours, is a vegetable vendor.

Liang Liang, a group leader of 嬣嬣蝭视 (YYets), one of the biggest and most well-known fansubbing groups in China for providing bilingual subtitles for American, Japanese and Korean movies and TV dramas, noted that there are more than 1,000 members in his group. Geographically, they are based in both mainland China and overseas, the majority of them are between 23 and 28, and the gender ratio is roughly equal. The situation may vary in different fansubbing groups. However, amateur subtitlers are generally from the younger generation living in economically more developed cities in China or overseas with college-level or higher educational background. 

The age group and educational background of the fandom that get involved in fansubbing reflect the rate of educational development in China. According to figures provided by the Ministry of Education, in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was established, 80% of the population was illiterate, which is one of the reasons that all non-Mandarin Chinese movies or TV programs were dubbed at that time. English was not established as the first foreign language until 1964. In 1987, English was included in the college graduation exam, after which time greater attention was devoted to English education, where English lessons have been experimentally implemented into some primary schools since 2001. Additionally, a second foreign language has also been available as an optional course in primary and middle schools in many big cities. The incremental development of foreign language education in China has meant that the majority of the fansubbers tend to be from the younger generation, since they are considered the “luckier ones” who have been given the opportunity to learn other languages. On the other hand, the geographical location of the fansubbers may to a certain degree reveal the unbalanced regional economic development in China, where the economic disparity of the urban and rural areas is wide.

Japanese anime has been one of the main target materials of fansubbing groups worldwide, which has also gained massive popularity in China. However, apart from Japanese anime, fansubbing groups in China extend their interests to a broader range of audiovisual materials in various languages and from different cultures. 

The most common source languages are English, Japanese and Korean. In addition, some audiovisual materials from French, German, Spanish and Thai have also been fan subtitled by some enthusiasts, which can be found on Chinese video-sharing websites such as Fansubbers have translated movies, documentaries, TV dramas, music videos, variety shows, news reports, video clips, video games and software. It should also be noted that some fansubbing groups, such as YYets, have transferred their focus from entertaining materials to educational programs such as university open courses. The source of the open courses is mainly from American universities, such as Yale University and Harvard University. However, some non-English educational resources, such as some courses from RWTH Aachen University in Germany, have also been fansubbed into Chinese.

The process of fansubbing has been documented in academic literature. Jorge Díaz Cintas and Pablo Muñoz Sánchez concluded that six different types of jobs exist in fansubbing, which include the following: “raw providers, translators, timers, typesetters, editors and proofreaders, and encoders.” In the process of obtaining raw materials, the role of the “raw provider” is normally undertaken by group members living outside China. This may, in part, be attributed to China’s strict censorship system on the internet. A great many websites, including Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter are blocked, which has prevented fans in China from searching and obtaining essential raw materials. On the other hand, since 1985 when the government loosened the control on Chinese citizens studying abroad, there has been a surge of Chinese students pursuing further study overseas. According to statistics provided by the ministry of education, from 1978 to 2009, approximately 1.62 million Chinese have gone abroad to study and for the period up to the end of 2010, there were 1.27 million Chinese students studying abroad. Fansubbing groups post messages on their online forums, looking for people abroad who can record TV shows with original subtitles. Seen from above, the large population of Chinese living overseas has helped to lay a solid foundation for obtaining raw materials. As has been practiced in the West, the majority of TV dramas are recorded while they are being broadcast in the original country, and movies are usually obtained from ripping off DVDs. 

In the distribution stage, the fansubbing groups usually provide several versions. A good illustration is English original material, where one can choose to download different subtitles, such as Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese, or bilingual subtitles, English with Simplified Chinese or English with Traditional Chinese. Moreover, at the end of the process, the completed subtitles-superimposed audiovisual materials are also deliberately offered in different formats, such as RMVB, MP4 and MKV, to meet different audience requirements on image quality and downloading speed.  


Why fansubbing?

Fansubbing demands not only language and technical skills but also requires a substantial amount of energy and a significant time commitment that does not lead to any economic reward. Yet fansubbing has “turned into a mass social phenomenon on the Internet,” according to Díaz Cintas and Muñoz Sánchez.

“[share], 学习[learn], 进剺[progress]” is the slogan of YYeTs, which to a great extent represents the general spirit of fansubbers in China. The majority of Chinese fansubbers believe that they are shouldering the responsibility of promoting cultural communication between China and the world, so as to reduce any cultural misunderstandings and bring the world closer to Chinese people, as reported by Gui Ran. Hu Jingyu, one of the well-known fan subtitlers in the online community for his translation of the American TV drama Prison Break, expressed his underlying motivation for fansubbing in the following terms: “I love, so I share.” It is also considered noble and selfless to serve the fandom community without obtaining any financial reward. 

Another important driving force behind fans’ desire to participate in voluntary translation is “to learn.” As a result of continued rapid economic growth, China has established a closer relationship with the world. Increasing numbers of people have been working for international companies or Chinese-foreign joint ventures where foreign language skills and sound cultural understanding are required. Foreign language education has therefore been paid considerable attention. In particular, since China joined the WTO in 2001, the motivation among the Chinese population to learn English has dramatically increased culminating in what has been termed “foreign language fever” according to Wencai Guo and Lei Wang. The majority of fansubbers believe that translating subtitles is an effective way of learning a foreign language and having a better understanding of culture, which has been a key motivation for them to take part in fansubbing tasks.

“To progress” is considered the primary aim of fansubbers who claim to pursue perfection for the fandom. Many of these fansubbing groups compete with each other to produce the best quality subtitles in the shortest possible time. In consequence, fansubbers are usually not allowed to join more than one fansubbing group or copy subtitles from other groups. To improve or demonstrate their translation quality, some fansubbing groups have set up some kind of “error report” columns in their online forums for fans to correct mistakes or make suggestions on their translations. Some fansubbing groups produce two editions of subtitles for the same material: the first edition typically focuses on speed, which is normally produced within hours after a TV drama or a movie is shown. This first edition is intended to meet the needs of those fans who like to watch such programs as soon as they become available. One disadvantage of the first edition is that the translation quality may be comparatively lower. The second edition is viewed by many as the “refined” edition, where greater emphasis is placed on the accuracy of translation. This edition is specifically meant for language learners and usually provides parallel bilingual subtitles as well as detailed explanations on cultural references for the audience to compare and learn. 


Social-economic factors

Above and beyond personal interests and a passion for foreign language learning, large-scale fansubbing activities have also been fostered by social and economic conditions in China.

First, domestically produced films and TV dramas in China do not seem to fully cater to the tastes of Chinese audiences, especially the younger generation. It has been widely acknowledged on internet forums that the plot themes of domestically produced TV dramas and movies are both monotonous and repetitive, with a narrow focus on historical stories, family relationships and romance. A sizeable number of TV dramas and movies are transcribed from classic novels. Additionally, although each TV on average can receive around 100 channels, depending on location, many TV channels show the same TV drama in the same time slot. Given their dissatisfaction, some audience members began to seek foreign programs for a more varied and higher-quality mix of entertainment.

Nondomestic films and TV programs, however, are under the restriction of the import quota by number and the stringent censorship by content. The tight censorship laws are said to safeguard “public morals” and protect juveniles. In China, an age-rating system on audiovisual products has not yet been introduced. As a result, the government has had to ensure that all the programs shown on TV and in the cinema are suitable for children and young people. Although the general public has previously requested the establishment of an age-rating system in China, which the government promised to consider in 2004, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has announced that the age-rating system would not be introduced at the present time in China, since there are still some uncontrollable situations, such as effectively preventing minors from getting access to adult TV and movies in the Chinese market. As a general rule, any references to sex or use of foul language in imported films may be removed, toned down or even rewritten. Due to concerns over political and ideological influence, the movies that are imported usually have no political content, and instead cover other genres such as science fiction and romance, which is well illustrated by the American movies that were imported in 2010, such as Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans, Iron Man 2, Shrek 4, The A-Team and Inception.

Officially imported movies and TV dramas are all dubbed in a particular style. Many audience members, especially the younger generation, have expressed a dislike of this professional dubbing style. They are therefore motivated to search for the original unedited version. Additionally, the expense of going to the cinema is beyond the affordability of many people in China. A good illustration is provided by Avatar, in which the general price for a cinema ticket in China was around RMB 120 (approximately $18) and, in some cities it cost up to RMB 600 ($90). In the United States where the movie was produced, a ticket cost around $10. Hence, going to the cinema has been considered a luxury form of entertainment for the majority of the general public. By contrast, it costs only 1 RMB per hour to use the internet, where fansubbed movies and TV dramas can be watched online or downloaded for free.

The features of fansubbing

Fan subtitling distinguishes itself from commercial practice by virtue of its unique peculiarities, particularly with respect to fansubbing conventions and translational features. For example, mainstream subtitles are usually limited to 15 Chinese characters per line and only one line is shown at any one time. The fan subtitles, especially the ones simultaneously displaying two languages, can have two to four lines and more than 15 Chinese characters per line, as can be seen in Figure 1.

In general, fansubbers do not always translate from source texts into their mother tongue; the fansubbed translation tends to be target-text oriented; and translator’s notes and glosses are used to explain certain cultural reference points. The translator’s notes and glosses within the film itself have also been used in various ways to support different translation methods. Some fansubbing groups even produced two different versions of subtitles for a TV drama: a normal version and a Tu Cao (龕螤) version. The translation of a normal version is generally close to the source text with more literal translation, in order to keep the original flavor. However, the Tu Cao version is inclined to depart from the original text, and the translator’s notes and glosses have been utilized to express the translator’s comments or feelings other than explaining difficult cultural references points.

There are two types of Tu Cao: one is making comments on the storylines or characters by inserting extra information in the translator’s notes. It gives the audience an experience that the translator is accompanying the audience while watching a movie or a TV drama. In the practice of Chinese fansubbing, fan translators also sometimes express their feelings while translating or describing their translating experiences, such as “It’s too difficult to understand the English while she is sobbing. I gave up” or “I was scared to death when I was translating this part.” Given that Chinese characters in general are more compact in meaning and shorter in form than European languages, it is feasible to keep both subtitle and comments in one line. Further, the fansubbers sometimes slot in a comment briefly when there is no dialogue in the scene.

The second type of Tu Cao is to make comments on certain phenomena or current events in China via the translation of subtitles. For example, the Chinese men’s soccer team has often been criticized by fans for their poor performances, in which the prospect of them winning the World Cup has been widely joked about as “mission impossible” or “a very long and hopeless process” among fans in China.

In this example from Cell 211, Utrilla, a prison guard, suggested entering the prison to rescue Juan Oliver, another prison guard caught in a riot. However, someone else insisted on waiting for the GEOs, the special operations group. Utrilla replied that when the GEOs come, it would be too late. The fan subtitler seems to have taken this opportunity to express his frustration and sarcasm toward the Chinese men’s soccer team in the subtitles by comparing waiting for GEOs to hoping the Chinese men’s soccer team will win the World Cup. The Spanish original from the scene in Figure 2 is: Utrilla: ¿Para qué? ¿Para que los saquen cosidos a puñaladas, como a Medina hace dos años? (What for? so that they end up riddled with stabs, like Medina two years ago?)

The Chinese subtitle is: 


(Why? So when they arrive, the Chinese Men’s football team would have won the World Cup, like last time with Medina two years ago?)

 Compared to the official subtitles in China, the language style of fan subtitles is generally more colloquial and less formal for both normal and Tu Cao versions, since internet slang has been widely applied in the translation. As Díaz Cintas and Muñoz Sánchez have noted, fan translators “know that they are addressing a rather special audience,” and in this case, the fansubbers in China have produced the subtitles in the way that the audience speaks, so as to offer a fresh and familiarized experience, whereas the official dubbed version follows the traditions by using formal and less colloquial language, which has been considered rigid and sounds like “poetry recitation” according to Dong. The Tu Cao version tends to be even less formal than the normal version by using a broader range of new words and slang, including some local slang and dialect, since this version sometimes targets regional audiences consisting of even smaller groups.

The fan subtitlers also attempt to resolve cultural taboos in a more creative and individual way. Sex is one of the most widely known taboos in Chinese culture, which is usually discussed with reference to a euphemism. The normal fansubbed version usually reserves the original and leaves the sensitive words untranslated or toned down. The Tu Cao version can be more daring at translating the original words, which has been criticized by some audience members of being vulgar. Some fan translators, however, tend to deal with this matter in unexpected ways. For example, “Jack, slow f**k,” in the movie Titanic was translated as 轚郕睟’(Czechoslovakia) in one of the fansubbed versions. On the face of it, the country has nothing to do with the original text. However, Czechoslovakia in Chinese is pronounced as jié kè sī luò fá kè, which is phonetically similar to “Jack, slow f**k.” In this case, by playing with words, the fan translator resolved the tension from self-censorship or from the general public in a comical way.

 Moreover, the Tu Cao version has a tendency to parody popular contemporary novels, song lyrics, talk shows and proverbs, in order to achieve an entertaining or sarcastic effect.  

In the aforementioned movie Cell 211, you may remember that Juan Oliver, the prison guard, found himself left behind by his colleagues during a prison riot. To protect himself, he tells Malamadre, the riot leader, that he is a new prisoner who committed murder. However, Malamadre does not believe him, saying Juan looks young and naïve, not like a tough guy who is able to kill people. Juan retorts by asking if Malamadre is a psychologist. Malamadre then releases the tension and jokes: Pues anda que no molaría andar por ahí con la batita llena de Valiums, ¿eh? (Wouldn’t it be cool to walk around with a gown full of Valiums, huh?) The Chinese subtitle is 廑鴗攦鬖峎痼“位橕135°僿寪蘢厗 泪袢满惎鎏来”襆这郲 (So he came here, looking up at the sky from a 135 degree angle, with tears all over his face like Guo Siniang).

In this scene shown in Figure 3, the fan subtitler diverted from the original meaning of the dialogue by parodying a popular expression written by Guo Jingming, a famous writer representing the post-1980s generation. “Looking up at the sky from a 45 degree angle, with tears all over the face” appeared several times in his novels to describe the melancholy feelings of an innocent young man refusing the accept the cruel adult world. The fan subtitler changed “45 degree angle” into “135 degree angle” to achieve a comic effect and linked Malamadre’s first expression of Juan for being naïve and full of sorrow to the young man in Jingming’s novel. Additionally, Jingming’s physical appearance, dress taste and writing style were severely criticized by many readers for lacking manliness. The comparison of Juan with Jingming insinuates that Juan is particularly feminine compared to the murderers in prison. 

The reception of Tu Cao has been somewhat controversial. Some fans criticized it for being frivolous and making fun of everything, including very serious issues, which can potentially disturb the original storylines and even turn artistic movies into so-called “mockbusters.” However, supporters have argued that it is a matter of personal preference with respect to style of choice, given that the normal versions are also available. Nevertheless, the diversity of fan translation styles and strategies, to some extent, reflects an unconventional spirit at the grassroots level. Translation in China has traditionally been considered an elite occupation, only accessible to scholars who have acquired enhanced knowledge and understanding of both Chinese and other foreign languages. Fansubbing, especially Tu Cao, has provided a lively platform for fan subtitlers to demonstrate their language skills and creativity, as well as express their opinions on current affairs in unique ways.

The impact of fansubbing on professional translation work has been a focal point of some scholars. Díaz Cintas and Muñoz Sánchez observed that some of the new conventions which appear in fansubbing have already been applied in some commercial practice and concluded that only time will tell whether these conventions will affect future mainstream subtitling practice. Luis Pérez-González has claimed that the future impact of fansubbing to the mainstream practice “should not be minimised.”

In recent years, professional translators have also started to use fashionable words and parody in dubbing. Compared to the Tu Cao version of fansubbing, which seizes every possible opportunity to make fun or satire current events, the official translation tends to strike a balance between creating humor and keeping up with the development of the storylines. Gu Qiyong, a professional movie dubbing translator, pointed out in an interview with Yang Xiao that adding Chinese humor in the translation is not the only way to compensate for any cultural losses. In his view, vivid language with fresh vocabulary should also be included into the movie translation, in order to ensure the content is kept abreast with the development of the times. These changes have also been warmly welcomed by foreign movie fans and professional translators, the latter having been given credit for giving up some of their pride to learn from grassroots translators. In China, media consumers have made it clear not only what they want to watch and when they want to watch it, but also how they want it to be translated, and some of the requests have already been acknowledged by fansubbers.

Other than having influenced the translation strategies of professional audiovisual translation, as previously discussed, fansubbing has also had a profound impact across different areas of Chinese society, provoking an ongoing discussion in China.  

Fansubbing has firstly been acknowledged for its contribution to foreign language learning and cultural communication. Learning through the process of translating, as discussed in the previous section, has been welcomed and practiced by many language learners. Many people have also adopted fansubbed movies and TV programs as self-study materials. Fansubbed audiovisual materials have been applied in college language teaching and have proved helpful in improving students’ listening skills, vocabulary and cultural understanding, as mentioned by Di Zhang and Hongyan Yang. Additionally, fan produced bilingual parallel subtitles have also been used as a language corpus in electronic dictionaries, such as Youdao dictionary of NetEase, web-based open-source software, which includes all kind of available fansubbed materials.

Secondly, fansubbers have been considered as “culture transmitters” for introducing world culture to the Chinese people by freely sharing translated audiovisual materials and resources. Translators have been generally considered as mediators between different linguistic and cultural systems, but the negotiation was previously conducted only by trained professional translators under a strict censorship by the authorities. Nowadays, considering the socio-economic development of China and the support of affordable and available technology, anyone who wishes to could undertake this task and become involved in mediation. In the process of negotiation, fansubbers themselves have accessed world culture, encountered and resolved conflicts with other cultures, and spread these experiences by sharing audiovisual materials to the general public. By watching world media products, the Chinese general public, or at least the younger generation, has gained a deeper knowledge of the lives of people outside China and their views on the world and toward China, although certainly as Jorge Díaz Cintas has pointed out, “while mirroring reality, cinema also distorts it by constructing certain images and clichés that grip the audience and mould their perception of the world.”

The world audiovisual products that have been introduced to China by fansubbing groups have also brought about inspiration to different aspects in society. For example, Jing Li gives some suggestions on the criminal law procedures in China after watching the American TV drama Shark. She compared the evidence obtaining process in the criminal procedure shown in the TV drama to the situation in China, and indicated that improvements are needed with regard to the methods of obtaining evidence in the Chinese legal system under the principle of “just, fair and open.”

The contribution of fansubbing to society has been given much credit by the general public and members of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and was also highly praised for its free-sharing public spirit. However, there are also some concerns regarding Western ideological penetration and cultural hegemony embedded in the audiovisual products that have not been officially imported by the government, but brought into China and unprofessionally translated by the fansubbing groups.

 The future of fansubbing in China is still in its infancy. Since 2009, the State Administration of Radio Film and Television of China has gradually cracked down on nearly all major online forums, such as BT China, which provides free media products and downloading services for those websites that have not obtained relevant legal licences. Some fansubbing groups disbanded, while others have moved the servers of their online forums overseas. It should be noted, however, that these fansubbed materials are still accessible in China. As has occurred in the West, legal issues of fansubbing have also been widely discussed in China. As has been pointed out by Díaz Cintas and Muñoz Sánchez, “fansubs are technically illegal.”  


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