Open course translation in China

Open courses are free online courses accessible to everyone. These are normally offered in the form of class lectures released as high-quality videos and are published by universities and organizations on their websites.

Currently, over 250 member institutions around the globe have joined the OpenCourseWare Consortium (OCWC) and committed to sharing their courses online to the worldwide community. Open course videos have been available in China since 2002; however, because of the language barrier, they didn’t become popular among Chinese viewers until they were subtitled in Chinese about five years ago. According to NetEase, the first and major Chinese website for providing online open courses, the registered users of open courses in China had reached about 20 million by the end of 2014. This number is still increasing.

Currently, most of the open course translation is done by two of the largest web portals in China, NetEase and Sina, for nonprofit purposes. They invest money to recruit part-time translators (many of whom are unprofessional but who have an academic background in a certain discipline) and get involved in the post-production of subtitled videos so as to promote their corporate image among the public. Some fansubbing groups also indirectly contribute to open course translation through providing translations to the web portals. The amateurish background of the translators brings unique features to the open course translation, meanwhile triggering unsolved problems.


The development of open course translation in China

Open course is a method of distance education that has enjoyed great popularity in the past decade. It first appeared in the website of the University of California, Berkely (, where lectures, eventually both audio and video lectures, were posted for public consumption. From 2002, other top universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Yale and Harvard also joined in. All these initiatives helped promote highly interactive university-level courses to the public, free of charge. Although open courses have been available online since 2002, most Chinese viewers barely knew it until the beginning of 2010, when a fansub group in China called YYeTs translated the Harvard open course called “Justice.” This course enjoyed a huge following in China. From then on, other fansub groups also joined in translating open courses from leading universities such as Stanford and Oxford. On Novmber 1, 2010, NetEase, one of the four largest web portals in China, launched its open course channel at and began to translate and promote open courses, making itself the leading platform for providing open courses in China. NetEase released its first batch of 1,200 video clips of lectures, with more than 200 of them subtitled in Chinese. Then it successively invested a total amount of more than RMB 15 million for the translation of subtitles and the post-production of the videos. With the rising popularity of open courses, Sina (another web portal among the four largest ones in China) also initiated the open course project under its existing educational channel in April of 2011. So far, NetEase and Sina have been the only two major platforms for subtitle translation of open courses through professional translators, and they cooperate with some large fansubbing groups as well.

Subtitle translations of films and television series far outnumber open course translations in China. This has much to do with the large demand of these entertaining programs from the public. It is reported that the number of imported films is more than 400 annually and this peaked in 2006, when the number reached 1832 in total. The major channels for importing foreign films include cinemas, audio and video publishing houses, TV stations and video websites. Figure 1 shows the number of imported films in China from the year 2005 to 2011. The information is released by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China.

The box office revenue of the films in mainland China in the first half year of 2015 alone was over 20 billion yuan, among which, that of the foreign films was nearly 11 billion yuan, accounting for 53.17% of the total. The latest figure announced by the organization suggests that eight of the top ten box office hits are films from America such as Fast & Furious 7, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Due to the fact that young people in China are the main audience of films (contributing to nearly 87% of the box office revenue in 2014), more and more imported films adopt subtitling instead of dubbing to cater to the taste of this group. Correspondingly, translation of films and TV series is booming.

Compared with this, open course translation has always been in the marginal area within the translation studies in China and its translation quality is barely commented upon. Several factors contribute to this phenomenon. First, the translation of open course only started a few years ago, while the translation of foreign films from western countries began 20 years ago, when China imported the American film The Fugitive produced by Warner Bros, translated it and dubbed it into Chinese. Second, the translation of films or TV series is a profit-driven and organized act performed by commercial corporations or by the government. In comparison, the translation of open course is undertaken by grassroots powers such as fansubbing groups or a few commercial organizations. Their influence is quite limited. In terms of translation quality, the translated subtitles of open courses are provided to the public online, free of charge, without any financial or policy support from the government. Most viewers of open courses are grateful for easier accessibility to the world’s cutting-edge knowledge provided by renowned universities. Thus, viewers seem to be more tolerant to the translation of open courses. They show respect for the act of translating open courses because it helps facilitate their acquisition of knowledge. Some netizens even posted on forums of open course by saying “The translation of open courses is a great project, beneficial to all Chinese people and may probably go down in the history of China.” Also, government supervision of open course translation is less strict than on films or TV series.

Up until now, the online open courses provided by NetEase cover almost all disciplines including humanities, sociology and science from both Chinese universities and foreign universities. Open courses from foreign universities are the most popular and well known by viewers in China. The daily page views of open courses from such universities as Oxford or Harvard have exceeded 1.3 million since November of 2010. According to a web survey conducted by the China Youth Daily Social Survey Center, 75.2% of the 1,454 participants watched open course videos from foreign universities and 69.2% of them preferred watching these to Chinese equivalents. One of the determining video selection factors is the subtitles. Chinese scholar Liang Yunzhen conducted a questionnaire survey of 300 college students in China, stating that “71.2% of the subjects responded that they would not or probably would not watch the online course videos if they are not subtitled in Chinese.”

So far, the project of translating open courses has been undertaken by two groups: part-time translators who get paid to work for NetEase and Sina; and fansubbing groups that translate open courses for free. These two together contribute to the translation of almost all open courses online in China. Take NetEase, for example — most of the translation was done by fansubbing groups when it first launched the platform in 2011. As the only member in China that joined the global OCWC, the website later set up a special fund for recruiting part-time translators, making itself the leading platform for providing online open courses subtitled in Chinese. The reason for NetEase to conduct this project is quite simple. It aims to promote its company image and establish a good reputation among the public. Its main focus is still on profitable products such as the development of online games, software, and eCommerce.


Features of open course translation

Open course translation in China distinguishes itself from films or television series subtitling in that literal translation is frequently employed and the translation seems to have a more serious tone. In fact, literal translation is overused in order to seek loyalty to the source text. This may sometimes lead to inaccurate expressions going against the convention of the target text. Figure 2 is an example from the popular Harvard open course “Positive Psychology.”


Source: It is also explicitly about transformation.

Target: 而且关于如何变形 显而易见

(It is also about how to transform. This is obvious)


This is from the first lecture of “Positive Psychology” when Dr. Ben-Shahar is introducing the course to the whole class. He says that “this class is not just about information, it is also explicitly about transformation.” By saying this, he means the future series of lectures will not only give information about psychology to the students, but will also clearly tell the students how to transform their mind or thoughts. But in the Chinese translation, “explicitly” is translated to refer to the “obvious content” of the course, meaning that the course is obviously about information as well as transformation, which is an inaccurate translation of the original meaning.

The second feature is that Chinese idioms with four-character structures are often employed during the subtitle translation. This has much to do with the constrained nature of audiovisual text. The application of idioms in translation can help save time and space while accurately transmitting the meaning of the source text. Also in the open course “Positive Psychology,” Ben-Shahar comments that many lectures, books, workshops and seminars on psychology lack substance. The English subtitles and the corresponding Chinese translation is:


Source: Very often, overpromising and underdelivering

Target: 通常都 言过其实 无法兑现


The words “overpromising” and “underdelivering” are translated into Chinese verbs as “言过其实” and “无法兑现.” The four-word phrases help save space on the screen while transmitting the original meaning to a large extent. Additionally, the conversion of adjectives into verbs accords with the conventional expression of the target text.

Another feature is the free and casual translation of informal language in open courses. Unlike conversations between characters in films or television series, most of the lectures are monologues of the lecturers in class. Domain-specific terminology is frequently used together with colloquial expressions to give examples or tell stories. When translating this kind of informal language, it seems the translators are a little more daring. Again, in the Harvard open course “Positive Psychology,” when Ben-Shahar explains that some books or seminars advocate such concepts as “five things to be happy” or “one secret of success,” which are overpromising and underdelivering, the subtitles are:


Source: So these are five things you need to know to be happy

Target: 比如, 快乐的五个关键

(For example, the five key points to be happy)


From the literal meaning of the original subtitles, coupled with the body language of the professor, (Figure 3) it seems that he is emphasizing five things that the students need to know to become happy. For the Chinese viewers of the open course who rely so much on subtitle translation, if the original subtitle is translated literally as “这些是你获得快乐需要知道的五件事情,” this would be quite confusing for them. They will expect to know the list of these five things, but will not find it anywhere in the lecture. Therefore, the translators, who likely read the script of the whole lecture before translation and understand the context, translate the phrase by adding words such as “比如,” which means “for example” in Chinese. This avoids misunderstanding on one side and makes the translation of the whole text more coherent on the other side.


Existing issues

As Ding Lei, CEO of NetEase pointed out at the China Mobile Internet Conference in 2011, NetEase has met up with a bottleneck in open course translation. There were an inadequate number of translators who were qualified for the translation of open course subtitles, especially those in less universally used foreign languages in China. Many viewers were urging NetEase to speed up the translation of their favorite open courses. Due to this, NetEase initiated voting at the bottom of its homepage, inviting its viewers to choose which existing open course should be translated more quickly. The top five courses voted up by viewers in each period would be listed as a priority for translation. However, this did not solve the problems at their source.

Moreover, the translation quality of open courses done by amateur or volunteer translators from the fansubbing groups has met with some problems. According to Mei Jingsong, who is in charge of the open course translation in Sina, “one of the problems with volunteer translators is that their translating speed cannot meet the fast development of open courses and the demand from the viewers. Another problem is that the translating quality of some courses cannot be guaranteed, which directly influence the users’ viewing experience.” Unlike the translation of films or television series which focuses on being entertaining, the translation of open course attaches more importance to being accurate and informative. This requires the translators to possess certain background knowledge of a particular field, while also having certain translation skills geared toward the constrained nature of subtitling.

Currently, NetEase and Sina communicate with viewers through such channels as forums, microblog or WeChat. When it comes to the error correction of the subtitles, the interface is rather simple. It allows the viewers to correct translating mistakes by submitting their suggested versions, but whether the corrections are accepted or even noticed is unknown.

Figure 4 is a screenshot of the error correction interface for the subtitle translation of one video from NetEase. The upper right corner contains an error correction area. After the correction for a line of subtitle translation is submitted, the correction interface is demonstrated in Figure 5.

But the question is where the corrections have gone and whether or not the revised versions get any attention. 



The translation of open course in China has achieved so much in the past five years, but it still has a long way to go. With the increasing number of viewers every day, there are pressing problems to be addressed, such as slow translating speed, inadequately qualified translators and inefficient communication with viewers. Will the translation of open courses last long as a nonprofit project undertaken by the commercial companies such as NetEase and Sina? Does it need support from the government? In addition, fansubbing groups are still indispensable at the present stage of promoting subtitle translation of open courses. But whether they will have a more significant role to play or if they will completely disappear and be replaced by others is still unknown.